Travis Every spent June and July standing at his family’s setnet sites watching the sockeye salmon jump in their rush toward the Kenai River.
But, instead of setting his nets in the water to catch a portion of the season’s estimated 6.2 million sockeye run, Travis — like many other East Side setnetters in the Cook Inlet — remained beached, his nets drying in the sun.
“We didn’t do anything else,” Travis said. “You get up and even though you aren’t fishing, you wake up at five in the morning, drive to the beach site, have coffee, watch all the fish jump, get pissed off, get on the phone and start calling people.”
The 2012 fishing season was a disaster for setnetters, and the Every family found themselves taking a very public role in addressing the fallout.
Setnetters, fishing guides, sport fishermen, lodges, bait and tackle shops, and nearly every other industry tied to fishing near the Kenai River suffered when — citing weak chinook salmon passage — the Alaska Department of Fish and Game closed the in-river chinook salmon fishery.
The in-river fishery shutdown triggered a closure of the commercial setnet fishery on the east side of Cook Inlet, affecting fishermen along an 80-mile stretch where buoys and lines usually sit floating in the waves for two to three months every year during the peak of the sockeye salmon run.
When the closure was announced, Chris Every — Travis’s father — said the family met to decide what they would do next.
“My vote was to say (forget) the inlet and go away,” Chris said. “I was overruled. We bought this as a family unit and that’s how we’ll run it. So now we’re all going to fight ... see what we can do.”
So, they organized a rally on July 20, days after the closure was announced. More than 200 people gathered in the Kenai Park Strip to talk about the closure and how it affected them.
“It became very apparent that we were in a fight for our industry at that point,” said Amber Every, Travis’s wife. “We said we weren’t, at that point, going to throw in the towel yet and we were going to fight.”
The purpose of the rally, Amber said, was to find out how hard other families were willing to fight to save their businesses.
“If nobody shows up to this, then how hard are we going to fight?” Chris said.
Over the coming weeks the family launched a campaign to help connect the community with setnetters.
“We support our setnetters” signs popped up in lawns and on businesses throughout the Kenai Peninsula.
Chris went on the radio to talk about the closure; the family made phone calls to the governor, the commissioner of Fish and Game and several other political heavyweights in an attempt to get setnetters back in the water.
“We rallied on bridges and in town and held signs,” Chris said “We tried to get back into the water for the season ... It’s what we tried to do probably until the first of August.”
The effort brought them in contact with the community in a way the younger generation of the Every family said they had never experienced before.
“You’ve always heard the names because the families have been here doing this for so long, you hear all of the other names of the families that have been fishing 40, 50, 60 years now,” Travis said. “Now you’re just putting faces and kids and grandkids, making the connection. I’ve always heard of the Frostad sites, well next thing you know we’re going over and having breakfast with them.”
Amber and her sister-in-law, Kristin Every, started Fair Fishing 907, a Facebook group and mailing list under the umbrella of the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association, which represents commercial setnetters in the inlet.
The Fair Fishing group served as a meeting point for a younger generation of setnetters who use social media to communicate the locations of rallies, new information about the fisheries and frustration about the political nature of the fisheries in the Cook Inlet.
“It was a way to get people from the East Forelands clear down to Ninilchik ... that you never had before,” Travis said.
It also helped to keep fishermen unified after the season when they spread out and find work in other parts of the state or country.
While the fishing season is over, the Every family is still gearing up for next season and talking about the things that went wrong during the last one.
Chris said they had worked to create a meeting point and a place other families could go for information, but were not yet sure how to channel that energy.
“Everybody had that helpless, empty desperation,” Amber said. “So how do you take that and make something positive and have it go be productive?”
Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Mike Navarre said he thought the younger generation of fishermen, including the Every family, had helped keep the allocation fights civil during the season.
“The fishing battles have been going on for years, but this year was particularly difficult because they had no opportunity,” Navarre said. “Frankly, it could have been a bunch of yelling and screaming and blaming others and in this case it was more about telling their story, getting their story out and discussing potential solutions.”
Navarre said the thought the Everys were successful in getting their story out to the community because they had been in the area for so long.
“I think it was very good, it was more about communicating their message and quite honestly I think that some of the people who have been in the battles year after year after year will tell you that they’re a little bit jaded by it,” he said.
The family said their goal is to fight for setnetting until the 2014 Board of Fish meeting, and if nothing had changed by then, they would meet again and decide what to do.
The family’s fishing business lost money in 2011 and 2012, and Chris said it has only made money in two out of the five years they’ve had their sites. The family said that is typical of fishing in the inlet.
“You’ve got your highs and lows, that’s why we went to the Slope and that’s why I went to sea and I’ve never been one to depend on just fishing as an income just to carry me on from year to year,” Chris said. “That’s not, in my mind, what the definition of fishing is. It’s in addition to your income. ... It’s just as addictive as somebody getting a king on a hook and line and loving it. I get the same kick out of seeing fish in the net, the family on the beach, the whole nine yards.”
The family’s business plan banks on two out of about every ten years making enough money to keep the business afloat, Amber said.
When large runs of sockeye come through and setnetters don’t take their portion, it makes the lean years even harder to weather.
“To have no days during the peak of the run is something that no setnet business can survive on,” she said.
While the Everys are not fighting to save a business that is their sole method of livelihood — as it is some other families in the inlet — Travis said he did not think that made their efforts any less important.
“It’s not just one thing,” Travis said. “It’s not just to be a setnetter in the Cook Inlet, it’s not just to be a fisherman, it’s not just for my family, it’s not just for the business, it’s not just because this is all I’ve ever done my whole life every summer.”
Rashah McChesney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.