Cook Inlet commercial fishermen must be resilient to stay afloat

Posted: Thursday, February 18, 2010

Commercial fishermen live their lives by the ebb and flow of the tide, and in more ways than one. From season to season the price per pound paid for their catches waxes and wanes like the Cook Inlet waters that bring the salmon into their nets.

Photo By M. Scott Moon
Photo By M. Scott Moon
David Fairbanks and Jeff Mullen watch from the bow of their commercial setnet boat as Steve Mullen (not pictured) motors a load of fish up the Kenai River last July.

"In 1993 we got $1.23 per pound. In 2009 we got $1.25 per pound. And its hopped all around in between then, from $.63 to $1.50 per pound," said Liz Chase. She has commercially fished with her family at Humpy Point -- two miles south of the Kasilof River mouth -- since 1993.

While there are good and bad years to fishing, Chase said 2000 was a defining year for her as a fisherman.

"2000 was the worst year of our lives," she said. "The price was down, the fish didn't come. We knew we had to do something."

As fate would have it, while working her beach site, a tourist wandered up to Chase and asked if she could show them how the operation worked.

"That was how we got started on the tours," she said. "Now we do about 12 to 14 annually. We also have Diamond M Ranch bring their clients out to our site as part of their tour venue. We're also a member of the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce."

Chase said she makes the tours as informative as possible, to dispel any myths about what she and other commercial fishermen do for a living.

"The tourists are pretty amazed," she said. "They come in with a lot of misconceptions that we're fishing 24 hours a day, with nets all the way across the inlet and in the river mouths, so we dispel a lot of that."

Chase said it is also important to give visitors a better understanding of commercial fishing, since most have likely eaten Alaska salmon at some point in their home states.

"Our goal is that when they get back to their home state, they have an informed opinion of how commercial fishing works and where their food comes from -- from boat, to tote, to the grocery store or restaurants."

Chase said she starts the tour with a history of her site, from the Native Alaskans who fished there 1,000 years ago, to more modern-day fishermen of the site.

"We do that to illustrate how times have changed, but fish are as important to the community now as they were then," Chase said.

Then Chase moves the tour over the bluff, to show tourists the reality of a working fish site.

She said they see everything, from good days with big hauls of salmon, to bad days when there may be more sticks than fish in the nets.

"We go over everything," Chase said. "We go over how it works, the different species we catch, where and how they get processed. They meet the crew. They see it all."

Inevitably, Chase said someone on the tour will want to know why they have to pay so much per pound when they buy salmon in the store. She explains how the price of salmon changes from year to year, and she gives those wanting to buy salmon for a little less an opportunity to do so, which is how she supplements her income with the tours.

"Basically, we charge a dollar more per pound than whatever the processor is paying," Chase said.

This translates to a deal good for the tourists and her own operation, but Chase said she still values her relationship with the local processors.

"We never want to lose our relationship with the processors," she said. "We need them to survive."

To learn more about Chase's commercial fishing operation or tours, visit her Web site at www.alaskasbestwildsalmon.com/.

Joseph Robertia can be reached at joseph.robertia@peninsulaclarion.com.



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