Changes cast long shadow on commercial fish industry

Posted: Thursday, March 01, 2001

What would make a successful commercial fishing season this year? If you were to ask those involved, most would say anything better than last season would qualify.

The 2000 season, which most in the industry would say was a disaster, found the price of sockeye salmon dropping to 85 cents per pound, compared with $1.34 in 1999 and $1.35 in 1998, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game officials.

"Everyone is not too worried about the run this year," commercial driftnetter Steve Tvenstrup said. "They are more worried about the price and the weather. Prices are the big thing, especially after such a long dry spell."

According to Tvenstrup, "The fisheries need a shot in the arm to get them going" and to help keep Kenai Peninsula fishers in the water. At the end of the season, commercial fishers are finding that the once lucrative industry is beginning to drive them out due to costs and lack of profits.

"In the past, most commercial fishermen were able to fish and develop a career to pay for their boat, raise their families and expect a major contribution to their livelihood," driftnetter Drew Sparlin said. "With the economic

situation and the regulations set

forth by the Board of Fish, it is impossible for people to expect to maintain a similar contribution to their economic well-being."

The placement of regulations restricting when the commercial fishers can put their nets in the water, along with the increasing supply of farmed fish entering the market also seem to be other factors hampering the marketability of the commercial fishing harvests.

"We must work with our processors and our processors must work with us to develop a market where our fish become more valuable," Sparlin said. "Our market has to develop a niche and convince the world it is healthier to eat a natural fish then it is to eat one that is grown in a pond and fed steroids and antibiotics."

And fishing is sometimes hit or miss, as Tvenstrup pointed out.

"The other side of the coin is if the salmon run hits when we are allowed to be out and not on one of the mandatory days off that the Board of Fish gives us," he said. "The fisheries can't take another hit like last year. With five or six years with no money to make expenses like food, fuel, wear and tear on your boat, your nets and then pretty soon you make no money for yourself."

According to both Tvenstrup and Sparlin, the last few years have not been the only decline in commercial fishing.

"It has been in a decline since 1989, and since 1993 it has been in a spiral decline," Tvenstrup said. "The declines are not in a normal cycle. Usually it would be a good year, then a mediocre year and so on. It hasn't been that way here -- it has been low, low and lower."

With the low prices for the harvest, regulations set forth by the Alaska Board of Fisheries, combined with the competition from farmed fish and sport fishing, the future could be bleak for the commercial fisheries on the peninsula. No one is sure what the final outcome will be, but Tvenstrup pointed out that no one can tell what the season will be like until the season is going.

"An old-timer told me once never to predict the fisheries until July 15," he said. "It is not July 15 yet."

Commercial fishers on the peninsula agree that the industry is as important today as it was in the past and will be in the future.

"That is why it is so important to get the fisheries back on track," United Cook Inlet Drift Association President Bob Merchant said. "Commercial fishing has served the community for 100 years, it was the community's backbone. It is not for us. It is for our children and our grandchildren. It is for the future of Alaska."

Rob Williams, president of the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen's Association, which represents almost 300 setnet fishers, said he hopes another season as bad as 2000 doesn't come around again.

"We've had some real bad runs the last few years, and it's really put us down," he said. "Last year we had a small run, low prices and high overhead. I sure hope it doesn't get any worse than last year."

He said he hasn't seen anyone selling out lately, but then again, poor runs have devalued limited-entry permits, reducing their marketability.

"But 78 or 79 percent of (commercial) fishermen are residents here. We don't just come down to fish, we stick it out," he said. "People who were just here to make a quick buck are probably already gone."

To make it through these lean times, he said, some fishers are consolidating their operations; using less hired help, fishing fewer permits and cutting down on overhead as much as possible.

"In the late '80s, many of us put hundreds of thousands of dollars into our operations, buying new gear and outboards," Williams said. "Now we're just trying to hold on."

Despite comments to the contrary by those unfriendly to commercial fishers, Williams said, there are very few who make all the money they need for a year during a short summer season.

"That's kind of a fallacy," he said. "I know some rich fishermen, but I know a lot more poor ones."

He said in the past 13 years, he's probably made money in five seasons.

"It's hit and miss," he said. "Like any small business, you do your preparation and see what happens.

"This is not a business you can speculate in," he added. "You can't jump in and out trying to hit the good seasons. You put your nose to the grindstone, and some people reap the harvest and some don't."

He said commercial fishers are in the public eye, and, much like professional sport fishing guides, are reviled by many.

"People don't like others who make money off of public resources," he said. "(But) we just want a chance to make a living.

"I know some people who make an annual income, but most of the fishermen I know have other jobs."

However, he said, finding off-season jobs is often difficult for fishers, since many employers are hesitant to hire someone who takes a big chunk of the summer off.

That limits fishers to low-paying jobs, he said.

Better representation on the Alaska Board of Fisheries for Cook Inlet commercial fishers is one area Williams and others would like to see improved.

"Without bashing anybody, or any decisions made in the past -- which gets us nowhere -- we could get better representation on the board," he said. "We need to make this a viable industry, or it may wind up being swept under the rug."

Williams has high hopes for the "fish caucus" that has been formed in the state Legislature by Sen. Alan Austerman, R-Kodiak, and Rep. Drew Scalzi, R-Homer. He wants the caucus to address some of the issues regarding the Fish Board.

"If there is better representation on the board, then (the industry) is up to prices and runs, and not up to politics," he said. "This is the best place in the world because we have fish, and if we protect it, there's enough fish for everybody."

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