With less than a week until the commercial salmon fishing season begins, some driftnet fishers are hard at work preparing for their opportunity to comb the Cook Inlet waters for sockeye.
Getting ready to fish can involve taking care of big-ticket items like overhauling engines or addressing minute details like untangling gillnets.
"I've got to do knot work on this fishing gear," said Kenai deckhand Hugh Wilson on Thursday morning. "Then what needs to be done is putting the reel with the nets on the boat."
This year, however, some commercial driftnetters are getting some extensive work done to their interiors, in the hopes of improving the quality of the fish they return to market.
Ocean Beauty Seafoods Inc. is having its fleet of about 70 fishing boats cover the inside of their fish holds with a synthetic insulation.
Called SharkSkin, the substance is a fast-drying glacier blue foam that holds in temperatures. This will help keep each day's catch cool -- if properly iced -- until it is brought in.
Wayne Kvasnikoff, Ocean Beauty's Nikiski plant manager, said the inside of the holds in many boats can damage the fish.
"Fishermen tend to think of fish as money and not food," he said. "There are corners and board at the bottom of the boats and that's where they will store the fish. But their own fish that they're going to eat, they will keep it on the top, or put away somewhere special."
So in addition to keeping the fish cool, the SharkSkin creates a smooth, easy-to-clean surface that, when layered over ribbing inside fish holds, makes for a flat surface on which to load fish.
Because of the relative benefits the lining will allow for the quality of the sockeye, Kvasnikoff said Ocean Beauty is fronting the roughly $3,000 per boat to have each one fitted.
"We are prepared to pay the fishermen 5 cents per pound above the base price," Kvasnikoff said. "We're going to keep that 5 cents until the foam job is paid for. Ultimately, that money falls into their pockets."
He said in order for fishers to get paid the additional fee, they need to ice their fish properly. Kvasnikoff said as his representatives inspect fish at the bottom of the boat, they should be able to see that fish temperatures are registering in a Fahrenheit degree range of the "mid- or high-30s" the further they go down into the fish hold.
War Bonnet Construction in Soldotna is putting the special lining in each Ocean Beauty boat. Superintendent David Ansel said his staff of five faces a number of challenges, primarily space and time.
"You take up some space in the hold by filling it in with SharkSkin," he said referring to the numerous layers needed to cover ribbing.
"On boats that can't afford to lose hold space, we'll work with them."
Ansel said what fishers lose in capacity should be compensated for in the quality of fish they bring in.
Fishers have been slow to bring their boats to him, however.
As of Wednesday only five boats had finished having the lining installed since War Bonnet started work on them at the beginning of the month.
The first commercial red salmon opening in Cook Inlet will be Thursday.
"Not a lot of the fleet knew," Ansel said. "And not a lot of the guys are up from the Lower 48 yet."
Ansel said he expects more fishers to bring their vessels to his giant Quonset-hut-looking canopy to line their holds, and he said his staff would work as long as 18 hours a day to fill some orders, while other boats would be handled into the winter.
"We're trying to do one per day, when they bring the boat to us ready," Ansel said, referring to the work needed before the lining can be sprayed on. Such preparation includes covering up wiring, removing ribbing and cleaning out the hold.
Nikiski fisher Harold Wik had his vessel, New Day, lined at War Bonnet. He said he saw value in investing in the insulation.
"It's all for the best for us fishermen," Wik said. "We're trying to get good fish back."
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