Inlet commercial fishers weather changes for way of life, livelihood

Posted: Thursday, June 27, 2002

It was quitting time at Deep Creek Custom Packing Tuesday afternoon, and Steve Vanek stood in front of a packing crew trying to motivate the various workers to stay longer to prepare for the next day's work.

"Nobody's leaving until we get this line set up for salmon in the morning," the fishing plant foreman barked at his crew.

His persuasive method a success, Vanek's troop of some 15 to 20 workers hopped into action, cleaning, putting away assorted tools and laying out cutting tables and fish totes for Wednesday morning. Vanek silently surveyed his handiwork and strolled into the plant.

Believe it or not, this is a fishing tale and Vanek is a Cook Inlet salmon driftnet fisher. But hard times in the commercial fishing industry, he said, have forced him to pursue other avenues for putting bread on the table and to place his 37-year way of life on the back burner.

"My way of life is basically destroyed," he said. "So I've had to take a job here at the plant."

When the upper Cook Inlet opens up today for sockeye salmon commercial fishing, fishers will begin filling their nets to help bring home the bacon. Vanek and his son, Teague, said in many cases, however, without other income, many Cook Inlet fishers would suffer.

"Right now, (commercial) halibut is my mainstay," said Teague, who has owned his own boat and permit for 13 years. "People who still salmon fish have other resources, especially if they have been paying for their permits."

Teague said he bought his permit for between $150,000 and $200,000. The value of a fishing permit now pales in comparison to what he originally paid, he said.

"Right now, you could probably buy one for $10,000 or less," he said.

Teague began fishing as a child, helping his father. He said he grew to love it and knew that was what he wanted to do -- even after graduating from Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash., with a business finance degree.

"I could see myself sitting in an office at a bank," Teague said. "That's not what I was put here for. At the time, too, it was lucrative.

"I knew I wanted to live here and I enjoyed fishing. So I bought a permit just before graduation."

The senior Vanek moved to Alaska from Pennsylvania in 1964 and taught elementary school in Fairbanks and in Homer. He said he caught the fishing bug and began, initially, to fish during his time off from school.

But a state change to fishing regulations in the early 1970s prompted him to change his profession.

"When limited entry came in, I quit teaching," Steve said. "I fished full time because it was economically viable. Limited entry promised economic stability for fishers."

Limited entry was an attempt to regulate the number of fishers catching fish so enough fish survived to spawn and return the next year. Up until the early 1990s, red salmon was selling to fish processors for as much as $1.50 per pound.

"They've gone back on it in the last six to eight years," Steve continued. "They stopped managing the fishery biologically and started managing politically."

Teague and his father blame the Board of Fisheries for the current state of the upper Cook Inlet fishery.

"They have restricted our opening in a way that's not productive to fishermen or to processors," Teague said.

"The way it used to be was geared toward maximum sustained harvest, not maximum escapement into the (Kenai) River. The biologists decided when we're going to fish on a day-to-day basis."

Steve said overescapement caused by board management that helps sportfishing and personal use fishing costs commercial fishers dearly.

This year commercial driftnet fishing on the Upper Cook Inlet will be open from today until Aug. 9, said Alaska Department of Fish and Game Assistant Area Management Specialist Pat Shields. The fishery is scheduled to be open every Monday and Thursday.

In addition, there will be three periods during this time when drifters must fish in the Eastside Corridor (a narrow band along the eastern inlet shore), said Shields. There will be one period between July 9 and 15 and two more between July 16 and 31.

Along with commercial halibut fishing, Teague said he fileted halibut at Deep Creek Custom last fall and worked on the Grassom Oskolkoff gas drilling platform through the winter.

He the fishing lifestyle isn't for everyone, and hard times drive many away.

"You try not to spend too much money before you have it," Teague said. "Guys who don't do that don't last."

He said he would continue to salmon fish as long as there was a market for it. He said having the connection with his father is priceless.

"Everything we do we have in common," he said. "Things that are important to us are really similar.

"I'll keep fishing, though," Teague said. "I like being outdoors and I like the camaraderie of being with other fishermen. Our friendships extend into the industry."

Teague has two sons, ages 4 and 2, and he said he in spite of the negative turn he's seen salmon fishing take, he'd like to see one of them follow in the family tradition.

"It's true, I would like to pass that on to my sons," he said. "My brother (Steve) and I were both raised in fishing. He's an electrician. He didn't like fishing. Everybody has to choose their own path."

Steve said he will have to take days off from his "day job" to go fishing.

He said he doesn't expect to need much time off. The possibility of mandatory closures which could cut down fishing time still exists, but he said he wants to continue.

"We (only) fished about eight days last year," he said. "I'll fish as many days as they let us."

What keeps him returning to the fishery?

"It's the independence," he said. "Being your own harvester."

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