Back at the wheel Fisher returns to the water after 10-year hiatus

Posted: Monday, June 30, 2003

The economic downturn couldn't keep him away.

Thursday, Soldotna fisher Charles Schmelzenbach set sail as the captain of a commercial sockeye salmon driftnetting boat for the first time in 10 years. He rejoined a fishing industry many feel has fallen upon hard economic times, in the shadow of lower prices per pound, smaller fish returns and less of a share of the harvest from earlier years.

But money wasn't what motivated his comeback.

"I missed it," Schmelzenbach said. "I got back into it because I love it and I love being on the water. This is a lifestyle. It's like being a farmer."

Schmelzenbach fished for salmon in Prince William Sound for 20 years before selling his boat and his limited entry permit to open Loon Lake Resort in Soldotna with his wife, Cathie. But he said fishing was a family operation he couldn't stay away from for too long.

"I have my kids fishing," he said. "And my grandkids. There's year-round work involved and it teaches them responsibility. There's a lot of down-time in the winter, but there's still something for them to do. Hanging nets. Repairing boats."

Schmelzenbach said his two sons resisted fishing with him when they were younger.

"When my sons were kids, they'd complain that they were missing football practice and soccer," he said.

Now one son fishes out of Cordova and the other in Cook Inlet. And he said his daughter returned from Hawaii to fish with him, and his grandsons go out with his sons.

The fishing industry isn't what it used to be, however. Commercial fishers are reflecting less earning potential lately.

According to the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission, last year Cook Inlet fishers averaged a gross pay of $13,053. That's a little more than 10 percent of the $114,417 that virtually the same number of fishers took home, on average, just 10 years before, leading some to question why anyone would go into commercial fishing now much less get back in.

"If there's a new fisherman getting into the business, he ain't too smart," said Wayne Kvasnikoff, the Nikiski plant manager for fish processor Ocean Beauty Seafoods.

"I would at least tell him good luck."

Seattle permit broker Matt Schneider of Graves and Schneider Inc. said only 20 commercial salmon limited entry permits have traded hands this year. He mentioned one client who wanted to sell an entire turn-key package permit, boat and gear.

"He said, 'What am I going to get for it, chewing gum?'" Schneider recalled. "When they're not getting any fishing time and not getting any prices, who wants to go out."

Some like Schmelzenbach, however, see the time as being right to jump into the fishing fray.

"Why go into commercial fishing now?" asked Alaska Department of Fish and Game commercial fisheries biologist Jeff Fox, before answering his own question.

"In 1991 to 1992, the average drift permit was worth about $200,000 to $225,000. Now they're about $17,000. The risk of losing a lot is fairly minimal, but you're not going to make as much money."

Schmelzenbach said the fishing industry is one of booms and busts, where people could win big and lose big the same way Wall Street stock investors do.

"You suppose fishing is like the stock market?" he asked. "How many people you know wish they'd have gotten out of it now?

"The guys that bought into the fishery and paid lots of money for boats and permits saw potential to make lots of money. Just like with Microsoft, we had a chance to buy into it when Bill Gates went public."

Like those who just missed being burned when the Internet stock bubble burst, Schmelzenbach said time was on his side when he vacated the industry in 1992. He wouldn't reveal how much he sold his permit for, but with a wry smile he hinted that he didn't walk away from the deal in bad shape.

"I got out right at the peak," he said. "I think the gloomy and doomy side of fishing are the guys who bought their permits high, and now can't even make their interest payments on the loans for those permits."

He said the good fortune of a few fishers in the early and mid-1980s drove the ambitions of many until there were too many casting nets and not enough fish.

"Lots of people got into the fishery and didn't bother to go through the learning curve," Schmelzenbach said. "They saw their friends making $100,000 in a short term, and they wanted to do the same."

But there wasn't always money to be made. No stranger to hard times, Schmelzen-bach said he has seen his share during his time as a fisher. He moved to Alaska in the early 1970s to become a teacher and initially fished for Cook Inlet herring before embarking on a salmon fishing career in Prince William Sound.

"We've had some bad times," he said. "There was a time when a cannery in Canada didn't pay us and went out of business. And there have been a few cycles where there were low runs."

He said the 20-year average return of 4 million fish was boosted by several extraordinary runs in the mid-1980s, and said those sizes are just like ebbs and flows.

"The salmon industry has always been a cyclic industry," Schmelzenbach said. "It goes up and down. So just because there's a low run doesn't mean it's going to remain low."

So now, with around $50,000 invested in his return to the Cook Inlet fishing scene, Schmelzenbach said he feels little pressure.

And he has high hopes for the industry.

"The young kids have a golden opportunity to get in without having to strap themselves with a lot of debt," he said. "I'm really positive about the fishery. I think it's gonna get better. And if it doesn't, I had a good time."

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