Rise and fall of inlet gillnetting

Posted: Wednesday, July 11, 2001

There was a time, not long ago, when commercial gillnet fishing ruled Cook Inlet. There was no oil, no commercial logging and no professional sport fishing guide industry.

Times are not as good today for the commercial fisher. The cost of catching fish is up, and the price offered for them is down.

Forty years ago, commercial fishers had five 24-hour open periods a week from May 23 to Sept. 23, according to Jeff Fox, fisheries biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Soldotna. Today, driftnetters have two 12-hour openings a week between June 25 and Aug. 9.

Driftnetters are restricted more often than not to what is known as "the corridor," a sliver of water hugging the peninsula's western shore. The number of districtwide driftnet openings declined from 22 in 1982 to just four last year.

"We used to be hunters," said Charlie See of Kenai, who this year turned his gillnetter into a small cruise ship. "Now we just line up on the line and cork each other off."

Gillnets are so called because they catch the salmon by the gills. The diamond-shaped openings in the mesh are large enough for only the head of the fish to enter. When the fish tries to back out of the net, it is caught by the gills. There are different mesh sizes for each species of salmon. Generally, a sockeye will swim right through the larger openings of a king net, while a king, too large even to fit its head in a sockeye net, will bounce off. Gillnets in Cook Inlet are limited to 6-inch mesh to reduce the commercial catch of kings.

Fish traps displaced gillnets for the first half of the 20th century, but after World War II, the drift fleet was rekindled when veterans came to the area, according to Clem Tillion of Halibut Cove, former so-called "fish czar" for Gov. Walter Hickel.

Tillion said the first boats on the inlet weren't the best. The seiners were too small, and the bowpickers didn't have enough capacity.

Dean Osmar, of Clam Gulch, fished with his father beginning in 1957, when he was 10 years old. At 13, he started driftnetting with his older brother from a skiff -- a far cry from the powerful 40-foot drift boats seen today.

"When I was 14, I started running my own skiff," he said.

He said he'd driftnet on certain days and work the beach on others. He did that until around 1980, but found he was spreading himself too thin. In the mid-1960s, he pioneered off-shore setnetting about a mile south of the mouth of the Kasilof River and a half mile to a mile offshore.

"In the mid- to late '50s, there was no synthetic line, it was all Manila line and would just last a couple of years," he said.

Old-style nets were replaced with nylon and then polyester nets.

"If you kept them dry and mended and out of the sun, you could get five to 10 years out of them," he said.

Old wood-plank boats were heavy and leaked, so Osmar started building his own fiberglass boats in 1972. Over the years, he's made 18 of his own boats. On the boats, new, more powerful and reliable outboard motors also made a difference.

"We had the old 9.8 outboards, then in the late '60s we went to the 50 Mercs," he said. "We've had extremely good luck with them. I bought some in the mid-80s and they're still going strong."

Caroline Huhndorf has setnetted with her husband, Stanley, on the beach north of Nikiski since 1954, a spot they lived at year-round for four straight years. She said the new nets and equipment really have made a difference.

"It was very different then, much more difficult," she said. "It was an awful lot of work.

"Our nets were cotton and they wouldn't float and got very heavy. Nylon changed everything."

The cotton nets also were subject to rot from the fish slime if they weren't regularly washed in a vat of chemicals called "bluestone."

Before statehood in 1959, the Huhndorfs fished for Libby's, of canned vegetable fame.

"It was all canned then, there was no freezing," she said. "Libby's had a lot of traps and had scows anchored out in front of our place. My husband and the boys would deliver out to the scow, and then the tender Muskrat would pick up all the fish at the end of the period.

"Then along came statehood and Libby's sold out, because they made money on the traps."

She said that changed the way her family delivered their fish. When they started selling to Harold Daubenspeck, he picked up their catch by truck, driving up the beach at low tide. Back in the '50s, they were paid by the fish, not the pound, Huhndorf said.

"It didn't matter how big it was. If we had a 75-pound king, we still just got $5," she said. "When they started paying by the pound, I'd bring in three big ones and got $300 for them."

Red salmon went for $1.25, she said, with silvers fetching 50 cents and pinks 10 to 25 cents.

"It was a different story back then. Different gear, different prices, different marketing," she said. "It was more family-oriented, not as much greed. We didn't have the part-time fishermen like we do now."

She said the fish weren't handled with as much care as they are now.

"We'd poke them anywhere,"she said of the gaffs used to toss fish into their skiff and again into the scow. "The fish weren't nearly as clean. (Processors are) much fussier now."

Besides being easier, Huhndorf also said, fishing today is much safer.

"It's still dangerous, but when it was rough out there, it scared the hell out of me," she said. "When my kids were young, I didn't care if we got any fish. I just worried about them coming back."

The advent of other technology made fishing safer and more efficient aboard ship.

Depth sounders helped pinpoint schools of salmon, while radar kept boats from running aground and helped determine their position, keeping them clear of closed waters.

But radar was fraught with inaccuracies. In just the last few years, the Global Positioning System has revolutionized navigation. With the enhanced version, which can pinpoint a boat's location within a few feet, driftnetters are much less likely to be fined for being over the line, losing their catch in the process.

But GPS came at a cost of hundreds of dollars at a time when fish prices were at or near the bottom of the barrel. Adding to fishers' woes in the late 1990s were other increases in the cost of operation. Processors demanded higher quality fish, requiring fishers to install refrigerated seawater systems or carry ice to store the fish.

"Now they tell me my salmon are graded A-1, but I get paid less for them than before I iced them," said Steve Tvenstrup, a Kenai driftnetter.

Many driftnetters found themselves over-extended after the boom years of the late '80s and early '90s, when sockeye salmon runs were between 5 million and 10 million fish. Many fishers invested in new boats, new technology and expensive limited-entry permits, taking out hefty loans to fund the buildup.

But the market for fresh wild salmon started to decline in the face of farmed salmon from Norway, Chile and New Zealand.

In 1980, according to Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute numbers, farmed salmon accounted for 15 million pounds of the world's supply. Today, foreign operations pump nearly 2 billion pounds of farmed salmon into the world market each year, exceeding the wild catch.

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