Wind gives setnetters real boost for starters

Posted: Sunday, July 13, 2003

Every day can't be a good day. But that doesn't mean good days don't come along.

Thursday marked the opening of the Cook Inlet commercial sockeye salmon setnet fishery for the Eastern North Forelands much of the beach area north of the Kenai River.

In the shadow of low prices and reduced fishing time, setnetters caught a break from the wind, sending more than 66,000 pounds of fish into waiting commercial fishing gillnets. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, more than 75,000 pounds of salmon were rounded up off of Salamatof Beach alone.

When Nikiski setnetter Carl Waggoner's nets went into the water at 7 a.m. Thursday on Salamatof Beach, neither he, his partners nor his crew had any idea that they were in store for a behemoth haul by the end of the day.

In fact, the day started out pretty bland, with gray, overcast skies and brisk weather, just two days after the Kenai Peninsula posted record high temperatures.

With fishing days diminished from last year's 12 days to only nine for 2003, and an expectation of being paid only about 55 cents per pound, spirits weren't the highest.

To add insult to injury, with three of five boats inoperable, after the first set one of the two working boats succumbed to engine trouble.


Tangled red salmon weigh the net as Cara Mazurek pulls it into the boat Thursday.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"We have such great equipment," declared Chad Wag-goner, Waggoner's 32-year-old son, sarcastically.

Waggoner's family and partner Gary Parker's family have had to find other means of subsidizing their living because of reductions to how much money they make fishing.

With many of them working their "full-time" jobs until the start of fishing and preparing on the side, they were tired on the first fishing day.

Parker said it showed after the first pick and the crew of 10 brought in around 3,300 pounds of fish.

"We're not as prepared as we would like to be," said Parker, who owns the satellite antenna repair company, Sat Tech.

"I'll take four weeks off from my business and come out here. Whether the fish come in or not, my family's gotta eat."

Chad Waggoner is a partner with his father, his mother D'Ann and Parker. Each have a varying stake in the 12 setnet sites shared between their families, but he keeps a roof over his head by working security for the Women's Resource and Crisis Center.

"Last year, everybody that worked for us had jobs during the fishing season," he said. "This year, we decided we had some fishing stuff to work on. I got my first credit card and I'm going to live off of that. Hopefully, I can pay it off at the end of the summer."

Thursday, during a break from fishing chores, D'Ann Waggoner tended to some paperwork for land and warehouses she and her husband lease out to an industrial tenant.

"That's how we finance our fishing habit," she said.

Carl Waggoner described the expense entailed in setnet fishing, and how changes through the years have impacted the cost of fishing. For starters, he said each net costs about $1,500.

"In order to be able to run a site well, you need two per site," he said. "And we have 12 sites."

He said he bought three tractors used at $20,000 each and purchased a new one for $30,000. The group has five boats that cost up to $50,000 to have built. And then there were the limited entry permits the state sells for each site.

"In 1968, I bought a four-net site for $10,000," Waggoner said. "In 1988, I bought a three-net site for $450,000. We figure the fishing sites, at their peak, were worth over $2 million."

Now, because of the little money commercial fishers can make, Fish and Game commercial fishing area biologist Jeff Fox said the price for a site can be between $3,000 and $5,000.

D'Ann Waggoner, who keeps the books for the operation, pointed out that they have to make $80,000 to break even, after also starting the season off by buying supplies.

But it is the fishing time and low prices that irk Gary Waggoner.


Fishers fill totes with red salmon near the conclusion of Thursday's opening.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"They're trying to put us out of business," he said. "We're getting squeezed on both sides."

Fox admitted that fishing time has been reduced along with the allocation of salmon to commercial fishers, but said this year's window was impacted more by the calendar than anything else.

"The (regulations) say fishing starts on July 8," he said. "But fishing days can only be on a Monday or Thursday. This year the eighth was on a Tuesday.

Fox said the season used to open on July 1, and the escapement goal was between 400,000 and 700,000 salmon, allowing the rest of the run to go to sport fishers and commercial fishers.

Now, however, the escapement goal is between 600,000 and 1.1 million, and there's an added personal-use fishery that further splits up the pie.

"They used to not have the dipnet fishery until we exceeded the escapement goal," Fox said, adding that dipnetting takes between 150,000 and 250,000 sockeyes.

Parker said he isn't concerned about peninsula residents dipnetting.

"I do not have a problem with my neighbors here on the peninsula putting as many fish in their freezers as possible," he said. "I do take issue with giving fish to the entire state and everyone in the world who wants to take fish."

But the tide did change Thursday for the Waggoners and Parkers, literally and figuratively. After lunch, the family went out and set their nets again in the second slack tide.

They caught more than 32,000 pounds of salmon after they added their afternoon haul to the morning catch, a feat D'Ann Waggoner said was unmatched by their operation on opening day.

"We usually do around what we had this morning," she said.

"We had one net with 1,000 fish in it," Chad Waggoner said of one shoreline net. "I can't even move my hands from pulling in all those fish."

Mark Powell, who buys fish from the group for Alaska Salmon Purchasers, said he has been buying salmon for nearly 20 years and said he had never seen a July 10 like Thursday.

"The wind pushed the fish onto Salamatof Beach," Powell said. "And K-Beach (Kalifornsky Beach) did well, too."

Fox echoed Powell's comments, saying that wind and current conditions were just so that salmon schools were rushed past the entry to the Kenai River and up along the inlet coast through the Eastern North Forelands.

"That's actually happened before, but it usually happens later in the season," he said.

The ups and downs of the industry may have been mirrored by the highs and lows of the Waggoner and Parker crew's experience Thursday.

Crew member Paul Brilla said such uncertainty was the name of the game in the commercial fishing industry.

"Otherwise, they wouldn't call it fishing, they'd call it catching."

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