Poor sockeye season leaves commercial fishermen’s nets, pockets all but empty

Drifting away

Posted: Wednesday, July 26, 2006


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  Red salmon are the money fish for commercial driftnet fishermen. Clarion file photo

Driftnet fishermen work Cook Inlet west of Nikiski several seasons ago. This has been a dismal year for driftnetters.

Clarion file photo

By now, the bells have sounded: 2006 represents the worst year for sockeye fishing on the Kenai River in more than 50 years.

“There are some haves and have nots, but for Kenai-directed fisheries, this is the worst year since sometime in the ’40s or ’50s,” said Jeff Fox, the Upper Cook Inlet area management biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

The weak run, more than 300,000 sockeye under Fish and Game’s minimum escapement goal, led to the shutdown of Kenai River sockeye fishing nearly everywhere this week.

The slow run means fewer fish for visitors, fewer for subsistence fishermen, fewer for resident recreational users and a less colorful river system in what many call the world’s most famous salmon fishery.

For commercial fishermen — some of whom rely on a the Kenai sockeye run for their entire year’s income — fewer fish means less capital. This year’s run equals less capital on a dramatic level.


Red salmon are the money fish for commercial driftnet fishermen.

Clarion file photo

“The drift fishermen in Cook Inlet are having the worst failure of catch since the 1940s,” said Steve Tvenstrup, president of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association. “We are unable to make insurance payments, renew commercial fish permits, make oil changes — anything that contributes to the business.”

That failure’s far-reaching consequences stretch beyond business expenses. Tvenstrup’s 11-year-old daughter, Kheelyn, won’t go without school supplies this year, but the snowmachine her father hoped to buy her is out of the question for 2006.

“It’s kind of sad when you can’t spend a few extra dollars on your family,” he said.

A snowmachine is a healthy purchase, but small spending is on the chopping block, as well. Tvenstrup said the average driftnetter had earned less than $2,000, or about 2,500 pounds worth, on the season by last week. Normally, driftnetters will harvest from 30,000 to 80,000 pounds per permit in a season. With numbers like that, he said, video rentals or the occasional bottle of soda likely will be curtailed to budget for basics in commercial fishing-reliant households.

“I’m trying to figure out where to get money for my borough property taxes, for electric and gas bills this winter. I’ve never been in a position like this before, and I’ve been fishing here since the late 1970s,” he said.

Tvensrup said he’s lucky. He has a halibut IFQ, as do some other UCIDA members. Still other members made contacts for scarce winter work after a 2000 season that saw low sockeye prices well below the $1-$1.10 per pound sockeye are fetching this year. Those contacts may be getting calls again this winter, he said.

“These guys are definitely gonna have to tighten up their belts because they don’t really know where that next dollar’s gonna come from,” he said.

Fox said driftnetters who rely on Kenai River fish have hauled in the fewest number of the about 1.2 million sockeye harvested commercially in the entirety of Upper Cook Inlet so far this year. Last year, commercial fisherman harvested 5.1 million sockeye. UCIDA members have been barred from their normal Kenai River fishing spots to help Fish and Game reach its escapement goals.

On Monday, most of those fishermen were drifting through the Kasilof River Special Harvest Area — now the only area open to them.

The average driftnetter brought in around 5,000 pounds of Kasilof sockeye on the Monday opening, Fox said — double the poundage most had brought in all season up to that day. Still, the impressive-sounding number only highlights the intensity of the 2006 problem.

“When you close everything on the Kenai, the only place that’s open will be catching fish,” Fox said.

Commercial fishermen aren’t the only area residents feeling a pinch in the pocketbook. The fishermen hire crews to help catch the sockeye, then sell the fish to processors, who hire crews to clean, smoke, wrap, vacuum-pack and can the products visitors and locals buy countless pounds of year after year.

This year, those seasonal crews have less buying power, too.

Wayne Kvasnikoff, the superintendent for Cook Inlet operations with Ocean Beauty Seafoods, declined to say just how much sockeye the state’s largest salmon buyer processed last year or this year. In an e-mail, however, he said Ocean Beauty has adjusted its work force — mostly local hires — to meet the smaller return, and that those workers are earning less than they expected.

“We have our fishermen and employees with long faces because of the fact that they are not getting what they expected for summer earnings,” Kvasnikoff wrote.

Fox said canneries will hire extra employees for the summer, but now there just isn’t as much to be done. Fox said he knows of one processor who flew in workers from Russia in anticipation of a summer workload the slow sockeye made smaller.

Processors will fly in fish to process from Bristol Bay or the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta when local returns are low, Fox said. Even ramping up the workload with chums from Kamechak Bay or pinks from Prince William Sound, though, doesn’t fill the red void.

“There aren’t a lot of places that have sockeyes,” Fox said.

Flying in fish doesn’t make for a windfall, anyway.

“You start with a net loss, because I think it’s about 50 cents a pound to fly it in,” Fox said.

As UCIDA sees it, the Kenai River sockeye run for 2006 is a disaster, and the group hopes Gov. Frank Murkowski will see it the same way.

On Tuesday, the group sent a letter to Murkowski requesting that the Kenai Peninsula salmon fishery be declared an economic disaster area, noting that commercial fishermen, cannery workers and deck hands will be hit the hardest.

“Without some assistance, many will not be able to meet their financial obligations and/or go out of business,” the letter said.

The association’s letter also requested a visit from administration representatives and pointed out that it had compiled a list of its members’ specific needs to provide those representatives. At an emotionally charged UCIDA meeting Friday, the options discussed included the waiving of permit fees for one year, low- or no-interest loans or lump sum payments.

The office of Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor John Williams also is in the process of drafting a disaster declaration that hopes to address similar concerns for the commercial fleet.

By the time UCIDA’s letter was sent, one Murkowski-appointed official was on his way. Fish and Game Commissioner McKie Campbell will stop for two sessions at the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association Building to meet with groups affected by the slow sockeye run.

Tvenstrup, like UCIDA members and members of other prominent user groups, is crossing his fingers. On Tuesday, the Kenai River’s weir count was stronger than it has been thus far for the late sockeye run, raising hopes that the Kenai’s welcoming waters will open again before the sockeyes are gone.

Fishermen were having luck on the Kasilof, where he said they would stay as long as they could to harvest sockeyes. A strong run of silver salmon — which Fish and Game predicts this year — and a few days reeling in humpies could help driftnetters pull in enough to get through the winter, too.

“This may not be a complete failure,” he said via cell phone Tuesday as his net caught a rock in the Kasilof’s shallow waters. “It’s not gonna be enough to salvage the season, but we might be able to scratch up enough to pay the bills.”

Clarion reporter Hal Spence contributed to this report.

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