Commercial season winding down

Fish numbers better than last 2 years, fishers say; driftnetting ends tonight

Posted: Thursday, August 08, 2002

There's gear to be stowed. Nets to be mended. Holds to be cleaned out. Hulls to be stripped and repainted. Skiffs to be put away. Engines to be overhauled. Boats to be pulled and dry-docked. Catches to be tallied. Money to be paid out.

And there's still one more day of commercial fishing left on the books.

Commercial salmon setnetting closed Monday and the driftnetting season officially ends this evening at 7 for the east side of upper Cook Inlet below the West Forelands.

According to Alaska Department of Fish and Game and some fishers, the season's catch, though not outstanding, managed to outperform the past two years of fishing.

"Lately, there's been really slow fishing," setnetter Pat Kelly said of recent seasons. "So it hasn't been really profitable. But we had a good year this year."

The official word from Fish and Game also is positive.

"It's actually been better than the last two seasons," said Fish and Game commercial management biologist Jeff Fox of the overall salmon season. "It was a little less than '99."

As of Tuesday, he said the the number of sockeyes in the inlet had been counted at a little more than 2.75 million. The count in 2000 was 1.3 million, and in 2001 it was 1.8 million.

The 1999 total salmon counted was 2.76 million. The total catch for that year was estimated at more than 8 million pounds of fish, worth more than $22 million, according to Commercial Fishing Entry Commission figures.

"The big difference was that in '99 they were paid $1.30 per pound. This year was right about 55 cents per pound," Fox said. "That's a big, big difference."

There are those who want out.

"I can't make ends meet by myself," said Kenai setnetter Janine Carlough.

Her husband, Joe Carlough, was killed in an automobile accident two years ago, and she had to use an emergency transfer to let someone fish the site. She said she can't make enough money with just her own site to make fishing profitable for herself and her two children, so she is trying to sell both her permit and her husband's.

She is among the 86 Cook Inlet commercial setnetters and driftnetters trying to sell their permits. The Carloughs bought the permits in 1996 for $176,000 and took out a state loan for $32,000.

But fishing hasn't earned her enough to pay into the debt, and her investment is just the beginning of the costs associated with the trade.

"That's not paying for the boat, the fuel or paying the crew," Carlough said. "I will take anything to pay the state debt."

She is asking $40,000 for the two sites, located 2 1/2 miles north of Kasilof.

"I'm going to lose my shirt selling both of them," she said.

But with the average setnet sites valued at roughly $8,500 in the Commercial Fishing Entry Com-mission's latest estimates, that price may be difficult to come by.

Slim hope may exist, however.

"There are people who want to (buy) it, but I want cash for it, and they can't do that," Carlough said. "You need a site to fish, but the state doesn't recognize it as collateral. Neither does a bank. You're basically stuck."

Some fishers have found other ways to market their salmon in the struggling industry.

Juanita Meier, co-owner of R and J Seafoods, fishes and purchases fish to process and sell direct to tourists and people unable to land fish from the company's Kalifornsky Beach Road location. (See the story on today's page A-5).

Meier said taking a different angle to selling their catch helps her family's business.

"We thought that if the market really went bad, we could just sell our fish to people that come by," she said.

Setnetter Pat Kelly and his partner Lowell Miller, own Salmon Cache and have taken a similar approach. They said they were able to take advantage of people driving by their small shop at Mile 19 of the Kenai Spur Highway to sell a good amount of fresh fish.

Miller said they did rather well this year fishing from their sites just below the road on Salamatof beach.

"I think Salamatof beach did better than any other beach in Cook Inlet this year," Miller said. "The fish ran in cycles and happened to show up on days Fish and Game let us fish."

But the two, who have fished their sites for 14 years, will be leaving the state to return to their homes Outside. Both were full-time residents, but Miller said they moved because of scant finances that fishing brings. They come back in the summers rather than quit altogether.

"We're not making enough money to justify spending a lot of time here," Miller said. "We thought about (quitting) for years. We just miss running our business and seeing our friends. Besides, who's going to buy our permits?"

There is still some fishing that can be done. Next week, Fox said the inlet will be open for three commercial pink salmon fishing days on Monday, Wednesday and Fri-day.

"People have probably started noticing a lot of pink salmon," he said. "The majority of the catch (Monday) was pinks. There were roughly 50,000 pink salmon and only 8,000 reds."

To fish the pink runs, commercial fishers need to register with Fish and Game by the end of the business day today.

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