Kotzebue fisherman turns entrepreneur to keep fishing

Posted: Sunday, September 08, 2002

KOTZEBUE (AP) -- Despite the almost nonexistent salmon market, despite the piddling salmon runs and a closed chum run, local commercial fisherman Seth Kantner still found a way to go fishing this year.

He did it by becoming more than just a fisherman -- he became a one-man marketing and transportation network.

It's no secret that the region's commercial fishermen were stymied this season. They had no one to sell their catches to. The harsh market forced Tom Monson to shut down his salmon buying operation, which had been running continuously since 1973. He was the region's last hope this year.

On top of that, poor chum returns caused U.S. Fish and Game area biologist Jim Menard to keep the season closed in July. The only way he was going to open it was if fishermen announced intentions of giving things a go. Given the circumstances, that was unlikely.

Except for Kantner.

He had it all figured out. Kantner solved the no-buyer problem by getting a catcher/seller permit, which allowed him to sell his fish locally. Though he probably wouldn't sell many considering the town's finite market, it would get him on the water doing what he loves.

He also found a processor to sell to. After weeks of phone calls to countless companies, he finally struck a deal with Great Pacific Seafoods, the processor Monson had sold most of his near 1.5 million pounds of fish to last year. With Monson's recommendation, Great Pacific designated Kantner as one of its licensed agents.

Though the processor still had many of last year's chums left over in its freezer, it had a few small orders to fill for fresh-caught chums.

Kantner would now not only catch the fish, he would put them on ice, tote them and coordinate their shipment to Anchorage. He had never done it all at once before.

Monson helped out by renting Kantner his loader and forklift.

With everything in place, Kantner began one of the most stressful months of his life.

Toward the end of July, Kantner finally got two 11,000-pound orders. He brought in friend and fisherman Mike Schieber and his boat as partners.

But the day before they were to hit the water, they discovered the Kotzebue Electric Association's ice machine had been dismantled. They couldn't ship salmon without it. They lost that order.

Spirits rose the next week. The ice machine was fixed, and Great Pacific called back with a 4,000-pound order, followed by another for 2,000 pounds.

The harvest was afoot -- almost.

''We woke up to a north wind, after weeks of west wind,'' Kantner said. ''We couldn't catch (anything).''

Though chums were eventually caught and most of the subsequent orders filled, the wind seldom ceased. It added hours to days that were already long enough. On top of that, another force of nature began to work against Kantner and Schieber.

''We'd show up and there was always a crowd of seals working our nets,'' Kantner said. ''Hundreds of fish were half-eaten. It was a buffet for them.''

On land, frustrations were worse. Getting the fish on flights to Anchorage bordered on the unmanageable. The volatile nature of air cargo schedules had the fishermen toting fish for flights that it turned out did not have room, or for others in where schedules had been changed and didn't include a direct return to Anchorage.

And because he never knew when an order would come in, he had to guess how much ice he needed the electric company's ice machine to make for him.

After one month, Kantner ended up selling 73,000 pounds of fish to Great Pacific, and a few hundred to locals.

''I've never worked so hard in my life for $4,000 or $5,000,'' he said. ''The buying and transport side was new and maddening. I'd hit the shore pressing buttons on the phone. The phone woke me up whenever I got to sleep.

''After while, the stress of worrying about totes of fish rotting made it hard to sleep anyway.''

Still, Kantner did it. His 28-consecutive-year commercial fishing streak still stands.

''(Commercial fishing) is not so much a love,'' he said, ''it's an addiction.''

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