By Joseph Robertia
While participating in the Kasilof personal-use set gillnet fishery over the weekend, I couldn’t help but think how lucky I was. “Lucky” may seem like an odd word, considering we (my wife and the other families with which I share a net) have strained far more water than actually caught fish this year.
As I type this Monday afternoon, we have landed less than 25 sockeye salmon since we began fishing at 6 a.m. Friday, a paltry amount considering, in past years, we have brought in more than 100 fish from one pull after a six-hour tide cycle. But I know things could always be worse.
A fellow fisherman a few sites down from ours only caught one salmon and a loon Sunday, and it would be an gross understatement to say the by-catch bird got “pecky” as the fisherman cut apart his net to safely free the creature.
Still, it’s a great experience to take part in the personal-use fishery. Not just because we can fill our freezer with a delicious, high-protein meat that greatly offsets the cost of groceries bills. And not just because, other than when we are picking salmon out of our nets on the slack tides, we spend the remainder of the six-hour tide cycle reclining the beach with a cool beverage in hand, eating grilled food from our campfire, surrounded by friends and taking in the majestic views of Mount Redoubt across the way.
The personal-use fishery also is a valuable slice of Alaska because of what it still represents —
staking a claim and defending it. This is a part of not just Alaska history, but American history, from homesteading to prospecting for gold. People came, selected a spot and did their best to keep it and work it. That isn’t always easy, back then or today.
This is an amazing element of this fishery, particularly when these claims are staked in lieu of clear rules governing the claiming of sites. There are tons of regulations stating when fishing begins and ends, what type of gear can be used and how far out the gear can be fished. In this regard, there is no lack of piscatorial bureaucracy.
However, when it comes to claiming a site, the rules are miniscule. As defined by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, sites officially are on a “first come, first served” basis, established only when a net actually enters the water. The caveat being, as shoreline set-netters know, a net cannot enter the water without the placement of running lines, anchors or buoys, all of which, according to Fish and Game, “does not constitute any prior right to a net location.”
These legal nuances can lead to a lot of contention, since there basically are only about 100 to 120 sites that can be claimed within the established fishable areas on either side of the mouth of the Kasilof River, and many thousands of Alaskans who want to participate. Despite this near invitation for territorial squabbling, herein is what makes this fishery great. People who want to participate have had to establish their own system to make this fishery work, an idea that is as brilliant as it is simple.
Sometimes as early as March and April, people will begin going down to the beach, measuring out their 100-foot campsites and marking them off with nothing more than a bucket or milk jug tied to a post to mark their claim. They then don’t return to the site until roughly a week before the opener when they begin setting up all the necessary gear — the lines, pullies and anchors — which, by law, don’t officially mark anything. And yet, they are, for the most part, respected.
Some sites are better than others, so, occasionally, these homemade markers are removed and problems can transpire. I don’t think there has been a single year of the nearly 10 we’ve participated in this fishery where we didn’t see a couple people shouting or a few blows being thrown. Fights can and do happen. But, like Redoubt across the way, after these big eruptions, the dust settles and things are quiet for much longer periods than they are violent.
People work it out amongst themselves, just as they did in the pioneer days, when laws were few and lawmen even fewer. Conflict resolution without a governing system is becoming increasingly rare in our society. It seems more people would rather build a fence than talk to a neighbor, call human resources instead of hashing an issue out with a co-worker or call the Alaska State Troopers instead of working out a problem with a fellow fisherman.
The Kasilof personal-use fishery is proof issues can be resolved by people talking directly to each other, without having to submit proposals, attend board meetings and make laws, and that is a great thing to take part in.
Joseph Robertia and his wife, Colleen, live in Kasilof. He is a reporter for the Redoubt Reporter and can be reached at email@example.com.