By Joseph Robertia
For Kasilof commercial fisherman Will Faulkner, the continued closure of the set-netting season is painful on many fronts. He is in many ways a Renaissance man, having worked many jobs to get to where he is today after having come to Alaska more than a decade ago with little more than $1 in his pocket and a backpack and long ponytail on his back.
He brought with him a strong work ethic and saved what he made from his various jobs over the years to put toward his future. He used some of his savings to get property, then a home, and for a time he ran sled dogs in winter all around the state.
Fifteen years ago he began working as a crewman for a Cook Inlet commercial set-netting outfit, but he knew he could only go so far working for someone else. Eight years ago, he made the decision to venture out on his own as a set-netter and bought the permits, nets and another associated gear necessary. It was a small business he intended to grow, and until this year he has been able to keep that dream alive.
“I bought in hoping to grow something for myself, rather than just being a crewman year after year. I started with such little stuff, but I worked hard and always invested what I made into more gear for the next season, doing it all myself, just my wife and I,” he said.
This year, however, has Faulkner wondering if all that hard work was for nothing, as he once again had invested in this coming season, but so far only has 35 fish to show for it from the one day he was allowed to fish. His bank account isn’t growing. Instead, his debt is, at an exponential rate.
“I own on a new motor and have spent a lot of other money toward this season that won’t be coming back. My truck may be repossessed any day now, but I’ve managed to keep the power on. I had hoped to do some siding work on my house, but that’s not going to happen now. A lot won’t be happening now,” he said.
Needing to make money to cover his fishing-related debt, Faulkner will likely go back to carpentry, working for home builders in the area, rather than being his own boss on the beach.
“I’ll likely go back to pounding nails, and hopefully that will save me, but even with that there won’t be any money saved due to what I owe. It’ll be living paycheck to paycheck,” he said.
In addition to the financial loss, Faulkner feels a cultural loss of not being able to fish. As when he was a musher, he didn’t enter every race to win or place in the purse money. Sometimes he entered for the lifestyle of living close to the land and being outdoors in Alaska. This idea is one he’s retained when the snow melts and the fish return.
“I depend on this for my livelihood, but it’s never been about getting rich. I spent $15,000 this year, expecting to make about $15,000 back. Commercial fishing is about more than that. For me it’s the lifestyle and the culture of being out there and picking the nets. I love it when it’s calm, I love it when it’s rough, I love picking a full net on a ripping half-ebb. I love all the work,” he said.
Like many other fishermen, Faulkner started the season with a full complement of crewmen, but most of them have pushed on to other jobs in hope of making some money this summer.
One local hand stayed on — Paul Jensen, of Kasilof. Like Faulkner, Jensen he said that not being able to fish is frustrating because, to him, it’s about getting back what you put into it.
“This isn’t like McDonald’s where you can work twice as hard but you’re still making the same hourly rate,” he said. “Commercial fishing is one of the few things left that you can equate the amount of work, blood and sweat you put in to how much you make. So I hate to see commercial fishing — this thing that literally first brought people to this area — I hate to see it getting pushed out of the way after more than 140 years of being self-sustaining. We all deserve our fair share.”
Getting a set-net fishing site up and running is an expensive proposition, requiring more investment than simply buying gear and permits. The expenses for Kasilof fisherman Will Faulkner have added up to a $15,690 tab so far, without his nets filling with sockeye to pay for it all. His expenses to date include:
- New E-Tec 40-horsepower outboard motor: $5,800
- Repair work to existing outboards: $600
- Boat registration (four skiffs): $100
- Fuel: $1,000
- Permit registration (x2): $150
- Crewmember licenses: $660
- Groceries for crewmembers: $1,500
- Cook salary: $500
- Raingear: $150
- Sandbags: $300
- Shop rental for fiberglass work: $100
- 10 gallons resin: $300
- Fiberglass cloth: $100
- Bondo: $100
- Acetone: $50
- Brushes, rollers, etc: $50
- Gel coat: $200
- Buoys: $450
- New buoy harnesses (x6): $180
- Buoy stickers (for two permits): $150
- Lead line: $400
- Anchor lines: $500
- New meshes (x3): $1,200
- Beach truck maintenance: $850
- Trailer: $300
- Mending twine and needles for net repair: $100
Faulkner notes that all these purchases were made locally.