By Joseph Robertia
The quizzical looks of the passing motorists said it all, “Why are they here?”
That’s a question the band of several hundred Cook Inlet commercial set-net fishermen who walked along the highway in Kenai on Friday were asking themselves. If given their choice, there was another place the fishermen would rather have been — out on the water hauling in the thousands of sockeye that were surging into the Kenai and Kasilof rivers.
But due to an emergency order put into effect by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game on Thursday, they can’t. Commercial set-netters are the only user group not allowed to fish for sockeyes, their fishery shut down after the Kenai River was closed to all sportfishing for kings in order to conserve a dismally low return of kings. Set-netters were shut down, too, in an effort to spare returning kings from getting caught in the beach-launched nets.
Meanwhile, to try to avoid overescapement of a bumper crop of returning sockeyes, the in-river sport and personal-use dip-net fisheries were liberalized by doubling the bag limits in the former and increasing the fishing times to 24 hours a day in the latter. Drift-net commercial fishermen also are seeing increased opportunities to harvest sockeyes.
“It’s all political, not biological,” said Chris Every, a commercial fishermen for the last 42 years, 22 of which has been as an east side set-netter. Not allowed to fish his family site just south of the Kenai River, Every organized the Friday rally and march in Kenai, then in front of the Fish and Game office on Kalifornsky Beach Road.
“This isn’t me. I don’t want to be doing this,” he said, but Every said he felt compelled to act. “I’ve spent 42 years doing nothing, while we’ve continued to be pushed out of our industry, fishing less and less, and all while other user groups have been growing exponentially. It was time to stand up and fight for the management changes we need on the Kenai and Kasilof rivers,” he said.
The rally was not the first of his effort, nor the last. He and others have written letters and proposals, called Fish and Game officials, attended a Kenai City Council meeting and met with city and borough mayors in order to advocate for being allowed to fish.
Despite this flurry of activity — including a possible court suit against the state of Alaska, based on whispers from some in the crowd — it might all be for naught. Once the sockeye are up the rivers, set-netters will have lost their chance to earn a living from the fishery, and the trickle-down effect will be felt by the larger community, some rally speakers said.
“It’s devastating,” said Melissa Hall, a set-netter with sites just south of the Kasilof River. “How do we pay our crew next week or our mortgage next month when we’ll be $40,000 to $50,000 in the hole?”
Hall said that not being able to fish is personally sickening to her, especially because the decision to shut the fishery down is based on the estimated return of kings to the Kenai, and she has concerns over how that estimate is being arrived at.
“They’re counting method is flawed. They have no idea how many kings are coming into the river,” Hall said. “And if we can’t trust the science behind the decision, we can’t support the legitimacy of the decision.”
For Hall, the loss of income is particularly devastating because, unlike many at the rally who were third- and fourth-generation commercial fishermen, Hall and her husband only recently took over their fishing operation, after working for another owner for several years prior.
“We’re recent permit holders, we just got into doing it for ourselves in 2009. We have an 11- and
a 14-year-old and we called this fishing for tuition. It was a small business we were buying into, but this changes everything,” she said.
Hall still owes on shore leases, permit renewals, crew licenses, sticker buoy fees and all the fuel purchased for the intended fishing season. As such, the closure isn’t about not making a profit, it’s about not even breaking even.
“This is 400 small businesses out of work,” said Ken Coleman, a set-netter in the Kenai area for the past 40 years. “People can’t see it because it’s out on the water, it’s not like 400 gas stations closing between here and Anchorage or something, but the loss of income for 400 businesses will be felt in the community when they aren’t spending money they weren’t allowed to make.”
In addition to his own loss, Coleman said he was concerned for the loss his hired hands would feel, since many came up from the Lower 48 looking for summer work to earn money for college.
“A percentage of zero is still zero,” he said.
Joseph Person, a second-generation set-netter from Ninilchik, said the amount he would be able to pay his crew from the one day they were allowed to fish was appalling.
“It’ll basically come out to shares of $250 for four weeks of work,” he said. “We’ll be spending less and dipping into our savings to make it through until next year.”
However, not everyone puts away for a rainy day, as the cliché goes.
“I rely on this to live,” said Aaron Kershner, from Arizona, who has returned for the past four years to serve as a crewmember of a set-netting outfit south of the Kasilof River.He said there were 10 crewmembers at the start of this season, but, realizing they may not get paid, they have been dropping in myriad ways.
“One left to do construction work, one got on with a drifter, one went back to Idaho, three others went to work in the canneries. It’s been tough. Some have wanted to go, but they drove up with fumes in their tank. They expected to make enough to return, so they’re stuck here now and not sure what to do,” Kershner said.