By Jenny Neyman
After spending all but three days of their season sitting high and dry on the beach, the Juliussen family’s gillnets stretched out into Cook Inlet from their fishing site south of the Kasilof River on Monday, in the first opening east side set-netters have seen since their commercial sockeye fishery was closed July 19.
But the nets did not come back full enough to make up for lost time, tides or fish.
“I roughly figure I’ve made about $386, total,” said Mike Juliussen. “This is the worst we ever seen.”
And Juliussen’s memory is long, as a lifelong set-net fisherman, longer even than the 35-foot nets he and his family fish when not shut down, as they were this year, by a decision from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game meant to help the Kenai and Kasilof rivers make their escapement goals of king salmon in a run estimated to be drastically low. Set-netters sometimes snag kings in their nets set for sockeye salmon, so when the in-river sport fishery for kings was closed, the east side commercial set-netters also bore the burden of conserving kings by being shut down.
Fishermen in the Kenai area got just one opening before the closure, while those in the Kasilof area had three open days. In an announcement released Sunday, the department stated that the king run may have been late more than it was nonexistent, and that the estimated escapement outlook had improved to the point of allowing the east side set-netters to fish. But at this point, with most of the sockeye run already in the rivers, there isn’t much to catch.
Juliussen, 64, and his family have been fishing for 63 years, since 1949, and he said he can’t remember a
more economically devastating year than this one.
“I was hoping I’d catch enough today to pay my borough taxes — I owe about 1,110 bucks in borough tax — but it don’t look like it,” he said. “This is a disaster.”
A typical fishing season in recent years would earn Juliussen $50,000 to $60,000 gross, and that’s what he and his family lives on for the year. Luckily for Juliussen, the family fishing site has been in operation for so long that they own it outright — the lease on the beach site, the dory, its outboard motor and the beat-up trucks they use to haul nets in from the surf and haul fish off to sell to Snug Harbor Seafoods. But they still have expenses — including gas, licenses and food. This spring they took a loan to buy new nets, expecting to be able to use them, and barely got that paid off with the 52 sockeye and 60 humpies they’d caught so far.
The 12-hour opening Monday didn’t add much to their nets or bank account. The first set brought in a lot of
junk — flounders and sharks to be thrown back to the surf. On the second tide their sellable catch was a mere 14 humpies, three silvers and two sockeye. For comparison, they caught more in one day last year — 11,000 pounds — than they have all this year. Humpies are fetching about $0.25 per pound and the price of sockeyes dropped from $1.75 per pound at the start of the summer to $1.35 per pound now, Juliussen said. Being Native, he said that the family gets shareholder checks from Cook Inlet Region, Inc., and the permanent fund dividend should help, but it won’t make for a comfortable year.
“It’s gonna be tight this winter, I tell ya,” he said.
And his operation doesn’t have it nearly as bad as some, which still owe tens of thousands of dollars or more
on site leases to the state, have loans for gear and equipment, and hire on large crews with guarantees of payment. Those operations can be $100,000 or more in the hole after a year like this. Down the beach from their site, the water should be ribbed with cork lines skimming the surface out to orange buoys bobbing in the waves. But only a few other nets could be seen in the water Monday, and the usually bustling village of fishing shacks lining the bluff down the beach was boarded up and empty. Many fishermen didn’t have crewmembers left with which to fish, or didn’t think they’d catch enough to cover the expenses of starting up their operations, Juliussen said.
“I know families all over here, I went to school with them, and they’re hurting just as bad as I am,” Juliussen said.
Juliussen’s wife said that they’d considered going on food stamps to make it through the winter, but discovered that isn’t a feasible solution for a commercial fishing family. Even if they don’t make a dime fishing, they own too many assets — trucks and the dory and motor — to qualify for public assistance.
“They want me to sell that, then what’m I gonna do when it comes time for fishing and I ain’t got anything? If I don’t have money for food now I’m not gonna have money to buy a motor in spring,” Juliussen said.
“Hopefully we get a moose, that’s all I can say. But they (Fish and Game management decisions) ruined that, too. They ruined the clam tides first — you can’t get a half-decent clam anymore. Then they let all the bow hunters go get all the young spike-forks (moose), and killed all them off. Now they got no breeders. Now if you do get a moose the way the regulations are you gotta put him in a pressure cooker to eat it, he’s that old and tough. But it’s better than chewing on a rock,” he said.
On Monday, with the ample downtime afforded by a lack of fish, he was sitting beside a campfire, chewing over the future of the fishery and whether his family would have a place in it. The tradition is already suffering. It used to be the Juliussen brothers — Mike, Eugene and Melvin — running the set-net site with help from the younger generation. But Melvin died in July 2000, of a nighttime heart attack while at the fishing site.
Eugene, now 68, and Mike, 64, aren’t as able as they used to be. They spelled each other while hauling in the net, first Eugene taking a breather, then Mike slowly making his way back to his chair, gummed up by a bum hip needing surgery. Even without thousands, hundreds or even tens of fish to pick, set netting is still long, hard, heavy work to haul, maintain and store the gear. The brothers may have the fishing site they’ve always had, the same plaid shirts and the even longer-lasting fishing knowledge, but they don’t have the endurance they once did.
But what else are they going to do?
“That’s all we did our whole lifetime is fish. I got a sign I’d put on my wife’s car — ‘Born to fish, forced to work,’ but who the hell’s gonna hire me? I’m 64 years old,” Juliussen said.
Juliussen lost one son in a fire years ago. His other son, Michael Juliussen Jr., has a job on the North Slope and takes 30 days off in July to come help the family fish. This year he went back to work early because of the fishing closure. Next year, if things don’t look up, he might as well not come back at all, Juliussen said. The family picked up a teenager to work this summer, who gave up a job at McDonalds to fish, but they couldn’t pay to keep him around without any openings. That left just Juliussen’s son-in-law, Tim Fitzpatrick, to do the brunt of the work.
Juliussen hoped this would be the year to get the fourth generation of the family — his
6-year-old granddaughter Aaliyah Fitzpatrick — interested in fishing. She tagged along behind her dad Monday, her pink outfit and matching pink camouflage boots providing a cheery splash of color on an otherwise dreary, monochromatic beach, devoid, as it was, of mounds of flopping flashes of silver fish. Juliussen even bought a pair of kid-sized hip waders for her to wear.
“I was happy to get them for her, but then she didn’t even get to use them,” he said. “I was hoping there was a future for my family, you know, but I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going to happen next year, but there’s got to be some changes, I know that. This ain’t right,” he said.
It’s been stressful, just waiting around to see if they’ll be able to fish, Fitzpatrick said. And particularly frustrating to watch the personal-use set-net fishery set up in June and haul in net after net of sockeyes, while a month later the commercial fishermen were told to stay out of the water, Juliussen said. Many are questioning the decisions made in managing Cook Inlet fisheries this year, and the Alaska Salmon Alliance, Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association and United Cook Inlet Drift Association are planning a meeting for commercial fishermen, processors, industry supporters and public officials at 10 a.m. Wednesday at Kenai Central High School to discuss concerns about the season and actions they’d like to see taken by Fish and Game for next year.
If up to him, Juliussen would rather be fishing than sitting in a meeting.
“If they open us again, we’re gonna be here. We gotta be, to make enough to pay the borough tax,” he said.
But he would like to see something done about the management of the fisheries. His first suggestion was to, “Throw them all out. All of ’em,” he said.
His next suggestion, even though he was joking, he quickly thought better of.
“What they’ve done to us this year, I’d like to … . Ah, naw, I don’t want to catch them guys. I’d have three meals a day but it’d be at the pretrial (Wildwood Pretrial Correctional Facility),” he said.
All he really wants is to make a living, the same way his family has been making their living for the past six decades.
“I’m not trying to be a beach Rockefeller,” he said. “All I want to do is make enough to put food on the table and keep a roof over my family’s head. That’s all I want. And I’ll thank God for that, you know. That’s all.”