Unable to make a living in Cook Inlet, young commercial fishermen head west to Bristol Bay
This story was originally posted by KDLL in Kenaï and Alaska Public Media, and is republished here with permission.
The F / V Nedra E is smaller than the other boats that float at the Naknek Wharf in southwest Alaska.
Thor Evenson didn’t have Bristol Bay in mind when he designed the boat for his parents, homesteaders Nikiski Jim and Nedra Evenson. Until last year, the Nedra E was a Cook Inlet boat, commissioned by Jim, then his nephew and now grandson, Taylor Evenson, 32.
Taylor Evenson said he grew up hearing about the heyday of Cook Inlet fishing from his dad and friends.
“And just get up in the morning every day and hear their voices on the radio, voices that I grew up with since the first time I was on the boat, I was 3 months old,” he said. declared. “And most of all hearing my dad’s voice, going out and fishing with my dad… that’s why I never left the cove, although I always knew what was to come.”
What has happened is a drop in salmon runs and a change in the way the fishery is managed in Cook Inlet.
Salmon fishing in the Inlet, once an economic driver for Kenai, is no longer lucrative. Many fishermen with deep connections to the cove are retiring or moving elsewhere because they can no longer make a living.
[Last chance? Cook Inlet setnetters look to buyback as a way to save the fishery]
Evenson said his breaking point came last year. He could no longer fish in Cook Inlet.
So, with the help of the boat’s original builder, Kevin Morin from Kasilof, he emptied everything from the back of the cabin, cut several inches from the bow and stern and installed a brand new deck, for bring the Nedra E up to Bristol Bay standards.
Now, he said, it’s time to make his own glory days.
“And that’s the only place to really do it, if it was to fish with a gillnet in Alaska,” he said.
The “Super Bowl” of fishing
On a sunny day in mid-July, the crew of the Nedra E were throwing what was to be their 500th set this season. Their hands were sore from picking up so many salmon in the net, sometimes up to 28,000 pounds in 24 hours.
Deckhand Riley Randleas, from Soldotna, 22, had never seen anything like it.
“You live on naps and you never take a break, ever,” he said. “Time doesn’t mean a thing, at this point.”
He said it was the Super Bowl of fishing, something you can’t get in Cook Inlet anymore.
Scientists have not been able to determine one of the reasons for the change in the entrance stroke. The fishery has become politically charged, as conflicts between managers and user groups intensify.
Meanwhile, business has plummeted in the creek as well. Thirty years ago, an average salmon drift license for the Cook Inlet fishery was worth over $ 200,000. Last year it was only worth $ 25,000, according to the Alaska Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission.
Why the Evensons fished
But fishing in Cook Inlet has never been about money for the Evensons.
Jim and Nedra, who both died last year, started fishing in the creek when they moved to Kenai in 1955. Jim was the first president of the local drift association and he and his son are well known Kenai artists who went fishing. a big theme in their work.
Taylor Evenson said he was heartbroken to leave his family‘s fishing legacy behind. But he would be heartbroken to stay too.
“As far as my move west here is what I have to do for a living, what I have to do to feel good about fishing because I would quit,” he said. declared. “It’s too depressing to fish in Kenai. It’s depressing. “
[Cook Inlet setnetters feel pain of early closure as sockeye salmon continue pouring in]
It’s night and day in energetic Bristol Bay, which is breaking salmon records. It hit its biggest run of sockeye on record this season – nearly 66 million fish to date.
“You come here, and everyone is young, everyone is young, everyone is happy, everyone is spending money,” Evenson said. “It’s 100% palatable. “
Make money, finally
There is a exhausted exuberance among the fishermen of Naknek as they dock for one of the last times this season, flush with the fish.
For a group of Cook Inlet fishermen gathered at a local bar, there’s also nostalgia in the mix.
William Olsen lives in Washington and has fished Cook Inlet on his own license for almost two decades.
He said he had seen some of the best years in fishing. It was fun being a Cook Inlet fisherman: he remembers docking with friends at night and going into town to see Hobo Jim play.
“When I was a deckhand for eight years, we saw the best of times,” he said. “And we thought there would be more.”
But this boom did not last. And three years ago, Olsen and his son bought Bristol Bay.
“This was the first time we’ve made any money fishing in Alaska, finally,” he said.
It was tough on his uncle, who also fished the creek for four decades.
“He really didn’t want to see me come to Bristol Bay,” said Olsen. “He had a deep love for Cook Inlet. And when I told him I was going to the bay, he was almost a little disappointed with me. And when I came back that first year and told him how we’d done it, he changed his mind. And he knew it was a business decision.
‘I want them to be the children of fishermen‘
These incredible catches make it hard for Georgie Heaverley of Nikiski to imagine fishing in Cook Inlet again. After nearly three weeks of seamanship on the Nedra E, the 33-year-old fisherman returned to Anchorage with a suitcase of dirty fishing gear and a new perspective.
“This season, and seeing what Bristol Bay is, and seeing what fishing really looks like… I just don’t see how I couldn’t be in Bristol Bay,” she said.
It was Heaverley’s first season without her father since she became a commercial fisherman. She and Evenson talked about their fathers when they were on the boat.
“This is what he used to see when he was fishing,” she said. “He used to see fish hitting the net like that. He fished like that. Like, dad saw this.
Heaverley resisted the direction of Bristol Bay for some time. She didn’t want to leave her family behind, and between the licenses and the boat upgrades, she knew it would take a lot of investment to change.
But the last year in Cook Inlet was so bad that it put a strain on her relationship with her father. She felt it was time to follow other young fishermen west.
“And I will have children one day and I want them to be the children of fishermen,” she said. “And how do you do that?” We arrive at Bristol Bay. Because that’s all that’s left. And I wish we could be fishermen in Cook Inlet. Because it’s home. But we just can’t.
Overcome the fish war
Still, she wants to fight for fishing in Cook Inlet. It has been bitter, through the lawsuits and battles of the Board of Fish, with user groups pitted against user groups, each seeking a slice of the resource.
Evenson said an us versus them mentality is part of what has led to the decline of Cook Inlet fishing – and the local commercial fishing lifestyle.
“I think our generation, people like Georgie and me, who grew up in the midst of the Fish Wars… saw that it’s to everyone’s detriment,” he said. “And, really, it’s at the expense of the resource. That’s what it ultimately boils down to in this whole thing. “
Evenson and Heaverley both said they want the next generation to build bridges between user groups to find a better balance. Evenson is part of a group of Salmon Fellows through the Alaska Humanities Forum. Heaverley takes a look at state fishing policy and pleads for young fishermen to join the conversation as well.
She is also a poet. His poem, “The One Cent Man”, is about Cook Inlet. She wrote it from the boat at the end of last season.
“And there is this verse, and it sums it up,” she said. “It’s, ‘And now the kids are migrating west / to gold-rich waters / the nets they throw, now fill up fast / Boats and permits are sold.’
She is also considering buying in the bay, she said. But she’s not quite ready to give up on Cook Inlet. Not yet.