Survey: Kodiak fishermen happy but concerned

Kodiak fishermen are a happy lot but they're also anxious about the future of their industry.

Those are early findings of a survey that focuses on the social and cultural perceptions of the fishing life in Kodiak and how things have changed over two decades.

The survey is part of a multi-year project titled Social Transitions and Wellbeing in Kodiak Fisheries and Communities by Courtney Carothers, an assistant professor at UAF's School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences. Carothers lived for more than a year in Kodiak villages to research people's experiences and perceptions; extensive interviews and the survey are helping to flesh out his findings.

In June, about 1,000 surveys were sent to a random sample of Kodiak fishermen in all gear groups and fisheries. It asked them how happy or satisfied they are with fishing and aspects of their lives today compared to 20 years ago. Carothers has compiled responses from the first 150 returns by fishermen with an average of 26 years of experience.

Overall, commercial fishermen said if they had their lives to live over again, they would be fishermen, with most responding "yes" or "strongly yes." Most agreed -- though not strongly -- that Kodiak is a healthy fishing community.

The cost of entry into fisheries was cited as a major stressor, as was fear that spiraling costs will prevent young people from entering fisheries. Surprisingly, the effect of catch-share programs was mentioned as a major cause of change and concern.

"Haves and have-nots -- that's the way people say fishing is characterized now as compared to the past," Carothers said. "Certain programs have been put in place and they have been great for certain people but others feel they have been left out of those programs. I think that has affected some people's sense of well-being."

As for earnings, most said earnings are much better; others said they are worse.

"I think it depends on the fishery, gear group and whether you are a crew member, a skipper or an owner," Carothers said.

Fish watch

Alaska's statewide salmon harvest is about halfway to the 132-million-fish forecast. From here on, hitting that target will depend on how well those hard-to-predict pinks come in. State managers predict a catch of 70.2 million pinks, down 40 percent from last year. Pinks were moving into the major producing regions of Kodiak, Southeast and Prince William Sound, where the catch had topped 10 million.

The PWS humpies are hefty, averaging 4.3 pounds, a pound heavier than last summer. At Bristol Bay, most of the fleet was heading home after catching nearly 21 million sockeyes. A couple hundred boats and more than 50 setnetters were still fishing for pinks. Two years ago, Bristol Bay had the first pink salmon fishery since 1984 with a catch of 1.3 million humpies, 800 percent higher than the past two decades.

You can track Alaska's weekly salmon catches by species and region at the "Blue Sheet."

Salmon smells

Research shows that minute traces of copper in the water affect a salmon's sense of smell and that changes their behavior. A study three years ago by Oregon State University and federal scientists revealed that copper runs into streams and rivers after being deposited on roads from vehicle brake pads and exhaust. Copper levels as low as two parts per billion adversely affected the sense of smell in juvenile salmon, which they use to avoid predators.

"In the environment, that has some serious implications," said Jason Sandahl, co-author of the Oregon copper study. "If there are predators around and the fish are not able to respond to these danger signals in the water, I guess they would be the next snack for these larger predators in the water."

Sandahl said at higher levels, a salmon's avoidance ability was almost nonexistent. Now another study at the University of Washington has confirmed that finding.

Researcher Jenifer McIntyre, also working with NOAA scientists, found that a copper-exposed fish does not get the information it needs to protect itself. McIntyre exposed juvenile coho salmon to between 5 and 20 parts per billion of copper and placed them in tanks with a common predator, cutthroat trout. The results were striking.

"A copper-exposed fish is not getting the information it needs to make good decisions," said McIntyre, a postdoctoral research associate at WSU's Puyallup Research and Extension Center.

Salmon that were not exposed to copper would stop moving when they sensed a predator, making it harder for the predator to detect them. McIntyre called it "going into lockdown mode." But salmon in water with just five parts per billion of copper failed to detect the predator, kept swimming and were attacked in seconds.

The exposed fish were killed 30 percent of the time in the first strike; the salmon not exposed to copper managed to escape nine times out of 10.

Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based fisheries journalist. Her Fish Radio programs can be heard on stations around the state. This material is protected by copyright. For information on reprinting, contact

Fisheries By LAINE WELCH