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Kenai fishermen jittery about upcoming season after 2012 disaster

Suzanna Caldwell

Last summer, Alaska setnetter Chris Brandt sat on an empty Cook Inlet beach that normally she’d be working, setting her nets in the murky waters of the east side of Cook Inlet in hopes of scooping up thousands of sockeye salmon. But inevitably, there was a chance that swimming among the millions of sockeye headed to Alaska rivers, Brandt's net would snag one of the chinook salmon so prized by anglers.

And last summer, very few of those chinooks showed up. No one is exactly sure why. But in an effort to protect those precious kings -- the largest and most prized of all of salmon -- fisheries managers shut down the setnetters. Those kings that might wind up in commercial nets -- a couple hundred at most -- needed to be spared to ensure that enough of them reached their spawning grounds to ensure strong future runs. That was particularly important to sport fishermen, who also faced harsh restrictions and closures. With different user groups demanding the burden of conservation be shared, fishing all but stalled on and around the Kenai River.

But the setnet shutdown cut particularly deep among certain commercial fishermen on the Kenai Peninsula.

Setnet disaster, driftnet boom

On the Kenai, commercial fishermen are grouped into two distinct groups -- setnetters and driftnetters. Setnetters fish near shore, setting their nets from skiffs. More mobile driftnetters work the middle of the inlet, where their nets float near the top of the water.

In 2010, the Alaska Board of Fisheries established that the two groups fish separately. And while the setnetters were beached most of the summer, the driftnetters took in more than 23 million pounds of sockeye for a total profit of $32 million, slightly higher than 2011, when they captured $30 million of fish. Driftnetters were allowed to fish because very few kings swim in the middle of Cook Inlet, where drifters work.

And despite their boom, Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell declared the region a disaster at the end of the summer, opening up access to federal disaster relief funds.

But as fishermen gear up for a new season, few have taken advantage of federal relief programs. Instead, many are waiting to see how the coming season plays out, optimistic the closures they faced last year won't beach them again.

Tightening belts

The Kenai Peninsula Borough, home to about 50,000 people, is located south of Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city. Many families are hardworking, blue-collar Alaskans who rely on fishing and oil and gas as their primary income. Some setnetters families have fished the inlet for decades. Setnet permits, many worth more than $10,000, often are gifted from one generation to the next.

Brandt said it was depressing to go down on the beach and not be able to fish as she’d done for the last 30 years. Some of her family members fell into a depression, she said.

Although the woes of Cook Inlet setnetters may pale compared to struggles of subsistence fishermen on the Kuskokwim River, who last year were arrested for ignoring fishing closures, the consequences of the Kenai closures rippled through the economy in the months that followed.

“It's hard to make people understand it's our lifestyle,” she said. “It's in our blood.”

Now setnetters are wondering what will happen this summer. Many have cut back on spending and taken second jobs.

Matt Tikka, for instance, picked up an extra job this winter working as a bus driver.

“I think we took the brunt of it in terms of conservation,” lifelong setnetter Tikka said. “Hopefully it will help.”

From $20 million to $2 million

Last summer, 456 Upper Cook Inlet setnet permits were briefly fished, a number that has remained fairly consistent for years. In 2012, those setnetters brought in about 2 million pounds of sockeyes worth about $2 million. A year earlier, they earned $20 million by bringing in 14 million pounds of fish.

Some setnetters compare themselves to farmers. They can plan for the season and plan for the crop, but inevitably much of what happens comes down to fate.

Doug Blossom has been setnetting on the Kenai 65 years. He explained the situation like this: “Say you have a farmer in Iowa who raises 2,000 acres of corn. He works all year and come harvest time, he gets totally wiped out. But the crop was there, and we weren't able to harvest it.”

Blossom estimates he spent up to $90,000 gearing up for last year's season, buying new equipment and replacing nets. With only seven openings to fish -- in 2011 there were 17 -- he earned less than $3,000.

“When you have a good crop, you should be allowed to harvest,” he said.

'You don't expect closures'

Setnetter Norm Darch, with a 25-person crew, has one of the largest fishing operations in the area. He only fished four days and wouldn't say exactly how much he lost, but he did allow that he earned 4 percent of what he had the previous year.

“When you fish, you anticipate ups and downs,” Darch said. “You don't expect closures.”

Darch said his employees, many who are students looking to pay for college, understand the uncertainties of fishing. But it's a situation those students, and other fishermen, can deal with for only so long.

“If something like (last summer) happens again, I'm going to lose everybody,” Darch said. “People aren't going to keep putting time into something that isn't worthwhile.”

Federal funding in doubt

Following the closures, Parnell declared a disaster in the region, supposedly allowing fishermen access to federal disaster relief funds appropriated by Congress. But help has been slow coming.

Fishermen have had access to loans from the Small Business Administration, though only a few loans have been taken out. As of Tuesday, just five loans totaling $50,700 have been approved, according to the SBA. All five went to fishermen on the Kenai.

Tikka is among the Kenai setnetters who said it doesn't make sense to add debt in difficult times, especially when the next season is uncertain. Tikka ended up taking a second job as a bus driver to help cover the expenses of his small operation over the winter.

“The last thing people want to do is borrow more money when they don't have a way to pay it back,” he said.

Waiting for summer

In October, the Alaska Board of Fish voted to lower the escapement minimum for Kenai king salmon from 18,000 to 15,000 fish. No other changes were made to the king salmon management plan that dictates how the fishery is managed -- which means fishermen could see the same issues play out again this summer if the king salmon run remains lousy.

“Fish and Game hasn't indicated how they will approach the runs,” Kenai River Sportfishing Association executive director Ricky Gease said. “They might want to tip their hand and let people know, 'are we going to approach this cautiously or not?'”

As the last snows of winter melt, setnetters are focused on the Fish and Game estimate of 4.6 million sockeye expected to return to the Kenai River this summer, a strong run. Last year, more than 4 million pounds of salmon were harvested by all user groups throughout the upper Cook Inlet region, making it the ninth-largest harvest in the past 20 years.

Until the first sockeye swim into the Kenai River in June, commercial fishermen will look to the Fish and Game estimates with optimism, hoping they'll be hauling the fish into their boats this year and not watching them pass by.

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com