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New Alaska reality show 'Hook, Line & Sisters' focused on salmon fishing

Craig Medred
Discovery Network photo

Just when you thought there couldn't possibly be another Alaska-based reality show on television, guess what? There's another Alaska-based reality show, “Hook, Line & Sisters”, premiering this week, featuring a Breckenridge, Colo., family's annual journey north to fish. Interestingly, the Anderson family underlines what is both best and worst about Alaska’s limited-entry salmon fisheries implemented in 1973.

The best is that by eliminating cutthroat capitalism, limited entry enabled a select group of commercial salmon fishermen to build viable, self-sustaining businesses around fishing seasons that last only a few months. The worst is that a large number of those businesses did so well that the fishermen running them decided they could afford to live anywhere they wanted. A fair number packed up, moved out of state, and now only return as visiting businesses for the fishing season. The Andersons are among them.

"Susan met her husband Dean, the boat captain, in Alaska in 1978, and the couple married in 1982, raising three of their four young kids in Alaska until they moved to Seattle in 1989, then Summit County in 1996,'' reports The Summit Daily. "Dean spent winters crab and cod fishing and summers salmon fishing. Susan often took the kids on up to three-month trips to Africa, Asia and Australia while Dean fished in the winters, then brought them on the boat during summers."

One of their daughters, Sierra, according to the Summit Daily story, "began documenting her family's fishing experiences after college as a way of communicating her experiences living what she considered a dual life. She and her sister grew up figure skating and ski racing, yet they both live at least a quarter of their lives in a male-dominated (fishing) world where sexual harassment is a huge problem and men don't see women as equal so (women) have to work twice as hard for the same amount of respect."

Out of this came "Hook, Line & Sisters", even though the Andersons don't fish with hooks. Dean made his money skippering seiners. Some in Alaska will remember him as the seiner who went to court when the Alaska Board of Fisheries in 2002 tried to take limited entry to its next logical step and turn the Chignik Lagoon salmon fishery into a collective. With salmon prices low at the time, the idea was to make the fishery more economically efficient.

Instead of about 100 seiners competing for fish, only about a quarter of the fleet would fish. The fishermen who fished would be reimbursed for costs, and then the profits from the season would be split among all the permit holders. Dean and fellow fisherman Michael Grunert, a couple of the highliners in the traditional fishery, sued to stop the program. They argued it wasn't fair to set up a socialist system that gave the worst fishermen as big a chunk of the earnings as the best fishermen. They lost in Superior Court, and the fishery went forward in 2002. Though only 23 boats fished, most of the permit holders got checks for $20,000 or more. Some in the Alaska fishing business thought Chignik might then become a model for other Alaska fisheries in the future.

Three years later, though, the state Supreme Court struck down the Chignik co-op as a violation of the Alaska Constitution, and commercial fishermen in Alaska went back to sometimes banging gunwales in an all-out competition for fish. Such action now appears to be one of the selling points of “Sisters” on TLC, the network that brought America "Sarah Palin's Alaska'' and is rumored to be in discussion about SPA-2.

"Sisters" is billed by TLC as "an inside look into a little explored territory -- the wild, unpredictable and competitive world of deep-sea commercial fishing. Patriarch Dean Anderson is a grizzled sea dog known for his aggressive fishing as much as his salmon hauls. As captain of the Memry Anne, he squares off against rival fisherman, hungry sharks and his own hardworking family.''

Memry Anne is the former Shady Lady, and it might have been involved in just a little too much of a square off in 2010. The Memry Anne/Shady Lady that year became the only seiner ever to be sunk -- or nearly so -- in the Sitka Sound herring fishery. The boat collided with another seiner during the fishery and later rolled over. The Coast Guard investigated, but it appears the report has yet to be completed.

The Andersons most certainly have an interesting history in the Alaska fishing business. Though Dean fought the Chignik co-op in court, he has played the system in other ways. His business -- Sierra Gale Inc. -- is reported as eligible for federal farm subsidies for salmon fishing, and daughter Sierra cashed in on that program in 2004 as did Grunert, Dean's partner in the lawsuit against Board of Fisheries tinkering with the economics of fishing. Dean himself, in the days of bad salmon prices, once advocated for what he called an "individual fishing allocation.'' His plan would have allowed for a fishing system similar to the Chignik Co-op, but with shares allotted to participants based on "one’s average historical catch for each species." 

How much of the Anderson family history "Sisters" will get into is unclear. The show premieres Thursday.

Alaska commercial salmon fishermen became eligible for federal protection against weak salmon returns in 2000 thanks to the efforts of the late Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska. "Alaska's wild salmon are now no different than a field of corn or soybeans when it comes to losses by natural causes," the Associated Press reported at the time. "Congress on Thursday approved a pilot program that will allow salmon fishermen to buy federally subsidized insurance protecting them against bad seasons."

Alaska fishermen were at the start of the new millennium struggling against low fish prices. Prices hit rock bottom in the early 2000s, and have been rebounding almost ever since. Better salmon marketing, financed in part by the state, and a shift by consumers toward healthier foods helped propel the change.

And, as the Andersons are visually demonstrating on national television, there is now also more than one way to make a buck off Alaska and Alaskan salmon.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com