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Flourishing commercial chum fishery has Kotzebue fishermen breaking out the boats

KOTZEBUE -- In an industry full of booms and busts, the Kotzebue commercial chum salmon fishery is exploding.

After decades of fluctuation, including a time when the fishery all but ceased to function, it's back this year and fishermen are slaying.

So far, about 80 permit holders -- about 69 of whom fish on a consistent basis -- have brought in 4.45 million pounds of salmon. On July 28, those fishermen brought in 534,000 pounds of fish to the fishery, 10 times more than the average of 50,000-70,000 pounds of fish that usually get caught each day.

Kotzebue fishermen are expected to make about $3 million this year, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game area biologist Jim Menard. It will mark the first time the fishery has brought in more than $1 million since 1988, and shows a dramatic shift in the power of the fishery, which almost died completely in the early 2000s. For comparison, the fishery only made $7,572 in 2002.

The reasons for the banner year are twofold. One is that it's turning out to be one of the best chum salmon runs in decades. The other is competition, with three fish buyers on the scene driving up the price per pound.

Commercial chum salmon fishing in Kotzebue, Alaska from Alaska Dispatch News on Vimeo.

A boom in the fishery has been a long time coming for area fishermen. Some let their permits lapse and gear rot as they found it was impossible to continue fishing with prices as low as 15 cents a pound. With other jobs moving into the region -- like profitable mining jobs from the nearby Red Dog mine -- people moved away from commercial fishing.

"It wasn't even worth it," said Ambler fisherman Jonas Cleveland. At 48, Cleveland has been fishing in the region since he was a child.

Cleveland is back after taking a break during the crash. He makes the trip to Kotzebue every summer, where he sets up his small fish camp on the shores of Kotzebue Sound, within short walking distance to the fish buyers.

His canvas tent is spartan. He and his partner spread out four grungy mattresses on the ground to sleep on each night. They push them out of the way during the day to do chores and prepare for evening fishing.

Cleveland now is one of fewer than a handful of people who stay camped on the shore. He said 20 years ago the area was packed with fishermen from villages across the region who would spend their summers participating in the fishery. Those slowly faded over the years.

But things are starting to look up. With the three buyers loaded with fish, the city constructed half a dozen permanent camps for the fishermen to stay in. It's just another sign that a long-term rebound for the fishery may be on the horizon.

"Everything's better," Cleveland said.

Getting it out

The Kotzebue chum salmon fishery has been around for decades, despite Alaskans' reticence to buy into chum salmon. The salmon isn't helped along by its other name -- dog salmon, since it's often fed to village dogs.

But the salmon Kotzebue setnetters were pulling in last week didn't have the unappetizing gray-green striped color they take on when they enter fresh water. The 5- to 15-pound meaty fish the fishermen were hauling in were still bright silver. They have some of the highest levels of heart-healthy omega-3s said Nate Kotch, senior vice president for Maniilaq Services LLC, one of three fish buyers on the scene this year. Kotch, a former commercial fisherman himself, said his organization has been traveling across the country to trade shows in an effort to market the salmon. He said the fish -- which are marketed under the name "keta" -- are popular in Japan and Europe.

And for the setnetters, they're what pays the bills.

Almost every evening the setnetters spread out along the Kotzebue Sound, wrapping around the small village of about 3,000 people. The openings are designed around fish run strength and how many jets are available, since the fish are shipped whole and ungutted ?to Anchorage for processing. After the short openings that usually last between four and six hours, the fishermen slowly make their way back to the north end of town. Sometimes their skiffs are so full of salmon that the rims of the boats look like they'll be overtaken by seawater.

Most of the fishermen are locals from the Northwest Arctic region, including many from Kotzebue. It's typically a family affair, with sons, daughters, nieces, nephews, parents and grandparents all participating in some way.

Some elements make this different from other Alaska commercial fisheries. Unlike the massive commercial Bristol Bay fishery, none of the fish are processed in Kotzebue. There's no heading or gutting. The fish are taken from the skiffs, loaded into crates -- either by hand or by crane -- packed in ice and shipped out on a cargo jet the next day.

That's without a doubt the biggest challenge of the fishery, according to Billie Rabang, who manages the logistics for Great Pacific Seafoods, one of the three fish buyers.

Rabang manages the operation with her husband, Cisco. They've been buying fish in Kotzebue since 2006 and for many years were the only buyer on the scene. Along with Maniilaq, the third buyer, Copper River Seafoods, is in its first year of full operation.

With almost no refrigeration available, the fish must be shipped out before the ice that it's stored in melts. Fishing openings are dependent on how many cargo planes are available.

It's a delicate balance. Too many fish and buyers will have to charter planes, driving the cost of fish up. When fishermen brought 600,000 pounds of fish in one day, it took 2 1/2 days to ship everything out and fishing was closed for a day to provide time to move the fish out without creating a backlog.

Strong runs, steep prices

Menard said the total fish count should rank this year as the fourth highest catch in the 53-year history of the fishery. Fishermen have caught more than 600,000 fish this season, only the fifth time ever that number has been reached. Fish and Game reports that chum salmon harvests at the Kiana test fishery are the highest they've ever been in 22 years of monitoring. He said it's turning out to be one of the greatest chum runs of all time.

Not only is the fishery one of the strongest in years but also the price offered is the best it's been in more than a decade. The price war was set off by competition.

One fish buyer, Maniilaq, guaranteed 40 cents per pound to its fishermen, while a price war between other buyers has seen a surge of up to 70 cents a pound for the fish some days.

The fishermen say that's exactly what they wanted. With one buyer, fishermen didn't have a lot of options. If the price of fish was low, there was little they could do to fight it.

"People were busting their nuts for peanuts," said Paul "Ding" Iyatunguk, a fisherman from Kotzebue.

Iyatunguk had fished with his dad since he was in high school. He said the low prices forced many fishermen out. With expensive fuel -- more than $6 a gallon -- attrition among fishermen started. Many of them aren't back, he said, after either letting their permits lapse or losing their gear.

But those able to get back into the fishery are doing well. The competition is what fishermen wanted, Iyatunguk said. With prices in the 40 cent range, it's worth it to go out. Even getting 30 chum salmon can mean a $300 to $400 paycheck.

Last week, Iyatunguk delivered his first 83 fish to Maniilaq, his buyer for the year. He walked away with a check for $556, then went back out to catch some more.

"You gotta get back out there," he said. "You could get slammed in no time flat."