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A western Alaska village comes to life with summer fish plant jobs and commercial dipnetting

  • Author: Lisa Demer
  • Updated: July 5, 2016
  • Published June 25, 2016

EMMONAK — At the Yukon River's fish central, the warning on the door to the buzzing office of the big boss, whom everyone calls "Jack," says "Danger. Earache Area."

It's the nerve center for Kwikpak Fisheries — a small dockside processor with an outsized role in a region where jobs are scarce, the salmon are ultra-rich, and a unique commercial dipnet fishery provides early season jobs and money.

Kwikpak operations manager Jack Schultheis is buying summer chums from, as he put it, the only commercial dipnet operation "in the world."

In Alaska at least. It's a setup intended to help rebuild crashed king salmon runs, but still allow fishing. In the Pacific Northwest, tribal fishermen dipnet from platforms in the Columbia River basin for commercial operations there.

During scheduled Yukon-area dipnet openings, residents with commercial permits from Emmonak and nearby Southwestern Alaska villages head out in open skiffs.

Some motor out of the Yukon, then along the coast toward Scammon Bay and the Black River, where they stand in water maybe a foot deep and in a good year scoop up chums "two, four at a time," said fisherman Ray Waska.

James Isidore of Alakanuk scoops up a chum salmon during a June 16 commercial dipnet opening on the Yukon River. The unusual fishery is intended to save king salmon since fishermen can shake them out of the nets unharmed. (Lisa Demer / Alaska Dispatch News)

In the wide and muscular Yukon proper, they ease their big round nets over the side, dangling them down with a rope tied from the handle to the boat frame. They ride their nets just above the river bottom, about 15 feet down, a bit higher if that's where the salmon are swimming. When a fish hits, they jerk up hard.

"Oh! You got one!" said fisherman Lorraine Murphy of Alakanuk, who has three helpers on her 22-foot flat-bottomed skiff. One commercial-permit holder can fish four dipnets at a time, usually sturdy versions of the 5-foot-round ones seen every summer on the Kenai River. Two nephews from the village and a brother who lives in Anchorage are fishing with her, but they'll only get paid if the catch is good.

The dipnet fishery, now in its fourth year, is designed to let locals in skiffs scoop up chum salmon to sell — and requires they free kings to spawn upriver. When Murphy's brother caught a big king, he shook it out of his net, a move that is both essential and counter to instinct. Yukon kings are getting smaller these day, but they still outsize summer chums that average 5 to 8 pounds.

"They are all happy to use dipnets now because it enables them to commercial fish in this way that allows the live release of chinook," said Holly Carroll, the even-keeled Alaska Department of Fish and Game summer manager for Yukon area commercial fisheries.

Happy may be a bit strong. Fishermen used to drifting with gillnets up to 300 feet long are frustrated with the still-new, less-efficient gear. But they keep at it for the chance at cash.

"We adjust," said Bernice Isidore of Alakanuk, dipnetting one day in mid-June from a skiff bearing her name.

Lorraine Murphy of Alakanuk works both as a commercial fisherwoman and as one who drifts with a gillnet twice a day for a state Fish and Game test fishery. Here she is trying for commercial chum with a dipnet attached to her skiff by rope on June 17. Fishing was slow that day, with only three in her fish box, but she caught 90 the next day. (Lisa Demer / Alaska Dispatch News)

State biologists are predicting a strong Yukon chum run. By June 15, some 50,000 chums had been caught, five times the number at that point last year, Kwikpak manager Schultheis said. Village residents believe the cherished king run is coming back too, although state biologists still are predicting a below-average year.

"The king restrictions have been really tight these last few years, and this year, they are tight again," Carroll said.

To the relief of locals, fishing is finally opening up on the Yukon.Commercial chum _Yukon

60 cents a pound

Just over 800 year-round residents live in Emmonak, 490 miles from Anchorage and 10 miles from the Bering Sea. The village name is the Yup'ik word for the blackfish — a prime food source for dog teams in the days before four-wheelers and snowmachines. So were chum, also known as dog salmon.

With no paved roads, sunny summer days bring dust clouds and rainy ones make streets into mud pits. Four-wheelers deliver elders to the community hall for bingo. At Emmonak Family Restaurant, kids hang out at the pool tables and the most popular item is the mushroom cheeseburger, $13 with fries.

Kwikpak Fisheries is part of Yukon Delta Fisheries Development Association, which considers the processing company to be its in-region investment. At this point, it's not a moneymaker. The association is one of six Alaska nonprofits established under federal law to promote development in remote Western Alaska communities by guaranteeing a share of lucrative pollock, halibut and crab fisheries. Those high-seas fisheries generate the money to invest.

Benny Takumjenak of Russian Mission pushes racks of frozen whole salmon on June 18 from the freezer to the packing area of the Kwikpak Fisheries plant in Emmonak. (Lisa Demer / Alaska Dispatch News)

Four months of the year, during summer and fall chum runs and into the season for coho and Bering cisco whitefish, the Kwikpak district at the edge of town erupts with fish processing on an industrial scale. The company name is both descriptive and from the region. Some elders say it means great river, or the river that provides. Nowadays, some just consider it the name for a channel of the Yukon.

A fire in March took out five buildings including those housing a separate boat- making business, the Kwikpak office, a caviar processing room and two bunkhouses. Locals say Kwikpak acted fast to shift operations around, barge in modular buildings and open in time for the first fishing on June 7.

By mid-June its compound was a cacophony of forklifts beeping and young men pushing and pulling giant totes of iced salmon, cranes hefting fish from tenders and vacuum sealers preserving fillets for high-end markets.

Between the direct jobs, fishing income and other spending, Kwikpak contributes some $10 million a year to the regional economy, Schultheis said.

State managers have prohibited targeted commercial fishing for Yukon kings since 2008. Fishermen could sell those caught incidentally during the chum runs — after most kings have passed — until 2011. Since then, any king salmon caught during commercial openings are just kept for subsistence.

The plant and its offshoots employ 250-plus people in season, and 95 percent of them are from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, Schultheis said. People from villages in the region and beyond work the head-and-gut barge, the fillet room, the packing center and the freezers. Dozens more teens work in a youth employment program.

Another 500 or so work as fishermen selling their catch to Kwikpak for 60 cents a pound. The company then sells headed and gutted fish for $2 a pound wholesale. Packaged fillets – with even the pinbones out — are spendier.

Pauline Ashepak, originally from Mountain Village, stacks vacuum-sealed fillets at the Kwikpak Fisheries plant in Emmonak. She works as assistant to the fillet room supervisor and is in her fifth summer at the plant. (Lisa Demer / Alaska Dispatch News)

Kwikpak markets the fish as "wild Yukon River salmon" or sometimes "keta" from the scientific name for chum, which sounds less appealing. The fishery is certified as sustainable, and Kwikpak stresses Alaska Native crews from the region are catching the fish.

It's the biggest Alaska Native commercial fleet in the state, according to the company. But when gear is restricted to dipnets, only about 200 fish commercially.

Philip Charlie, 31, operates a Kwikpak support skiff that travels the river bringing supplies to tenders and satellite fish stations. He starts at 9 a.m. and often works until 11 p.m. or after.

"I get to see everything," he said.

Charlie, originally from the small village of Nunam Iqua, said he is using his pay for the house he is building.

His deckhand, Dwayne Johnson, is 26 and originally from Quinhagak. His childhood was as rough as it gets. His mother was killed when he was 7. He dropped out of his school when he was 17 to care for his dad, who died of cancer.

Johnson enjoys the job and the money at Kwikpak but is thinking about leaving the village for one more immersed in Yup'ik language and culture, for his kids.

The Southwestern Alaska village of Emmonak is seen from the air on June 16. The village, 10 miles from the Bering Sea, is on the north bank of Kwiguk Pass, off the main Yukon River.

Housing is scarce in Emmonak. One Kwikpak forklift operator lives in a two-bedroom house with 11 other people. Johnson fixed up a place for his family but, while the village has long had running water, the pipes to the old home are in disrepair so they use honey buckets and he packs water. Collected driftwood heats the home in winter. The couple have three children with a fourth due this August.

"I want them to be happy, to have the things I didn't have," Johnson says.

Jobs may blunt some of the social ills, the drinking, despair and poverty that plague a region struggling to hold onto traditions in a modern world, Schultheis said.

Schultheis, who is from Pittsburgh, started his fish career as a janitor in an Anchorage plant that closed long ago. He's been coming to Emmonak on fish business since 1974 and running Kwikpak since 2007.

Deep water allows ocean barges to dock there, but the remoteness creates challenges.

"I can ship a container from here to London, England, but if I want to go to a doctor, it's $600 roundtrip to Bethel," Schultheis said.

A joking sign on the door to the trailer office of Jack Schultheis, operations manager of Kwikpak Fisheries, describes the demands of the job. (Lisa Demer / Alaska Dispatch News)

Fishermen, plant supervisors and other employees are in and out of his office all day. When a 19-year-old fishermen shows up to get gas and motor oil on credit, Schultheis signs the voucher. He deciphers fish tickets written by tender crews at 3 a.m. He deals with crane inspectors and freezer operators. After bad weather prevents a cargo plane from landing, he arranges for fresh Yukon chum salmon to be stored.

Next door at the fish plant, dozens of workers fillet, trim, debone and package chums with the help of Norwegian machinery. The room smells good, like the ocean and fresh fish.

"The smell of money," Schultheis said.

Go for fish or whale

Plant workers come from nearby Kotlik, Nunam Iqua and Alakanuk as well as Emmonak –- all part of the Yukon Fisheries association's service area — but also from other villages such as St. Mary's and Russian Mission up the Yukon and Kuskokwim River villages including Akiachak and Tuluksak. Some are from Hooper Bay, Scammon Bay and Chevak, in an area that is supposed to be covered by another of the six high-seas community development associations.

They start work at 9 a.m. and go as late as 11 p.m. seven days a week. Some quit as soon as they get a paycheck or two. But many last the four-month season, making $15,000 to $20,000, Schultheis said. Those who do get bonuses — including reimbursement for room and board that can add up to as much as $3,000 for the summer.

The dueling phones never stop ringing and dinging in the office of Jack Schultheis, Kwikpak Fisheries operations manager. He oversees a fish plant and operations based in Emmonak. (Lisa Demer / Alaska Dispatch News)

Many workers live in bunkhouses on site where cooks prepare three meals a day. Dinner one recent night included mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, corn and sockeye salmon — fishermen catch a few but they aren't processed for commercial sale.

At the Kwikpak store, built of logs harvested on the river and locally milled, fishermen buy dipnets and raincoats, boat batteries and marine radios, bags of chips and cases of soda.

Store worker Margaret Redfox was debating whether to commercial fish. If the weather cleared, maybe she would take her 13-year-old son, Rile, out to hunt beluga whale instead.

For her, there is only one way to prepare the first chum of the year: Over an open fire.

On the river

Alaska fishermen provide the first link in a Yukon wild salmon supply chain that ends in Japan, Europe and fancy U.S. stores. Yukon salmon, with a longer migration path than any salmon in the world, are particularly fatty, almost buttery tasting. Their Omega 3 fatty acid content is so high, one serving of Yukon chum is the same as 10 fish oil capsules, according to a nutritional study done for Kwikpak.

Early Yukon chinook spawn in Canada, a river journey of about 2,000 miles, and the United States has signed a treaty with Canada to get at least 42,500 of them across the border. Alaskans can't catch Yukon kings during the run's first pulse, under a state Board of Fisheries directive.

Hence: the dipnets.

On a couple of afternoons in mid-June, few salmon were hitting dipnets in the lower Yukon River but some fishermen were still trying.

"It can be thrilling," said David Carl of Mountain Village, fishing with his 8-year-old son, Patrick. "It's a lot of work, though."

A tote of headed and cleaned fish is ready for further processing at Kwikpak Fisheries in Emmonak. (Lisa Demer / Alaska Dispatch News)

He'd rather be fishing with his more effective gillnet. The other day, he lost a dipnet, which cost $165 plus $24 for webbing. "It's life. You gotta live it."

Earlier in the week, chums were slamming nets at a crazy pace.

Jennifer Kameroff, fishing with her husband, Robert, and 13-year-old son, who is the permit holder, said the family caught more than 180 chum one day and 230 the next.

Waska, a Yukon commercial fisherman, also works full-time as the Emmonak school maintenance director. He said he made $8,000 to $10,000 a season for fishing in recent years, a fraction of what it was when kings were targeted. Maybe half that comes from dipnetting, he said. Some luckier fishermen do better, he said. His supervisor lets him take time off to fish but this year, with fishing slow, it's not paying off, he said.

"I am losing both ways," he said.

Murphy, the Alakanuk fisherman, also runs one of Fish and Game's test fishery sites, which requires two trips to Emmonak a day. She's fished commercially since 1995, as her father did before her. One recent opening, she caught only a few fish, not enough to bother selling. But the next day her crew caught 90.

"No one is getting rich off it," said Carroll, the state's Yukon manager. The fishermen mainly go out commercially to earn a bit of cash to cover gas so they can hunt and fish for their families, she said.

Carroll tracks fish progress through a sonar counter at Pilot Station, 123 miles from the Yukon mouth, as well as the test fisheries in which crews put out nets to gauge the size and timing of the runs. The fish they catch are given away.

Some village residents now line up on their four-wheelers at the Fish and Game dock, waiting to collect from the test fishery for their drying racks, smokehouses and freezers. Most can no longer fish for themselves. Only elders and disabled residents are supposed to get kings, distributed by the tribal council. Kwikpak delivers some of the fish to villages as far away as St. Mary's, about 50 miles from Emmonak.

Managers with the state Department of Fish and Game use data from test fisheries and sonar counts to plot salmon migration on a map in the agency’s Emmonak office. (Lisa Demer / Alaska Dispatch News)

Carroll marks a map with sticky notes to designate when each phase of fish arrives — pink for king, yellow for chum. She watches for when the first pulse of kings has gone by, so locals can put away dipnets and drift with long gillnets running alongside skiffs, which is more efficient.

Where are the kings now, she was asked June 21 at a regular Tuesday teleconference that includes Alaska village residents and Canadian fishery officials.

"The first fish should be right near the border, reaching Eagle soon," said Carroll, who works out of Emmonak for part of the summer.

This year, Fish and Game designated separate subsistence and commercial dipnet openings, to ensure locals who only fish for themselves get a shot at the best spots.

Some residents say elders should get to use gillnets early on, even if just for a brief spell, because dipnets are so hard to maneuver.

"I can't allocate. I can't do that," Carroll said later of the special request for elders.

Last week, when Fish and Game was sure that first pulse of king salmon had cleared the lower river, managers opened up those stretches to periods of subsistence fishing by gillnet. Residents could keep any kings, too. They couldn't use the wide-mesh nets that target chinook, but some still managed to fill a tote or two with salmon.

By Friday, managers were confident two pulses of kings were out of the lower river. The Yukon River sonar project at Pilot Station had counted about 109,000 king salmon and 868,000 summer chums. That's far more kings than they'd counted last year at this time, and close to the 2014 number— a year when the total of 164,000 past Pilot Station was the highest since 2009.

Kwikpak Fisheries occupies a large stretch of waterfront in Emmonak, as seen on June 16, 2016. (Lisa Demer / Alaska Dispatch News)

Fish and Game then decided to let commercial chum fishermen in the lower river use gillnets for short windows, starting on Saturday. They could keep kings, too, for themselves.

It's the earliest time for 6-inch gillnets in three years, Carroll said.

With the sun still up after midnight in mid-June, a fisherman delivered his catch to a tender parked by the Kwikpak compound in Emmonak. A family on a small dock caught a few whitefish with hooked strings on sticks. A forklift operator maneuvered giant boxes of frozen fish into a freezer container.

‘Squeegee this floor’

One recent evening in Emmonak, John Lamont, former superintendent of the Lower Yukon School District, escorted a group of teens to a big yellow skiff that functions like a water bus, hauling as many as 15 workers at a time to and from the nearby village of Alakanuk. Boat driver Diane Agayar says she makes the 8-mile river journey eight to 10 times a day, with both adults and teens on board.

Lamont, whose early years were at a remote homestead near Emmonak until he was sent to boarding school at age 7, is newly hired to recharge the Kwikpak youth employment program, or YEP.

"I'm trying to energize the program," said Lamont, who hopes to keep it running year-round to help village kids — and their parents — establish more structure in their lives.

Davis Hootch, 17, left, and Jacob Kameroff, 18, begin to separate roe from the membrane sacks on June 17 in the Kwikpak Fisheries caviar-making room in Emmonak as it starts up for the first time this season. Rachel Phillip, 19, back left, and Thomas Oktoyak, 17, are looking on. (Lisa Demer / Alaska Dispatch News)

Teens from ages 14 to 17 make $10 an hour doing about any job that doesn't involve knives or heavy machinery. Young teens with strict  limits on their hours answer phones, work in the store and break rooms, and clean bunkhouses. Older ones build boxes, pack fish and make caviar. The program requires a lot of supervision of kids and costs money to run; grants help some years.

"They call me Egg Man Junior," said Travis Isidore, 21, who started making caviar about six years ago as a Yepper.

Isidore, who was raised in Alakanuk, was running what they call the Roe House under the watch of caviarmaker Jim Friedman, who supervises the process for Kwikpak.

Friedman and Isidore showed the teens how to rub eggs through screens to separate them, drain them on racks, agitate them in a saltwater bath, then air-cure them before freezing.

"Someone squeegee this floor!" Friedman ordered every now and again.

Friedman's Roe House is a training ground for better-paying fish jobs.

"It ain't like where you and I grew up where you can work at McDonald's or cut your neighbor's grass," Schultheis said of the youth employment program. "We started this because so many of these kids got in trouble out here."

Kings as life

The very psyche of people on the Yukon, molded from centuries of subsistence, may be subtly shifting from years of fishing closures and gear restrictions.

"The fish is part of our life. It is connected to us," said Martin Moore, Emmonak's longtime city manager and a tribal member there.

Lenora “Lynn” Hootch checks strips in her smokehouse in the Southwestern village of Emmonak. She’s been frustrated by state fishing restrictions but got some early chums from the state test fishery. Her family of five children and 10 grandchildren need 200 fish to get through the winter. (Lisa Demer / Alaska Dispatch News)

Lenora "Lynn" Hootch, executive director of the Yup'ik Women's Coalition advocacy group, checked strips from test fishery chums in her smokehouse. She is hoping for 200 salmon for her family of five children and 10 grandchildren and is frustrated by restrictions.

"Fishing is being railroaded by the state," she said.

A fishing shutdown, Hootch said, is like the rest of the country being told not to eat beef. Or as she says it, in the vernacular for harvesting wild game: "Don't catch any more cows."

Gradually, as the king salmon runs rebuild, residents may be able to subsistence fish all summer on the Yukon, though net sizes probably will remain limited, Carroll said.

"There could be a day when we could (go) back to letting people subsistence fish without such harsh restrictions," Carroll said. "Like how it used to be. Just fish. Get what you need."

One recent afternoon, the extended family of Billy Charles, a tribal leader who used to serve as Yukon Delta Fisheries Association chairman, prepared to head out from Emmonak to fish. Charles uses a beach seine — a net maneuvered from shore that also has become legal gear during times of king salmon protection.

He watched his son, Isaiah, drive a four-wheeler over a makeshift ramp onto a skiff to haul to their fishing site.

"We can adopt new ways," Charles said. "But we can't adapt to not eating king salmon."

Note: The original version of this story was changed to include a reference to tribal dipnet fisheries in the Pacific Northwest. 

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