Business/Economy

No longer making a living in Cook Inlet, young commercial fishermen head to Bristol Bay

This story was originally published by KDLL in Kenai and Alaska Public Media, and is republished here with permission.

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The F/V Nedra E is smaller than the other boats bobbing at the dock in Naknek in Southwest Alaska.

Thor Evenson didn’t have Bristol Bay in mind when he designed the boat for his parents, Nikiski homesteaders Jim and Nedra Evenson. Until last year, the Nedra E had been a Cook Inlet boat, captained by Jim, then his nephew, and now his grandson, 32-year-old Taylor Evenson.

Taylor Evenson said he grew up hearing about the heyday of Cook Inlet fishing from his dad and his friends.

“And just getting up in the morning every day and hearing their voices on the radio, voices I grew up with from the first time I was on the boat, I was 3 months old,” he said. “And particularly hearing my dad’s voice, going out and fishing with my dad … that’s why I never left the Inlet, even though I always knew what was coming.”

What came was a drop in salmon runs and a change in how fishing is managed in Cook Inlet.

The Inlet’s salmon fishery, once an economic engine for Kenai, is no longer lucrative. Many fishermen with deep ties to the Inlet are retiring or moving elsewhere because they can longer make a living.

[Last chance? Cook Inlet setnetters look to buyback as a way to save the fishery]

Evenson said his breaking point came last year. He couldn’t pull off fishing in Cook Inlet any longer.

So, with the help of the boat’s original builder, Kevin Morin of Kasilof, he gutted everything behind the cabin, chopped several inches off bow and stern, and installed a brand new deck, to bring the Nedra E in line with Bristol Bay standards.

Now, he said, it’s time to make his own glory days.

“And this is the only place really to do that, if it was going to be gillnetting in Alaska,” he said.

The ‘Super Bowl” of fishing

On a sunny day in mid-July, the crew of the Nedra E was casting what must be their 500th set this season. Their hands were sore from picking so many salmon off the net, sometimes as much as 28,000 pounds in 24 hours.

Deckhand Riley Randleas, of Soldotna, 22, had never seen anything like it.

“You’re living off of naps and you never catch a break, ever,” he said. “Time just means nothing, at that point.”

He said it’s the Super Bowl of fishing — something you can’t get in Cook Inlet anymore.

Scientists haven’t been able to nail down one reason for the change in the inlet’s run. The fishery has become fraught with politics, as conflict between managers and user groups builds.

Meanwhile, business has dropped off in the Inlet too. Thirty years ago, an average salmon drift permit for the Cook Inlet fishery was worth over $200,000. Last year, it was worth just $25,000, according to the Alaska Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission.

Why the Evensons fished

But fishing Cook Inlet has never been just about money for the Evensons.

Jim and Nedra, who both died in the last year, started fishing the Inlet when they moved to Kenai in 1955. Jim was the first president of the local drift association and he and his son are well-known Kenai artists who’ve made fishing a large theme in their work.

Taylor Evenson said he’s heartbroken to leave his family’s fishing heritage behind. But he’d be heartbroken to stay, too.

“As far as me moving west here, it’s what I have to do to make a living, what I have to do to feel good about fishing because I would stop,” he said. “It’s too depressing to fish in Kenai. It is depressing.”

[Cook Inlet setnetters feel pain of early closure as sockeye salmon continue pouring in]

It’s night and day from the energetic Bristol Bay, which is shattering salmon records. It hit its largest sockeye run on record this season — almost 66 million fish so far.

“You come out here, and everyone’s young, everyone’s youthful, everyone’s happy, everyone’s spending money,” Evenson said. “It’s palatable, 100 percent.”

Making money, finally

There’s an exhausted exuberance about the fishermen in Naknek as they dock for one of the last times this season, flush with fish.

For a group of Cook Inlet fishermen gathered at a local bar, there’s also wistfulness in the mix.

William Olsen lives in Washington and fished Cook Inlet on his own permit for almost two decades.

He said he saw some of the fishery’s greatest years. It was fun to be a Cook Inlet fisherman: He remembers docking with friends at night and going into town to see Hobo Jim perform.

“When I was a deckhand for eight years, we saw the best of times,” he said. “And we thought there was going to be more of that.”

But that boom didn’t last. And three years ago, Olsen and his son bought into Bristol Bay.

“It was the first time we made money in Alaska fishing, finally,” he said.

It was hard on his uncle, who also fished the inlet for four decades.

“He really didn’t want to see me come over to Bristol Bay,” Olsen said. “He had a real deep love for Cook Inlet. And when I told him I was going to the bay, he was almost a little disappointed in me. And when I came back that first year and told him how we did, he changed his mind. And he knew it was a business decision.”

I want them to be children of fishermen

Those incredible catches make it hard for Georgie Heaverley, of Nikiski, to imagine only fishing Cook Inlet again. After almost three weeks deckhanding on the Nedra E, the 33-year-old fisherman flew back to Anchorage with a suitcase of dirty fishing clothes and a new perspective.

“This season, and seeing what Bristol Bay is about, and seeing what fishing actually looks like … I just don’t see how I could not be in Bristol Bay,” she said.

This was Heaverley’s first season without her dad since becoming a commercial fisherman. She and Evenson talked about their dads when they were on the boat.

“This is what he used to see when he fished,” she said. “He used to see fish hit the net like this. He used to fish like this. Like, dad saw this.”

Heaverley resisted heading to Bristol Bay for a while. She didn’t want to leave family behind, and between the permits and boat upgrades, she knew it would take a lot of investment to change over.

But last year in Cook Inlet was so bad it put a strain on her relationship with her dad. She felt it was time to follow other young fishermen west.

“And I will have children some day and I want them to be the children of fishermen,” she said. “And how do we do that? We come to Bristol Bay. Because that’s all that’s left. And I wish that we could be fishermen in Cook Inlet. Because that is home. But we just can’t.”

Overcoming the fish wars

Still, she wants to fight for the fishing in Cook Inlet. It’s been a bitter one, through court cases and Board of Fish battles, with user group pitted against user group, each scrabbling for a slice of the resource.

Evenson said an us-versus-them mentality is partially what’s led to the decline of the Cook Inlet fishery — and local commercial fishing lifestyle.

“I think that our generation, people like Georgie and I, who have grown up in the heart of the fish wars … have seen that it’s to the detriment of everyone,” he said. “And, really, it’s to the detriment of the resource. That’s what it ultimately comes down to, in this whole thing.”

Both Evenson and Heaverley said they want the new generation to build bridges between user groups to find a better balance. Evenson is part of a group of Salmon Fellows through the Alaska Humanities Forum. Heaverley tunes into state fisheries policy and advocates for younger fishermen to join the conversation, too.

She’s also a poet. Her poem, “The One Cent Man,” is about Cook Inlet. She wrote it from the boat at the end of last year’s season.

“And there’s that one verse, and it sums it up,” she said. “It’s: ‘And now the children migrate west/ to waters rich with gold/the nets they cast, now fill up fast/ Boats and permits sold.”

She’s considering buying into the bay, too, she said. But she’s not quite ready to give up on Cook Inlet. Not yet.

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