Sustained by the sea: Cordova’s new generation of fishermen

SPONSORED: Prince William Sound salmon keep fishing families, and the Alaska communities where they live, afloat.

In 1949 Trae Lohse's grandfather moved to Alaska, making his way to the tiny Southcentral seaside town of Cordova, tucked between the base of the Chugach National Forest in the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west. He laid down roots in the tight-knit fishing community where residents come and go by boat or plane, raised his family and made a career of fishing the Copper River and Prince William Sound for one of the state's most prized possessions—salmon.

Lohse's father, uncles, brothers and sister commercial fish. From one generation to the next, his family has relied on this wild and purely Alaska resource like so many of the families making their livelihoods on the edge of Prince William Sound.

"It's certainly a family business you could say," said 27-year-old Lohse. "I pretty much fished with my dad my whole life, also with my uncles, set netting when I was younger and the same with my brothers. There was a lot of experience and a lot of knowledge … I guess [fishing] was always a focal point of my family."

In the winter, instead of flying south, Lohse and his family hunkered down near the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park area while he was young. His father still heads that way after the commercial fishing season ends in the Sound. Appreciating nature is inherent for Lohse as he learned from a young age to live off the land and sea. He recognizes the important role that sustainability plays in maintaining the fishery that supports his livelihood and lifestyle.

Many of the younger fishermen in Alaska's commercial fleet, like Lohse, plan to fish for as long as they can. He says his 75-year-old father still charts the waters of the Sound, earning his catch—although he's slowed down a bit in recent years.

As his father's generation of fishermen head into retirement, Lohse and his fellow gillnetters look toward the future of the resource that raised them. They rely on the sustainable management of their fishery through the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG), and the many other industry groups and government organizations across the state, who work together to protect and maintain Alaska's fish—ensuring the return of the salmon stocks each spring.

"Salmon is truly our currency," said Tracey Nuzzi, who's in her sixth season commercial fishing. She came to Cordova with her husband nine years ago to visit her uncle who was a commercial fisherman. They never left. She and her husband fell in love with the boats and the small-town lifestyle that Cordova offered. She worked her way through the ranks as a crew member aboard commercial boats, saving what she earned to buy a boat and permit of her own.

"We have long lining, so a little bit of halibut and a little bit of black cod and we're just getting some test fisheries going for crab and shrimp," said Nuzzi. "But it's not really what our town depends on."

Salmon is the proverbial bread and butter that not only feeds Cordova's small-town economy—but contributes to a much larger economic revenue that helps support Alaska's economy. The effects of the billion dollar commercial industry reverberate throughout the state, although the industry often quietly takes a backseat to other statewide resource industries like oil, gas and mining.

Alaska's commercial fishing industry is the second largest basic-sector industry as far as job creation, employing nearly 27,000 local residents and bringing in $129 million of in-state local tax revenue. In addition to the income commercial fishermen reinvest in the communities where they live, Alaska's fishing industry, which includes, commercial fishing, processors, hatcheries and management, as well as jobs and labor income, generates a total of $5.9 billion of economic activity within the state, according to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI) December 2015 report. But this billion dollar industry, stretching from Southeast Alaska to Bristol Bay and the Bering Sea, with fisheries that produce the biggest salmon runs in the world, hinges on one key factor—sustainability.

In-season management

"Alaska fisheries management is kind of held up as the gold standard globally. And if you look at the fisheries across the world many are depleted, overfished and in poor status," said Bert Lewis, the regional manager for ADFG.  "And in Alaska, we have been lucky to maintain healthy stocks—especially salmon." Lewis is an Idaho transplant and started working for ADFG in 2001. He's spent the majority of his career in Cordova—getting to know the people and the resource the community depends on but recently moved to Anchorage where he's continued his work in fisheries management.

At statehood, Lewis explained, a sustainability mandate was written into the constitution—which is unique only to Alaska—no other state has this type of language written into their constitution. But this language, mandating that the state's fisheries be developed, maintained and create a sustainable yield, has made all the difference between a profitable commercial fishing industry for the past 58 years and one that could have easily been overfished and depleted.

From this constitutional sustainability mandate came the key to Alaska's ability to maintain and support a successful commercial fishing industry, according to Lewis.

"What Alaska has done differently is it has pioneered escapement-based, in-season management," Lewis said. "And that's for salmon specifically." The technique was developed out of research from a partnership between the Bristol Bay fishery and the University of Washington Fisheries Research Institute. Much of the scientific knowledge and understanding of the salmon lifecycle came from this research, Lewis said, and that data from Bristol Bay salmon runs allowed fisheries biologists to develop predictive models on salmon returns. Those models spurred the concept of in-season escapement management—a method that has proven to be effective in maintaining wild fisheries and is used statewide as a management program.

"In many fisheries, a harvest level is set prior to the season and that is taken regardless of what is going on," said Lewis. "What in-season management does is react to the scale of the returns to ensure sustainable populations." In-season salmon monitoring, as runs are happening make sure enough salmon are allowed to head upstream in their natal rivers and streams to spawn. What's left is the "harvestable surplus." This monitored seasonal harvest is what sustains fishermen like Lohse and Nuzzi.

Careful management allows commercial fishermen in Cordova and across the state to return to their fishing grounds every summer. Fishermen hope that continued management will allow the next generations to do the same.

"Without fish, I don't really think our town would exist," said Nuzzi. She and her husband now have an 18-month old baby who's getting his sea legs early as she often straps him to her back while she's picking fish. "I think, probably more so than anybody, that fisherman are looking 50 years down the road because I want to have my grandkids doing this—and I see that with a lot of my mentors."

Looking toward the future

Lohse and Nuzzi are up and coming fishermen in the industry and admit they still have a lot to learn, but they are passionate about what they do. They work long, 12-hour days at the season opener in early May. By mid-season, they're working 24-hour days. In the winters they work to repair nets and boats, replacing equipment that's broken or worn during the intense summer season. Even with the hard labor and long hours, they believe they have the greatest jobs in the world and thrive on the thrill of catching the ocean's bounty.

Cordova is now home for both Lohse and Nuzzi, but they recognize they are part of something much bigger than the Copper River and Prince William Sound fishery they know and love. Not only are they providing healthy, nutritious, protein-rich food for Alaskans and people worldwide—they are part of an age-old ecosystem that has thrived despite the challenges of our modern era—overfishing and depletion of natural resources. They feel a soulful connection to the fish that provide their livelihoods and they take pride in knowing that their job may be simple, but there's something noble in providing people with a food that is wild and sustainably caught.

"It's just a beautiful place and it's a resource that comes back every year—and I guess I like being a part of the community and culture," said Lohse. "This last opener I fished all night—watched the sun go down and then, an hour or two later, watched the sun rise—and I don't know, it's just beautiful, the place we call home, and I get to make my living outside, in that place."

This article was produced by the creative services department of Alaska Dispatch News in collaboration with Copper River/Prince William Sound Marketing Association. Contact the editor, Jamie Gonzales, at The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.