Sponsored Content

Sustained by the sea: Understanding Alaska’s commercial fishing long game

It was the fall of 1985, the weather was fair in Prince William Sound and 25-year-old Cordova fisherman, Bill Lindow, was gearing up for a typical silver salmon season. He and the rest of the commercial fleet were business as usual—motoring out of the harbor the morning of the opener, expecting a standard day on the Sound. They didn't yet know that the 1985 silver salmon season would be anything but standard—it was one for the history books.

The fleet's epic harvest would go on record as the largest of the decade, with 2.9 million fish caught, according to a 1985 Alaska Department of Fish & Game, Prince William Sound Area, Annual Finfish Management Report. That salmon harvest, according to the report, was "one of the most valuable for the fishermen since the inception of the commercial fishery." Lindow remembers fishermen, tenders and processors scrambling to keep up with the unusually high volume of fish, working extra-long hours to process the catch.

"You're just so amazed at this natural system that can be so incredibly productive," said Lindow, now in his late 50s. "It's just such a beautiful thing."

Lindow was born and raised in Anchorage with his five brothers. His father, a carpenter, stepped into commercial fishing later in life, introducing Lindow to the Cook Inlet fishery, eventually helping him into the industry. In his 20s, he purchased a permit for the Prince William Sound and Copper River fisheries and his father and brothers helped build his first boat. He's been fishing ever since.

Lindow's seen everything when it comes to commercial fishing, ridden the ebb and flow of the industry, but the silver season of fall '85 has forever been imprinted in his memory.

The turn of the century: All aboard!

Like many rural towns in Alaska, Cordova was built on the backbone of the mining industry around the turn of the century. The discovery of gold, copper and coal created a scramble to build a railroad connecting Alaska's interior to the coast. Railroads popped up, fueled by "old money" from back East, with names like Guggenheim/Morgan attached to projects. A battle to build a Cordova townsite waged between several interested parties hoping to entice railroad entrepreneurs. Cordova was officially incorporated in 1909, with a railroad terminus to transport mining goods.

Throughout the 20th century, Cordova's railroad played a major role in the town's business and commerce, providing jobs for the year-round residents until World War II shuttered operations. It was then that commercial fishing emerged as an industry. Canneries and processors sprung up. The small seaside community shed its railroad roots and officially entered the age of commercial fishing.

Statehood and the commercial fishery

Alaska's commercial fishing industry began in the 1800s, along with the fur and trapping trade, woven into the fabric of Alaska's people, culture and commerce. However, it wasn't until statehood that early lawmakers really made the push to regulate the industry, which had been fished to brink of depletion. There was a battle to bring Alaska's fisheries under state jurisdiction. Commercial fishing had, until then, been under federal management. Eventually the lawmakers won their case for creating a state-run management system and when constructing the newly minted state's constitution, purposefully wrote in the sustainability mandate. This mandate ensures Alaska's fisheries will remain wild, profitable and sustainable.

The amazing 80s, the big spill and the rise of farmed salmon

Following the epic harvest of fall 1985, young fishermen were buying into fisheries and making substantial profits. New fisherman Thea Thomas jumped into the Prince William Sound, Copper River fishery in 1987. She remembers the salmon season of 1988 providing the highest market value prices for pink and sockeye ever seen. Fishermen were making $1 a pound for pinks and $3.50 for sockeye. Suddenly commercial fishing permits for Prince William Sound and Copper River skyrocketed from $60,000 to $160,000. Many young fishermen eagerly bought permits, expecting it to be a lucrative investment.

"It had to do with the fact that salmon was beginning to reach the domestic market and the Asian market, and it was before farmed salmon," Thomas said.

Then came the spring of 1989. The now infamous Exxon Valdez oil spill wreaked havoc on the pristine, fragile ecosystem of Prince William Sound. And in 1990, farmed salmon made its debut in U.S. markets, effectively crushing the competition and driving down the value of wild salmon.

Many fishermen and families who'd newly bought into the fishery in 1988 were forced into bankruptcy. Those who managed to survive the spill were in for some rough waters.

Lindow and Thomas, like many Cordova fishermen of their generation, forged on, returning to their fishery. They hoped to move past the spill and waited for the market to swing back in their favor.

(Produced by Video Dads for Copper River/Prince William Sound Marketing Association)

Diversification, marketing and the demand for wild salmon

While the 90s weren't all bad for Alaska's fishermen, it wasn't until the mid 2000s that the prices for wild salmon started to return to profitable levels.

"From 2001 to probably about 2004, we refer to that as the 'salmon value crisis,' because prices went really low—and in some areas the harvest fell and the price fell significantly," said Andy Wink, seafood economist with the McDowell Group. "At that time, farmed salmon was making really big inroads into the U.S. market and the value of the dollar was really strong."

He explained a strong dollar in the fishing industry is bad—it means Alaska salmon is more expensive in the U.S. market and it's harder to fetch a good price. In the 2000s, farmed salmon was more affordable on the open market and Alaska's commercial fishing industry had yet to diversify their products. Wink said much of the pink and sockeye salmon caught in the state—even into the mid-2000s was canned. But, with help from the late Sen. Ted Stevens and the creation of a grant program, the state was able to start investing and diversifying the commercial fishing industry's portfolio, offering new products into the market.

And, according to Wink, the marketing just got better.

"Copper River has been filling the U.S. market for a long time, so they're a little bit unique—and they helped pave the way for that [marketing]," said Wink. "They got people excited about Alaska sockeye—the Copper River kind of became a brand."

For Lindow and Thomas—fishermen who weathered the storms of the spill, market fluctuations in the 90s and mid-2000s—their persistence and patience were rewarded. From 2012-2014, good harvests and a better market provided a chance to enjoy the fruits of their hard labor.

Taking it easy—easier…

Lindow and Thomas are closer to retirement than the new fleet of young fishermen who have cropped up in the last decade or so. The two fishermen grew up together—spending their youth fishing the waters off the Sound and the Copper River flats and still love the work they do. They've been connected to the water, the salmon cycle and the community almost their entire lives, and although they both claim they're slowing down, Thomas says, "Bill still fishes like he's 25."

She's happy though to watch the new generation move in and carry on the fleet's legacy. For her, the recent seasons brought a boost to her personal revenue and she built a vacation home in Mexico and has been enjoying hobbies like birding and hiking in the summer and skiing and ice skating in the winter.

Lindow, in the off-season, enjoys skiing. Like Thomas, he takes advantage of what he describes as "world class" ice skating. He also has a shop he likes to work in.

"I'm kind of a tinkerer guy. I do repairs on vehicles, I have a garage and I fix things that are broke—and there's usually plenty of that," said Lindow.

But neither of them are ready to hang up their nets quite yet.

"I just had an opener on Monday and it was just—so beautiful," said Thomas. "Just at night, all the stars and the moon coming out—I mean, I'm at work—and it still amazes me, just how extraordinary it is to be out there. I just still really love it."

"Sustained by the sea" is a 6-part sponsored story series that details the lives of  Prince William Sound fishermen and the economic impact of sustainable commercial fishing in their hometown of Cordova, Alaska. Read Story #1. Read Story #2.

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 jgonzales@alaskadispatch.com. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.