SPONSORED: Tucked into the shoreline at the base of Eyak Mountain on Orca Inlet in southeastern Prince William Sound, Cordova is one of the 165 Alaska communities that can be reached only by plane or boat. It has a swimming pool, a ski area, a library, an active community arts group.
And for five months every year, it transforms into a 'round-the-clock seafood powerhouse.
Even in a state where 1 in 45 residents is employed as a commercial fisherman, Cordova stands out. The town has a little more than 1,700 adult residents, according to the Alaska Department of Commerce, and 297 of them are salmon permit holders.
For the fishing families of Cordova, the year is a study in contrasts, but there's one constant at the heart of everything that goes on in the community: Cordova runs on salmon.
A summertime boomtown
When Bill Lindow started fishing out of Cordova more than 30 years ago, he didn't know a soul. All his family and friends were in Anchorage, where he spent his winters. Gradually, though, the Lindow family built connections in Cordova, and moving back and forth each year became something of a chore.
"When my son started first grade, my wife and I decided it would be just so much simpler to live where we work," Lindow said. These days, with the kids grown, the Lindows spend at least part of each winter in Colorado, but they know where home is: "We love Cordova."
After the 24/7 rush of the fishing season, when it comes to experiencing Cordova in the winter, there's no question the town "kind of mellows out," Lindow said.
"There's quite a difference for sure." It's not that Cordova feels empty in the winter, he added — just "stuffed to the gills" in the summer.
Cordova becomes a boomtown each year starting around what used to be herring season. Now that there's no more herring fishery, the annual Copper River Delta Shorebird Festival at the beginning of May tends to feel like the start of things — that's when summer residents begin to turn up in preparation for the gillnet fishery, Lindow said.
In the course of just a couple of weeks, the town's population doubles as summer residents flood into bunkhouses, cabins, and the local RV park. Traffic bottlenecks at a few local intersections. The line at the boat launch stretches out at peak times.
For the fishermen of Cordova, summer is largely spent on the water, fishing the Copper River flats up to 50 miles away. Between openers, there are trips back to town — short, busy trips.
"There isn't time for anything too big, that's for sure," Lindow said. "You're just so focused on keeping the boat running and the nets in order — most people don't do much outside of that." Apart from a two- or three-week break between the sockeye and coho seasons, there's little down time during the summer, even when the fleet is back in port.
"It all kind of depends on what happened on the previous opener," Lindow explained. "If you broke anything or tore up the net. If you don't have anything like that, then sometimes there's a boat project or something that isn't quite as time-sensitive but you want to get it done anyway."
Even with Cordova's healthy marine support industry, when the entire fleet is in town at once, there can be some competition for services like engine repair and welding. If something happens out on the flats and you know you're going to need repair back in port, Lindow said, you get on the phone right away to make sure you can get in and get serviced in time for the next opener.
As busy as it is, time in town is also a welcome break from the hard work of fishing: You see family and friends. You rest up. You do something that isn't fishing-related.
"It's nice to get off the boat just to kind of get your head into a different kind of zone," Lindow said. "You just get so focused on fishing out there. It's just a relief to look at the rest of the world."
The transition happens more gradually in the fall, Lindow said. To begin with, not everyone participates in the coho salmon fishery, so things are already starting to mellow a bit once sockeye season ends. Toward the end of September, fishing quietly starts to wrap up and many local fishermen turn their attention toward hunting deer or moose.
Like some other Cordova fishermen, Lindow doesn't work another job in the winter, but that doesn't mean it's a long stretch of down time.
"We keep pretty busy doing boat projects or working on nets," he said. Then there are engine repairs, vehicle maintenance, and all the work around the house that there wasn't time to do during the summer.
Life in Cordova might slow down in the winter, but there's still plenty to do for those who call it home, Lindow said. For one thing, it's a chance to spend quality time with family members who have been out fishing or holding down the fort at home during the long summer. There's also lots of socializing, lots of outdoor recreation, plenty of entertainment arranged by Cordova Arts and Pageants, which brings in music, movies and workshops.
"It's viable, in the drift gillnet fishery, that you can be a small business owner, run your own bowpicker and be your own boss, and make enough to live year-round in Cordova," said Jeremy Botz, a Department of Fish and Game biologist who resides in the community. "There are a lot of folks who work hard in the summer and get to play hard in the winter."
Still, not all local fishermen take the winter to recreate. Many hold off-season jobs, particularly younger fishermen who are making loan payments on permits or boats. About one-third of Cordova's commercial fishermen hold permits for multiple fisheries, and some fish most of the year — not just for salmon but for sablefish, halibut, cod, crab, even herring eggs and sea cucumbers — moving from fishery to fishery as the seasons change.
Alaska's coastal towns run on seafood
Fishing is, by its nature, seasonal work, but for coastal communities, it can be the foundation for a year-round economy.
"The coastal communities are far more fisheries-oriented than the bigger towns," said Scott Kelly, Commercial Fisheries division director for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. "They are far more affected by fishing and healthy fishing economy than Anchorage or Fairbanks is."
The year-round cycle of fishing seasons that means certain times are slower or busier for individual communities also means there's a more or less steady stream of commercial landing taxes being collected by the state. Individually, though, communities are more immediately impacted by the success of their own seasonal fisheries.
"They are very passionate about salmon in Cordova, for very good reason — because it's the lifeblood of their community," Kelly said. "The fisheries are crucial to that town."
Cordova isn't alone. About 90 percent of Alaska's commercial catch comes from areas that have less than 10 percent of the state's population, according to McDowell Group fisheries economist Andy Wink.
"If you think about Sitka or Kodiak and a lot of the smaller Southeast communities … a lot of those places wouldn't be there if not for fish," Wink said. "Salmon return to rivers and to communities from Kotzebue to Ketchikan, and so everybody is so connected to it."
Beyond direct employment in the fishing industry and ancillary businesses, there are benefits to fishing communities, where processing plants create "economies of scale" by paying a large share of utility costs due to the large amounts of water and power they require.
"If you have those big operations, say in Kodiak or Cordova, then it's going to make rates less expensive for residential and business customers," he said.
And then there are the local taxes.
"At a local level, the fishery taxes do support a lot of general services that would otherwise have to be made up for (by) property tax or sales tax," Wink said. Commercial fishing's contribution to local governments is "in the neighborhood of tens of millions" of dollars, he added.
A community sustained by salmon
Botz, the state fisheries biologist in Cordova, grew up commercial fishing in another Alaska community built on seafood — Kodiak.
"That's kind of what drew me to Cordova," he said. "I wanted to be really tied to the community. It's nice to be a part of a seasonal fishery where folks tend to stick around year-round."
Botz credits the high number of full-time residents who participate in Cordova's salmon fishery as a contributing factor to the town's appeal.
"It's a sense of community for sure," he said. "But you (also) get folks who aren't in commercial fishing — they worked in Cordova seasonally for the Forest Service or as a processor, as a deckhand — and are just drawn to here. They find their way back here and they make it work."
Regardless of the season, Lindow said, it's salmon that keep Cordova running.
"Fishing is what sustains the community," he said. "If there weren't any fishing, I'm not sure that there would be a Cordova."
And, he added, with good management, it's a tradition that can continue for generations to come:
"I just think it's a really great thing that a sustainable fishery sustains the community."
This article was produced by the creative services department of Alaska Dispatch News in collaboration with Copper River/Prince William Sound Marketing Association. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.