Rough seas and sleepless nights won’t keep this Bristol Bay fisherman from doing what he loves

It is the end of the Bristol Bay fishing season for the majority of the fleet. There are a few locals still scratching out some pounds, but the out-of-towners and the cannery workers are mostly gone. The airport in King Salmon, the only way out of Naknek, is backed up with homesick souls singing, “Oh, how I wanna go home!”

Alaska Airlines is pretty much the only show in town. They don’t send as many planes as they did in the “before COVID” days. Tickets are tough to come by. Ravn Alaska is flying out here again, but with smaller aircraft, and they are quickly full as well.

I am sitting high on the deck of my boat — parked in the boat yard now — surrounded by brailers, lines and tools. It is late evening. The boat yard is silent. I watch a couple of dumpster bears stroll by. They stop and share an old plastic bag that might have a calorie hidden away.

I eat my midnight snack of Stove Top stuffing and wonder what the rich folks are doing tonight.

Somebody asked me yesterday when I was going to retire. Heck, I retired when I was 17. As Confucius says, “if you do something you love, you will never work a day in your life.”

The majority of Bristol Bay fishermen are not Alaskans. They are not here because they love the outdoors and the fishing game. It is all about money.

The guys who stick it out for decades are almost always Alaskans. Bristol Bay is home for many of them. Some have moved away, but still have strong ties to the region.

Alaska salmon fisheries are limited-entry fisheries. The way the limited entry program was originally set up, in the early 1970s, allowed for the migration of permits to outside interests. Permits were granted on a point system to fishermen who had a history of fishing the Bay. One’s financial investment in the fishery also played a big role.

Permits could be bought and sold, albeit with restrictions, but could not be leased or borrowed against. The idea was good and it worked for the most part. However, when fishermen get older and don’t have family interested or able to continue the tradition, their permit is more likely than not going to leave Alaska.

Originally there were also permits granted to folks who fished Bristol Bay for a relatively short time but had a strong financial interest, or who fished in an operation as a deckhand with a long history, though little financial investment. There were a couple hundred permits granted to folks in those categories. All but a very few were Alaskans, mostly local.

The downside was the permits could not be sold. When the permit holder died, the permit died with them. Almost all of those permit holders have passed, thus taking a huge percentage of Alaska residents out of the fishery.

Bristol Bay drift permits are expensive — flirting with the $200,000 range. Setnet permits have seen a steady climb and now sell for more than $60,000.

A good used drift boat will cost as much as the permit. And a few of the newer, competitive vessels will run $600,000 to $800,000, or more. Setnet operations, complete with gear and a good location, will sell for $150,000.

Bristol Bay is not cheap for the newcomer.

Several institutions have made breaking into the fishery easier for Alaska residents. The state has a loan program for residents who don’t have independent backing. The Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation has a similar program for watershed residents. Additionally, there are several unofficial groups, mostly with ethnic ties, that finance younger guys who wish to get in the fishery.

It isn’t easy to begin fishing in Bristol Bay, and the costs are only part of it. Rough seas, sleepless days and the stress of a fast-paced fishery are why some come to fish and disappear after a few seasons. The fact fishermen are usually far from home weighs in as well. Yet some of us keep coming back, year after year.

The Genghis Khans who come to rape and pillage are never good for the Bristol Bay fishery. Limited entry has meant folks have skin in the game. It was obviously in everyone’s best interest to focus on quality, which has benefited all, including the consumer, over the long haul.

A lot of the new guys say, “I’m never doing this again!” I said that once or twice too.

Now I am resigned to the fact that the challenge and reward — not the money, but the elements and Mother Nature — are going to keep me participating as long as I am able. Now I realize I know what the rich folks are up to. I am one.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives near Paxson with his family. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and a two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.

John Schandelmeier

Outdoor opinion columnist John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.