Sustained by the sea: Buying into a fishing legacy

SPONSORED: Commercial salmon fishing in Prince William Sound tends to be a family business, but it’s open to anyone.

Draining from the Wrangell and Chugach Mountains, the 290-mile long Copper River feeds into an expansive delta where it meets the Gulf of Alaska. This abundant ecosystem is the spawning grounds for some of the world's last sustainable wild salmon populations.

Each summer all five species of Pacific salmon return from the Gulf of Alaska to the nutrient-rich waters to pass their genes from one generation to the next. And every May, commercial fishermen leave the harbor of Southcentral's tiny seaside town of Cordova to harvest the state's sustainable resource, feeding mouths across the globe.

New kids on the Sound

Trae Lohse and Tracey Nuzzi, both fairly new to the commercial fishing industry, have very different fishing histories. They're drawn to commercial fishing's unconventional lifestyle, setting their sights on the waters of Prince William Sound each summer to support themselves and their families, as part of an industry that supports Alaska's economy.

Lohse has been fishing the waters of Prince William Sound for as long as he can remember—his knowledge of the Sound and how to fish was passed down from his grandfather to his father and brothers.

While Tracey, a relative newcomer to Alaska, only meant to come for a vacation and wound up a permanent Alaska resident. Like so many Alaska transplants, she fell in love with the wild, natural beauty of the state and the untethered lifestyle commercial fishing offers.

Both Lohse and Nuzzi know they've entered an industry full of risk, and that their financial livelihood relies solely on the health of their fishery—but the call of the ocean and harvesting a sustainable, healthy, wild and natural resource lures them back each season.

Buying in

For most young adults beginning their careers, making an investment of $200,000 would be out of the question. But for those looking to get into the industry, this is pretty standard. They are well aware of the costs. The two biggest upfront costs are purchasing a commercial fishing boat and permit. Additional costs include vessel licensing, gear, nets, oil and gas, coupled with a boat purchase, that can easily round off around $100,000. While permits—which grant a fisherman the right to use that $100,000 worth of boat and gear and legally participate in a commercial fishery—range from $10,000-$250,000 in any given year.

It may sound daunting for younger people fishermen looking to buy into the commercial fishing industry. Yet, according to Brittney Cioni-Haywood, division director for the Alaska Division of Economic Development (ADED), about half of the commercial fishing loans administered, are given to residents 40 years of age or younger.

"We typically loan to people who might not be able to get traditional financing," said Cioni-Haywood. "If you look at that compared to the average age on permits, our borrowers tend to be younger—but that also tends to be because of who we serve as a demographic."

Cioni-Haywood and her lending collection manager, Jim Andersen, explain that traditional financial institutions are not set up to handle the volatile financial nature of the fishing industry and that young fishermen often have difficulty securing loans through these institutions because they have a lower net worth and shorter track record. But, that's where the State of Alaska loan program comes in and helps launch a new generation of fishermen—financially speaking.

"Because our goal is to promote a predominantly resident fishery and encourage resident ownership of limited entry permits, we're equipped to deal with young fishermen who are ready to go from the deck to the wheelhouse," said Andersen.

ADED offers loans on everything a young fishermen would need to get set up in the commercial fishing industry. They provide vessel and limited entry permit loans, as well as gear loans and repair loans to fix equipment or nets at the end of the season. But this established program, set up by the state in 1972, has been the conduit for many of Alaska's fishermen to begin their career in an industry with staggering upfront costs.

For Lohse and Nuzzi, they knew they were taking a huge financial risk buying into the Prince William Sound fishery. But it's their home. Lohse says he can't imagine making his livelihood in any other fishery—he knows the waters in the Sound like the back of his hand. It's where Nuzzi pulled in her first catch as a commercial fishermen and she's starting to see the rewards of her hard work.

"I was nervous about investing that much money into a permit that can fluctuate so much in value," said Nuzzi. Before fully buying into the Prince William Sound fishery, she wanted to try her hand at commercial fishing to see if she could make a living. Fortunately, an opportunity for an emergency transfer permit arose. The Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission grants emergency transfer permits to fishermen who are unable to use a permit during the season, often for medical reasons. Nuzzi spent a month fishing for silvers. "I didn't make much money but broke even … which was confidence enough to buy a permit the next season."

That was nearly 10 years ago, and she's in her sixth season of fishing. She said a mentor gave her some good advice when she was apprehensive about purchasing such an expensive permit: "If you're going to do it for 20 years, don't worry about value and just go fishing." And that's what she's done.

She also learned one important lesson the hard way—don't buy the wrong boat. She purchased a $9,000, 28-foot Uniflite bowpicker her first season and quickly learned the cost of mechanical fixes, testing her patience—and the size and power of the ocean. But eventually she saved enough to purchase a bigger boat. To make that possible, she and her husband lived on an inexpensive sailboat for about seven years. These days, in the fall and spring, she and her husband have upgraded to a small cabin outside of Cordova. During the winter, they come into town.

Nuzzi explained that every little bit of extra cash she could save has gone into her fishing business and she hopes one day that this unique life is something she can pass on to her son. He's still in diapers, but one day she hopes he will man the decks and wheelhouse with her.

The home stretch

For Prince William Sound fishermen, July is the peak of their commercial fishing season. It's the part of the summer where Lohse says he's giving himself pep talks to keep his head in the game.

"My cabin is about seven feet wide and nine feet long—so it's really not a very big living space—and you start going a little crazy," he said. He's gone through most of the good stuff from his earlier trips into Whittier. Now when searching his cooler for food, he gives up and opts for a granola bar instead. "Being on the boat, it definitely starts to wear on you as the summer progresses."

He explains as July's red salmon run winds down, fishermen have the option of harvesting pinks. Some do and some don't—it really depends on how much success you've had in the first half of the season. In Lohse's career, while saving up to purchase his own boat and permit, he would push through August's pink run and straight into silver season in September. Once Prince William Sound's salmon season closed, he would continue working year-round, fishing other seafoods, like crab. It was a long couple of years, but to Lohse, it was worth it. In the last two years, he's decided to give himself a little breather between the red and silver season.

It's been a busy first half of salmon season in the Sound with back-to-back 12-hour openers since May. Lohse's tired and everything is sore—even his fingertips. But he's determined to motivate himself to catch the last of the "dogs" (old salmon) coming in, clean them up and get them to the tenders who patrol the Sound, picking up freshly caught fish. It's his livelihood and in this business—it's not only really about the fishermen's schedule—it's all about the fish. When they're running, your nets are in the water.

"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 here.

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.