Emilie Springer: 'Salmon is Just Fish' Thoughts from a Year-Round Harvester

May 18, 2021

Bowpickers at the dock in Cordova.
Credit Emilie Springer

“Salmon is Just Fish”
Comments from a Kenai Peninsula fisherman with a Prince William Sound drift permit
 
     The first ADFG salmon announcement of the year came out on May 6th from the Cordova office announcing the first opening of the Copper River district gillnet fishing period.  The piece that I’m reading today is based on an interview I did with a local fisherman from one of the Russian Old Believer communities in the area. His name is not included because it was conducted with academic limitations on identity disclosure. I want to share it today because it offers a different tone to the Copper River fishery than what you hear promoted so frequently from the community of Cordova and general marketing in the state. This person and the community he represents don’t glamorize the Copper River salmon and I think it’s an interesting perspective.  He focuses on the general occupation of fishing not the species.
     The reason I originally did the interview with someone outside of Cordova was because when I looked into where the Prince William Sound drift permits were located by permit holder’s permanent address, I found permits were trickling out of the Cordova area and increasing annually in the 99603 zip code.  
     This piece reads as a monologue with all of my questions and comments removed and only the commentary of the interviewee remaining.  The “I” is the permit holder in the story.  During this conversation, we are sitting in the Gear Shed looking at a chart of Prince William Sound so when there are spots that sound like he’s pointing at something, he is showing me where the fishing locations are.  
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    I do my salmon gill-netting in Prince William Sound.  I fish halibut in PWS in August and sometimes in September.  Then, I long-line grey cod in January and February, also in the Sound.  The drift fishery is most important to me—it’s the longest season.  We do it for about four months of the year.  Most of my income is from gill-netting.
    I started fishing when I was 12 years old as a deckhand with my dad—my brothers and mom came out, too.  At 16, I was running my own bow-picker.  My uncles and cousins are out there.  It really helps to have so much family.  That way we always know where to fish.  And, if something happens and you need extra parts or something—there is always someone there to hand something over.
    A lot of people you talk to might say the fishery is an easy one.  But that always depends on the weather.  You’re always out in the Copper River flats—we never tuck in behind the islands or into any bay.  Some days, when it’s nice, when it’s flat calm and sunny and you can almost say it’s an easy job.  In the springtime in our first periods there—it’s always windy and it gets up to 35 or 40 knots.  It can be very dangerous!  
    At the beginning of the season, the Copper fishery starts May 15 or 16th we fish—right outside the Barrier islands pretty far out of the river.  More towards July, we go fish chum in the Esther Island area. When we fish over there, we still go back to Cordova because our families are there for the summer.  It doesn’t really take that long to get across the Sound.
    But, not everybody wants to do the fishery on the west side of the Sound.  A lot of guys just stay in Cordova for the Copper River season.  That’s one nice thing about Prince William Sound, we have a huge fleet and we can split up.  Some guys can go fish chum and then we have another sockeye run on the Culross Island here.  There’s the Main Bay hatchery.  There are different runs in different parts of the Sound.
    The further you go; you can almost say that the more dangerous it is because if you’re fishing close by Cordova—once the wind starts blowing you can just go into port.  In the western Sound, it’s a different story.  From Cordova all the way to the farthest island is probably about three hours.  That’s on a fast boat going like 30 MPH.  Which, most of the fleet is converting to faster, updated boats than what my dad had 15 or 20 years ago.  Back in the day, they just had boats that went eight or nine MPH.  On the boats that they used to fish, it could take almost seven hours!  I can’t believe anyone would do that now!  We’re used to moving fast.
    A lot of the fleet are Cordova locals—they’ve been fishing there so long they just pass on their permits to their kids or nieces or nephews.  Then, in the last ten years, I’ve noticed that a lot of fishermen from the drift fleet in Homer switched over to that area because of the bad seasons they had in the Cook Inlet.  I have three or five uncles and maybe ten cousins that used to fish in Cook Inlet but they switched to this area because of the bad seasons.  
    
    I don’t really see any problem with how the fleet gets along, I don’t see it that way.  I think we’re just…well, we just go out together.  There are always guys who say they hate this guy or that guy but, I don’t really see many differences.  To me, a fisherman is a fisherman.  And out there, on the flats, we get spread out—it’s a pretty big opening.
    The ages of the fleet are changing a little bit. There are more young people now because of updated machinery—it’s easier to run a boat than it used to be.  They didn’t have updated GPS that can tell you exactly where you’re at and radars.  Back when dad started fishing, all they had was compasses and stuff like that.  That’s one of the things that really got the younger in.  Technology and better fishing equipment.  And, another thing: the fishery got way better in the Ester area—it’s a safe place to fish because there’s very calm weather out there.  You’re covered by islands. I see a lot of the younger kids just wait until June and then fish Ester and that’s the only fishery they do. But I try to stay and fish silvers and stay in the Sound until the middle of September.
    There have been some other big changes.  They developed the hatcheries in the 70’s and 80’s when my dad first started fishing.  The chum fishery wasn’t really a big thing because of the prices and so not a lot of fishermen would go out.  They’d rather go out and catch the wild sockeye and get the top dollar instead of going to catch the hatchery fish.  But, right now, the prices really went up on the chums.  So, that’s something that’s really different from 20 years ago.  And, other than that, it has ups and downs, good seasons and bad seasons but it kind of stays the same.
    The Exxon spill had an impact on the herring.  It had an impact for quite a few years.  The herring fishing was a big thing, a big impact.  Those were the days right when the herring showed up and the crash happened.  It was a bad area for those fish.  I never fished herring—it was mostly the seiners, my dad and family have never seined.  We also have a big long-lining boat—a 48 footer.  It’s my dad’s boat but the whole family uses it.
    Gill-netting is gill-netting—it all works the same.