Kodiak fishermen are a happy lot, but they are also anxious about the future of their industry.
Those are some of the early findings of an ongoing survey that focuses on the social and cultural perceptions of the fishing life in Kodiak and how things have changed over two decades.
The survey is part of a multi-year project titled Social Transitions and Wellbeing in Kodiak Fisheries and Communities by Courtney Carothers, an assistant professor UAF’s School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences. Carothers lived for more than a year in Kodiak villages to research peoples’ experiences and perceptions; extensive interviews and the survey are helping to flesh out more findings.
“In terms of fisheries policy, when there is an analysis of some social or human component it’s often just the economics. It all boils down to how much money people are making and what are the costs, that sort of thing,” Carothers said. “I think the social and cultural connections people have to fishing, to communities, to shared ways of living are really important.”
In June, about 1,000 surveys were sent to a random sample of Kodiak fishermen in all gear groups and fisheries. It asked them to rank questions that asked how happy or satisfied they are with fishing and various aspects of it today compared to 20 years ago. Carothers has compiled responses from the first 150 returns by fishermen having an average of 26 years experience out on the water.
“It’s really great that folks who have had a ton of fishing experience, mostly out of Kodiak, are sharing their insights,” she said in an interview that revealed some of her findings.
Overall, commercial fishermen said if they had their lives to live over again, they would be fishermen, with most responding “yes” or “strongly yes.” Most also agreed that Kodiak is a healthy fishing community.
“Very few strongly agreed, though,” Carothers said. “Most were sort of in the middle or neutral. So I think that suggests people have some concerns about certain aspects of Kodiak compared to 15 to 20 years ago.”
The survey asked what people see as major threats to the sustainability of Kodiak as a fishing community and got back a wide range of perspectives. Unforeseen environmental challenges, such as ocean acidification made the list of worries. Another is friction among local fishermen.
“People often mentioned the disharmony among the different gear groups in town. They feel like that has gotten a bit more pronounced and they recognize that everyone in Kodiak needs the fish to be healthy and everyone needs to get along,” Carothers said.
The cost of entry into fisheries was cited as a major stressor, as was fear that spiraling costs will prevent young people from entering fisheries. Not surprisingly, the impact of catch share programs was mentioned as a major cause of change and concern for Kodiak fishermen.
“Haves and have nots – that’s the way people say fishing is characterized now as compared to the past. Certain programs have been put in place and they have been great for certain people but others feel they have been left out of those programs. I think that has affected some people’s sense of wellbeing,” Carothers said. “For example, some of the crewmembers say they have less power than 20 years ago when they were able to command a good job and wage relative to other skippers and captains.”
As for earnings, most said earnings are much better, others said they are worse.
“I think it depends on the fishery, gear group and whether you are a crew member, a skipper or an owner,” Carothers said.
About 60 percent of the fishermen said they would recommend a fishing career to young people, but worry they won’t be able to afford to buy in. Above all, Kodiak fishermen said they love the fishing lifestyle.
“I think that’s another key finding,” Carothers said. “They love the livelihood of fishing, being able to make your living based in a coastal community, to be out on the water and in control of your own operation, to be your own boss, to get away from all the bureaucratic goings on in town, the teaching and learning that goes on when you bring your kids out on the boat, learning hard work and not to complain — it’s highly valued and people see that as something they always want young people to be able to access.”
Carothers said her hope is that her research will help “inform regulators and others whose policies very much affect how and when people can fish.”
Alaska’s statewide salmon harvest has neared the halfway point of the 132 million fish forecast. From here on out, hitting that target will depend on how well those hard to predict pinks come in. State managers predict a catch of 70.2 million pinks, down 40 percent from last year.
Pinks were moving into the major producing regions of Kodiak, Southeast and Prince William Sound, where the catch had topped 10 million. The PWS humpies are hefty, averaging 4.3 pounds, one pound heavier than last summer.
At Bristol Bay, most of the fleet was heading home after catching nearly 21 million sockeye salmon. A couple hundred boats and over 50 setnetters were still fishing however – targeting pinks. Two years ago Bristol Bay had the first pink salmon fishery since 1984 with a catch of 1.3 million humpies, 800 percent higher than the past two decades.
You can track Alaska’s weekly salmon catches by species and region at the “Blue Sheet” on the Alaska Department of Fish and Game website.
Lots more ‘sides salmon
Halibut fishermen have landed 56 percent of their 24 million pound quota with less than 10.5 million pounds to go. For sablefish (black cod), 64 percent of the 29 million pound quota has been caught. Both fisheries remain open till mid November. Weathervane scallops are still being harvested in some regions of the Gulf and Bering Sea. Trawling for pollock and various flatfish is ongoing in the Bering Sea, along with jigging for cod.
The small boat red king crab season continues in Norton Sound, to be followed on Aug. 15 by the Aleutians golden king crab fishery. In the Gulf of Alaska, fishermen are still going after Dungeness crab around Kodiak and throughout the Panhandle. Gulf of Alaska pollock reopens Aug. 25 and also trawling for cod on Sept. 1. A lingcod fishery at Prince William Sound could last through the end of the year.
Research shows that the tiniest traces of copper affect a salmon’s sense of smell, and that results in a change in their behavior. A study three years ago by Oregon State University and federal scientists revealed that copper deposited on roads from vehicle brake pads and exhaust runs off into streams and rivers. Copper levels as low as two parts per billion adversely affected the sense of smell in juvenile salmon, which they use to avoid predators.
“In the environment that has some serious implications,” said Jason Sandahl, co-author of the Oregon copper study. “If there are predators around and the fish are not able to response to these danger signals in the water, I guess they would be the next snack for these larger predators in the water.”
Sandahl said at higher levels, a salmon’s avoidance ability was almost nonexistent. Now another study at the University of Washington has confirmed that finding.
Researcher Jenifer McIntyre, also working with NOAA scientists, found that a copper exposed fish is not getting the information it needs to protect itself. McIntyre exposed juvenile coho salmon to between 5 and 20 parts per billion of copper and placed them in tanks with a common predator, cutthroat trout. The results were striking.
“A copper-exposed fish is not getting the information it needs to make good decisions,” said McIntyre, a postdoctoral research associate at WSU’s Puyallup Research and Extension Center.
Salmon that were not exposed to copper would stop moving when they sensed a predator, making it harder to detect them.
McIntyre called it “going into lockdown mode.” But salmon in water with just five parts of copper per billion failed to detect the predator, kept swimming and were attacked in a matter of seconds.
The exposed fish were killed 30 percent of the time in the first strike; the salmon not exposed to copper managed to escape nine times out of 10 because they were poised to take evasive action. The behavior of the predator fish was the same whether or not they had been exposed to copper.
Testimony by McIntyre and her team has prompted the Washington State legislature to start phasing out brake pads and linings over the next 15 to 20 years.
Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishfactor.com or contact [email protected]