It’s July, and fishing families up and down the Kenai Peninsula awaken early to take part in a seasonal tradition: the Cook Inlet salmon run.
Moms and dads suit up in rain gear and strap their children into lifejackets. The next generation of fishermen are lifted into boats and settled into stacks of webbing and corks for the boat ride out to the fishing sites. Deckhands pull in lines, and cold engines chug to life in the predawn morning.
All across beaches and fish camps, the commercial fishing season comes to life for another opener. Later that day, boats will return to shore to unload their catch, carefully icing fresh Cook Inlet salmon to be sent for processing.
As those fish leave their fish camps and make the short journey to the local Kenai Peninsula processors, they begin a journey of transformation that reaches deep into every community in the Cook Inlet region.
A fish caught by a commercial fisherman in Cook Inlet is the gift that keeps on giving. The dollars earned by Cook Inlet fishermen, more than 79.5 percent of whom live year-round in Alaska, stay in their community and fund their children’s sports, music lessons, and college tuitions.
They feed their crews on locally purchased groceries and buy their fishing gear at local outfitters. Those commercial fishing dollars also support Kenai Peninsula communities by allowing fishermen to take other crucial seasonal jobs, such as public teaching in local schools, and still support their families.
But dollars aren’t just created by fishermen. The processors that prepare wild Alaska salmon for consumption in the local and global markets employ over 4,200 people in Southcentral Alaska alone.
Even more importantly, Cook Inlet commercial-caught salmon help sustain a year-round cycle of available fish that keep those processors in business and available to buy and process Pacific and black cod, crab and halibut in the winter months.
Without Cook Inlet salmon, processors across the Kenai Peninsula would be forced into tough decisions about how to keep a year-round work force and multiple processing plants busy in the summer months. Without the business of fish processors, the healthy stream of trucks, barges and containers that bring goods and ship fish to and from Alaska would be significantly reduced.
Though many are unaware of it, Cook Inlet commercial salmon fishing and processing play an important role in keeping goods flowing to and from Alaska’s shores and keeping Alaska’s fish processing capacity competitive.
In essence, the Cook Inlet salmon run and multiple fisheries it sustains provides more than just recreation and freezers full of red gold; it sustains a year-round economy dependent on regular and predictable Cook Inlet commercial fisheries.
A dollar earned through commercial fishing is just as powerful as the dollar earned by a sport fishing guide, or spent by a dipnetter, and Kenai Peninsula communities need all three sectors to maintain a robust fish-based economy.
In some places, commercial fishermen have a bad name: rapists of the sea, greedy, selfish. These are things said to our children about their parent’s livelihoods. These are things posted about us on social media when we fight for a chance to fish predictable openings in a safe and orderly manner.
These are things that will probably be said about us this month at the Alaska Board of Fisheries meetings. But that is not who we are. We are Alaska fishing families, pursuing a way of life that teaches our children hard work, the value of conserving Alaska’s most precious natural resource for future generations, and that allows us the freedom of open water and being our own bosses for a few months every year.
If we take care of our resource and resist the temptation of ballot-box biology, Cook Inlet produces enough salmon for all user groups to put fish in their freezers, see a return on their investments in the fishery and engage in a lifestyle that keeps us close this species we all love and want to protect.
This Board of Fisheries cycle, please support local industry, local families and local communities on the Kenai Peninsula by advocating for equitable fishing opportunities and sustaining fishing livelihoods.
Nate Berga has been in the seafood industry for more than 20 years. He is a Plant Manager for Pacific Star Seafoods and Board President for the Alaska Salmon Alliance.