Every Fisherman an Ambassador
October 1, 2019
The Bristol Bay Regional seafood Development Association (BBRSDA) says, “Every Bristol Bay fisherman is an ambassador of the Bristol Bay sockeye brand; it is your brand - and catching, handling and delivering in a way that ensures quality, not only elevates the brand but also reflects the pride Bristol Bay fishermen take in participating in this remarkable, sustainable fishery.”
There were a lot of salmon in Bristol Bay this year, and many of them were caught by commercial fishermen. Some Bay fishermen are spending thousands of dollars to upgrade to refrigerated seawater systems (RSW) in order to keep their catch fresh and raise the quality. The formula for keeping the catch fresh with an RSW system is one third water to two-thirds fish in the hold. This keeps the catch floating and prevents contact, which maintains the quality of the fish marketed by the BBRSDA.
A few fishermen, according to several sources, are fishing in the shallows. Newer, shallow-draft jet-powered boats can get into water as shallow as 18 inches, allowing access to fish the traditional fleet can’t reach. The shallow water is warmer, so one would think it would be important to get the catch into the refrigerated seawater in the hold to maintain the quality, but the reality is different.
Instead, many of these boats run aground to fill their nets, and then must wait for the tide, while their catch is dragged through the mud or baked in the sun. Fishermen report seeing flocks of seagulls pecking at the catch while the boats wait for the tide to lift them off the beach.
These fish are reportedly then loaded into dry holds, because the boats can’t tank down until they’ve reached deeper water.
Several veteran Bristol Bay fisherman spoke on condition of anonymity, including one who fishes in Naknek-Kvichak and another in the Nushagak. They both confirm shallows fishing has been going on for years. Fishermen in Egegik report seeing these boats “bomb across the bar,” throw out their nets, then linger while the net fishes. Typically, like many sets, they let it fish for a while, then pick it up and race back out to deeper water before getting stuck and going dry.
One fisherman noted that he wouldn’t hesitate to eat any of the fish he caught, and wondered whether the shallows fishermen would be willing to eat theirs.
Many of these shallows fishermen are delivering enough fish to receive production bonuses of up to 25 cents a pound. Their product is not differentiated from the fish caught in deeper water and “floated” immediately in refrigerated seawater.
When the tenders deliver to the processors, how is your well-treated #1 fish differentiated from one that has been baking in the sun and loaded into a dry hold? The answer, of course, is that it isn’t.
What good, you may ask, is your $80,000 RSW system when there are “highliners” delivering 300,000 to 400,000 pounds of #3 fish mixed in with your carefully-handled catch?
“The ability to drive up the demand for Bristol Bay Sockeye, Alaska’s Sockeye salmon, hinges upon our members’ commitment to delivering the highest quality sockeye at every offload,” the BBRSDA says.
How does demand for Bristol Bay Sockeye, Alaska’s Sockeye salmon, fare when such fishermen are allowed to drag the rest of the fishery down?
Between July 4th and July 9th, five fishermen were ticketed for the misdemeanor of “operating a drift gillnet when the vessel is grounded/gillnet is grounded above water.”
Of those, four cases are pending while one pled guilty and was fined $3,000, but the fine was reduced $1,500.
We have the names of those fishermen – they are a matter of public record. Some are subscribers, and we hope they read this. The meager fine imposed most likely will not keep these same fishermen from continuing the practice next year, but we hope their colleagues in the BBRSDA will take note of this practice and work to end it before the whole fishery is dragged through the mud.
Chris Philips can be reached at: 206-284-8285 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org