What Alaska’s Fishing Industry Is Really Like

Oct 23, 2022 350.1K Views 836 Comments

Commercial fishing in Alaska is a lifestyle for many Alaskans. Today we meet up with Kory a 4th generation fisherman from Cordova who gives us an inside look at what that world is like.

► Video edited by: Natalia Santenello
► Researched by: Kymberly Redmond

Good morning, guys.
Here in Alaska,
fishing is a way of life for many.
In Cordova it is the way of life.
A lot of the fish
that end up on these boats
go to your restaurant table
in the lower 48 or around the world.
So today we have the great privilege
to meet up with a local legend.
A multi-generational fisherman
who’s gonna bring us
behind the scenes to this world.
Let’s do this.
-1918, from where?
-1918, he came from, I think Washington…
…but he was from Norway.
So this is what a boat looks like.
-So this is what a boat looks like.
And I named this Crystal Falls
because right here is Crystal falls
and I remember going down there as a child
with my mother before the earthquake.
-Okay.
-Before… And Cordova’s right here.
-Okay.
-And you used to be able to go…
Before the earthquake you could take
a barge all the way through to the lake.
Through the lake and come up here
and that’s how they hauled supplies down.
-Yeah.
-And in the winter time…
If when it froze over,
they’d use dog teams to haul supplies down.
-So not many people come here
because you have to fly in or boat in.
There’s no roads in, right?
-Right.
You have to fly in, boat in.
And this is what Crystal Falls looked
back in the day in 1930s.
-And so you go out and sleep on this?
I sleep in there, stay nights,
sometimes I’ll go out for a week at a time.
Sometimes I’ll go out for like
7 or 8, 9 days
to do shrimping in the spring.
My little kitchen, my little sink,
and then there’s a little burner here.
Propane burner that I cook my food on.
-Okay, great.
-And then if I hooked up the shore power,
I can use my microwave.
My little baby microwave
but I’ve never used it.
The paperwork’s still in it.
I use it for storage. [giggles]
-Here’s mission control.
-Yeah, mission control,
you gotta turn batteries on
[flips switch]
And I hate radios
’cause that’s all I listened to with my dad
when I grew up seining on his boat
So I just turn my radios off.
-You like silence?
-I like quiet time, big time.
-Is that a big draw to this?
Just being away with nature,
away from everything, the quietness?
-Yeah, you know,
I could send you some pictures.
It’s just absolutely beautiful
and it’s always different weather.
It’s even a little yucky,
it’s still different.
Everything’s always changing.
-Okay.
-Mountains are losing their snow,
salmonberries are coming out
You know, I mean in the spring
when we first get started, you know,
and it’s pretty cold.
You see moose swimming across the river
and, you know, things like that.
-Wow.
-Bears out along sand bars.
So it’s always something new to see.
This is a friend of mine that went to
school with me, played ball with me.
His son, he’s third generation.
So how does this work?
Are most of these boat owners
independent or they work…
-Yeah, they’re all independent.
-They’re all independent?
-Everybody’s an independent…
-Okay.
-And that kills us
’cause we can’t get together
and settle a fair price for the season.
So we starve and the companies,
the canneries make billions.
This year we got the lowest price
we ever got in probably 20 years, 30 years
for our Copper River reds on the grounds.
-With the highest cost probably.
-With the highest cost.
-Because gas…
-Fuel price is double…
…what it was last year.
-Double?
-Double.
My… Just for to go on
that gillnetter a year…
Just to go on the gillnetter
cost me $6,000 to fish four months.
You know, so you have…
For every year…
So every year I go gillnetting,
it’s cost me $30,000 just to go fishing
before I even make a dime.
-So it’s becoming more challenging?
-It’s becoming more challenging.
If I didn’t market my fish and I depended
on just the canneries, I would starve.
I would not be able to make
enough money to feed me through the winter,
pay my bills, just my bills.
And I have no payments
because I’ve been in it for 52 years.
-How much is a boat like this?
-Okay, so now a boat like that
will go for about $210,000.
-Okay, so people are doing payments?
-But to build a new one…
To build a new one like this, $380,000.
-$380,000?
-$380,000… $400,000, just for this.
So if somebody wanted to get into this now,
you’re talking almost $400,000
for the boat.
-You’re talking a permit,
$410,000-$415,000.
Or $115,000.
-For a permit?
-Just a permit for gillnetting.
-Okay.
-And then you’re talking…
If you want a brand new boat like that
it’s gonna cost you like $380,000.
-So why are the canneries
pressing you guys so hard right now?
-They just… power and… and…
I think the power,
and they like to make lots of money,
and they just like to…
-They can.
-You know, they can.
We are not a group
like we used to be in the ’80s
and we used to set the price
for the whole state.
[boat engine]
PETER: Is there any way
to cut out the middle man here?
Like, could you go direct to market?
-That’s what I do.
A portion of my fish
goes to market, to other people that…
People that I’ve made contacts
for the last 19 years.
-So like direct to restauranteurs
around the world, around this country?
-Just one now.
-Anything in the lower 48?
-I do.
-Where?
-In Massachusetts
I have one called the Great Horse.
I’ve probably got them
about a thousand pounds of filets,
red filets and some king salmon.
-This is beautiful.
-Yeah, that’s Mud Bay,
this is Hawkins Island out here.
You can deer hunt on there.
-Does anyone live out there?
-Yeah, there’s cabins.
There’s cabins, there’s one around
that corner, there’s a couple in there.
Around the next point is Deep Bay
and there’s a family
that lives there all the time.
And they come in the boat
to get supplies or whatever in the town.
-Homesteaded?
-Yeah, known them all my life.
-Is there a lot of risk
every time you go out?
Like, “Okay, I got a lot of sunken costs.”
Are you always worried, like,
“Oh, I gotta get X amount of fish?”
-Oh yeah.
-Or is it pretty much guaranteed
that you’re gonna get the fish?
-No, it’s never a guarantee.
It depends on how much time
they give us to fish
and then what part of the season it is,
and how strong the run is.
-Who is they?
-Fish and Game.
-Okay, so they control…
They manage all of this.
-The State of Alaska’s Fish and Game, yeah.
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Now, back to the story.
-You hear this a lot, “Over fished seas.”
Are they over fished
right now up here or no?
-I would say no, not for salmon.
The only problem we have
for salmon right now is we have…
Um, we’ve had some warm ocean temps.
The fish that were going out into it,
there wasn’t the food
that they normally get .
The circulation out in the ocean,
in the gulf or wherever,
didn’t get what they needed.
So they returned smaller.
A sockeye will return
as a three, four, and five year old.
So if it went out as
a little one year old or two year old,
you know, out of the lake in 2016,
when it came back in 2018 or ’19,
it was smaller.
Now this last year they’ve cooled.
The year before I think they cooled
and they’re in a cooling trend.
-Why is that, just different currents?
-It’s just weather patterns.
So last year we had a pretty cold year.
More normal than like
what we used to have in the ’70s.
That kind of thing.
-Okay, okay.
So as someone that’s…
You’re in your 60s.
You’ve seen these seasons many a times.
-Yep.
-Is all these things sort of
work in cycles?
Do you see any patterns
or what are your thoughts on that?
-You know, they seem to say
that the warming cycle is longer.
Lasting longer, it used to last
for maybe two, three years.
-Okay.
-Now it might last for four or five years.
-Okay.
-So… and it’s more often.
It used to happen
maybe every 20 years or something.
Now it happens maybe every ten years.
-Okay.
-So that’s what I get, I don’t know
everything about that part of it,
the warming cycle.
-Sure.
-But I know that the fish,
the last couple years,
last two years,
the fish have been getting bigger
and they’re more like they used to be.
And then we do have an issue with
king salmon through the whole state.
-Mm-hmm.
-And this is what I don’t get.
Is the Fish and Game,
the State of Alaska did a survey
and they found out that when
you catch a king salmon in fresh water
it’s got a 37% chance
of dying before it spawns.
So this year when the kings
did come in the late season
they opened it up to hook and release.
And when you hook and release,
those fish die.
And I don’t understand why the state,
it’s all political,
we got a sports fish governor right now
and it’s all political
that he won’t stop the hook and release.
Let ’em go out and catch their one fish.
Let ’em catch their fish,
and take it home, and eat it.
Not put it back in the water,
and let it die, and not even spawn.
That’s common sense.
Here, there’s a pretty good
Native population.
Here they’re not dealing with
what they’re dealing with up in the Yukon.
Up in the Yukon
it’s a lot of little communities
and they have a Yukon king salmon
that’s been declining
because the draggers catch a lot of ’em
and so they can’t even go out and get
their subsistence king salmon anymore.
-Don’t the Natives have some sort of
protection near their land?
-Well you’d think they would
but they banded together
and got like five or six Native corps.
Filed a lawsuit to try and stop NOAA
to stop these draggers
from catching any king salmon.
-Yeah.
-You know, and it’s
a billion dollar industry
but you know what, at what point…
It’s kind of like California
had to stop stuff
to get the king salmon to come back.
-Uh-huh.
-At what point do they do it
before they’re all dead?
♪ melodic acoustic guitar ♪
Big jellyfish.
-Oh, wow, it’s massive.
If you were swimming that
you would just get destroyed, huh?
-Oh yeah, it burns.
[reel motor]
-Okay.
Then I’ll stop this.
and once they’re bled out
I’ll just pull this
and the water goes out, right?
The water runs out back there.
The water runs through the scupper.
The fish are right on deck
and they’re dead.
-They’re on deck here?
-Right on deck and then
I put ’em in my slush ice by hand
and they never bruise.
-So you’re filling this all up with fish
and you’re walking around in the fish?
-Well, if you’re lucky enough
to get that many.
-Okay.
-You gotta realize that
a good season for…
A good red season for somebody
is maybe 4,000 reds.
For the whole season.
-Okay, so you can go out
and get 20 at a time, stuff like that?
-20 a set is a big set.
My biggest set all year this year was 72.
-Do you guys have Internet on the boats?
-You can get whatever you want.
-Okay.
-I don’t do that.
I don’t have movies.
I watch people that are
out there fishing on a 12 hour opener
and they’re sitting in there watching
a movie or laying down in their bunk.
I’m going, “How you do that?”.
I can’t do that, I gotta be moving.
-What are you doing?
What do you do at night
when you’re inside?
You’re just hanging out?
Do you read or what?
-I’ll maybe read a little bit at times
and then I cook my dinner
and take it easy
and then I’m up if the opener
starts at 7:00 AM
I’m up at 4:30.
-Okay.
-I get up,
I have my quiet cup of coffee with God
and then I have my breakfast
and then about half an hour
before the opener
I pull my anchor
and go decide where I want to fish.
Okay, are you ready?
-Yeah.
-I’m gonna put my boots on.
Wait, wait, wait,
because this things a little tippy.
I don’t know how your balance is.
[metal banging]
Let me get all situated.
I want you to step in and then
I want you to sit on that back keel there.
-Okay.
-Okay, hang on while you step.
So you get your balance.
Sit.
[rubber squeaking]
You good?
-Yeah.
-There ya go.
-Like a pro?
-That’s what my wife says,
she cracks the whip
when I’m bringing her in to do blueberries.
[chuckles]
[crotchety voice] “Just row, row.”
[both laughing]
-You get blueberries out here?
-Oh, yeah.
Yeah, lots of blueberries,
we got a lot of nagoonberry.
You’ll get some nagoonberry tonight.
-On the island?
-No, only salmonberries
and blueberries on the island.
-There’s that jelly, look at that thing.
Wow.
Is this the part of the story where
you leave me on the island, Kory?
-No.
-You let the bears eat me?
Like the last victims,
look, there’s a boat up here.
-Oh, yeah, that’s probably from…
-The bears got ’em?
-That probably blew over from…
We get really bad southeast winds here
that come from this way.
-Okay.
-And sometimes… You see that boat,
that old boat down the beach?
-Yep.
-That was blown out of an anchorage
over there all the way across
and it’s stuck there forever now.
-So you were saying the bear situation
is pretty serious out here.
Ton of bears?
-You know, there’s more and more
all the time because nobody’s hunting them.
Nobody wants to take the time or energy,
and there’s, for a bear…
You know, I was always taught
if you shoot something, you eat it.
I don’t want to eat a bear, and my dad,
when I was growing up in a cabin
with no running water and an outhouse…
I’d wake up in the morning,
there’d be one looking at me,
and I don’t know how many
my dad used to shoot.
My mom used to…
We used to have a cooler
behind the house, underneath the eve
and she’d put her butter, and milk,
and stuff in there to keep it cool
’cause no lights, no electricity.
Well, I don’t know how many bears she just
stuck the gun out the back door
and pulled the trigger.
-How’d you grow up?
-Like that, I grew up with
no running water in a cabin. [chuckles]
My mom used to pack water by hand
and we used to haul all our…
Cut all our firewood
’cause all we had was a fireplace.
-Up in these mountains or where?
-Out on the lake, on Eyak Lake.
-So behind that ridge, okay.
-Yeah, I can show you the house.
Still standing.
-Oh yeah, let’s see that.
That would be great.
-We can do that.
And then that’s how I was raised.
Working in a cannery that my mom
started when I was probably four or five
and she started
a little small cannery business
and it grew into being quite big.
Where her fish went
all across the world by 1980.
-Why didn’t you take over the cannery?
-Because I liked fishing more.
[laughs]
And so the cannery was a lot of hard work.
We used to have to…
My dad would bring in 40 kings at a time.
She’d put up 200 cases of king salmon.
That’s 48 cans per case.
Six ounce cans.
And we’d have to slime
and scale those things,
then we’d have to filet them.
Head and gut ’em, filet ’em, hang ’em
in the smokehouse and she’d smokehouse.
Put ’em in the smokehouse,
we’d get one day break.
The next day we’d spend a 14 hour day
putting ’em in the can
and it would be about 24 cases.
[oar gently splashing]
[metal banging]
PETER: Is it like ranching?
The majority of fish are caught by small,
family-run businesses, is that the story?
-Like me, single people.
Everyone’s a family,
everyone that owns one of these.
…is a family.
-Sure.
-He’s got kids, he’s got a wife.
-How many boats are going out there?
-450 every time.
-Is that pretty stressful?
-Well yeah, I like it when
there’s not as many boats around.
I feel like I have a better chance
of catching some fish
and with our area cut down
by Fish and Game, and politics.
Sports fish politics.
We don’t have as much area as we used to.
My game was inside.
When I grew up I fished
inside the bars all the time.
Now I can’t even fish inside.
I gotta fish outside the bars in the ocean.
In the Gulf of Alaska
with this little boat.
-So it’s… None of the big corporations
are out here actually catching the fish?
-No.
-It’s all the small guys like you?
-So the big corporations
can’t get into the actual fishing
’cause it takes a lot of…
Lot of manpower,
a lot of detail, a lot of care?
Why don’t they get into this too?
Then they would control everything.
-Because then they’d need more employees.
[laughs]
They’d have to pay their employees.
And they’d have to pay
their employees more
than what they’re getting the fish for now.
-Walk us through the economics of this.
What does a fisherman make out here?
How does that work?
-So I would say
on an average year for a gillnetter
anywhere between $60,000 and $80,000.
-Gross?
-Gross.
Now that gillnetter, to go do that
might cost him $30,000 just in expenses.
Nets, insurance, fuel, groceries,
whatever he’s doing.
His repairs, boat repairs.
A lot of the younger ones that get in,
they have to go down.
They’ll do squid down in San Francisco
or they’ll do other fisheries in the state.
They’ll go crabbing.
Like some of the gillnetters
are crewing on a seiner right now
just so that they can make enough money
to get through and make their payments.
-So that $30,000 to $50,000
of net income, right?
How many days is someone working for that?
Is that just a seasonal…
-So I start…
That is a seasonal thing
and I’ll work all the way
until the end of September.
-From when?
-Right now, from May 15th…
-Okay.
-And I do that for 10 days usually.
-So a guy like you that has his own boat,
that’s been doing it for 40-plus years…
-Right, 52 years.
-52? Okay, 52 years.
You can do a lot better
than the numbers you just gave me, right?
-Um, yeah,
’cause I’m not just average fisherman.
I used to be in the top 20
but I’m not anymore ’cause I’m older.
-What’s the top 20 make?
-Last year the top 20 probably
woulda made $80,000 to $100,000.
-So no ones getting super rich off this?
No, the fishermen aren’t.
I guarantee you the fishermen
aren’t getting rich.
The only reason I can make it
is ’cause I don’t have payments.
I don’t owe anybody anything.
No cannery, nothing.
and then I get to give
what I eat to other people.
So they know what a true good quality
copper, river, red, or king salmon.
-Do you have any?
-Yeah, I do.
I have it frozen.
I feed myself,
I probably go through about…
Oh, probably about 20 pounds of reds a year
and about 40 pounds of kings eating
and I probably go through
about 30 pounds of halibut.
Me and my wife,
we probably go through about
eight deer a year and a half a moose.
We have a lot better quality nowadays
than what it used to be.
All the boats are brine.
So as soon as it comes out of the water,
it’s getting chilled.
And so your quality is usually
a lot better than it was 20 years ago.
And then they take… They got all these
things they can do with it.
They can make leather out of it.
They can do skinless, boneless,
they can do pouch.
-Leather out of the fish?
-Yeah, leather purses and stuff
out of the fish.
-Fish leather?
-Yeah.
-Never heard of that.
-Yeah.
Yeah, it’s pretty cool stuff.
-People are buying this?
-Oh, yeah.
[engine]
So he is one of the last Eyaks.
-Last Eyaks?
-Eyak.
This area, Natives.
One of the last, him and his sister.
-What do you mean, “One of the last ones.”?
-The last ones living.
There’s only a few of them left.
His sister, he’s got a son now, Tuner.
I went to school with him,
he’s a year ahead of me.
[engine]
There’s Eyak tribe
and then there’s Tatitlek.
Which is they got Tlingit,
they got Chugach Natives.
Now the Natives are…
They’re very pro-development
in a lot of good ways…
…for our community.
-Okay.
-They have brought in healthcare.
So they take care of a lot of the Natives
and then they take care of,
even people like me,
that, you know, not Native.
-So the Natives are doing well here?
-The Natives are doing really well here.
-So that’s not a story you hear often,
is “The Natives thriving.”
But that’s the story here?
-For here, but you don’t
hear it everywhere, you know?
-Yeah, it really depends the tribe
and where you’re at.
-Yeah it depends on
where they’re at and if they…
I guess if they have a strong leadership
and try and get grants.
-Okay.
-A lot of grants from the government.
Sometimes they favor the Natives
to get ’em…
Kinda help lift ’em up
and get ’em where they need to be.
-Sure.
-And the Natives around here…
in Tatitlek, and Chugach, and here,
they have just, blossomed really good.
They’ve used that in a really good way
for the whole community.
Now they’re trying to make a road
back behind here
all the way out to the next…
The furthest point you can see
out there past that boat.
-Okay.
-They’re trying to make a deep water port
to bring maybe more tourism
and business here for them.
So they’re really thinking forward.
-Okay.
-They’re 40, by 10 high, by 8 wide
and they’re filling them
full of fish from the canneries
and shipping ’em out.
-That much fish is coming out of here?
-Oh yeah, they’ve already
done that much, one more.
We’ve already probably caught
20 million fish.
-So that’s just for one season?
-That’s just…
and they’ll go through all that.
There’s more behind ’em.
-Oh, it goes back forever there.
-All those will be probably full.
-Full of fish,
and then a big barge comes in?
-Yeah, a big barge comes in,
takes ’em away, AML brings ’em to Anchorage
but a big barge probably comes,
Samson or something comes in,
and hauls ’em down to Seattle
and wherever they go from there.
-Who’s working in the cannery?
-Um, all sorts of nationalities.
They bring in people from,
probably Mexico,
from Ukraine, from Philippines probably.
Whoever they need, whoever wants to
come up and work for the season.
[boat passing]
There’s five or six of ’em
that are fishing now.
Filipinos,
they’ve been here for 30 years.
There families have been here
for 30, 40, 50 years.
-They’re good fishermen?
-Now I didn’t’ say that.
I just said that they’re
getting into the fishing industry.
Into this part of it now.
-Oh.
-They’re lifting themselves up.
-‘Cause cannery is like the lowest level
and then this is next…
-It’s hard to make money in there
unless you’re really good
at what you’re doing,
and what they pay,
they don’t pay enough for them.
-Okay.
-They do but they work long hours.
-So the Filipinos are now…
…getting into this aspect
of the profession.
Which is gonna be better?
-Yeah, better.
-They started off in canneries though?
-Yeah.
They’ll lift themselves up.
Everybody here wants everybody to be…
Kinda lift ’em up.
We want a great town.
We don’t want a starving town.
We’ve been through so many heartaches
with the oil spill, really hurt us.
The oil spill cost us pinks for a few years
and it cost us our whole herring fishery.
So that’s gone, wiped out.
We used to be the biggest herring volume
in the state.
120,000 to 130,000 tons was here.
-So what’s your feeling about big oil?
-Big oil sucks.
They ruined my life.
They paid us six cents on the dollar
of what I lost.
Almost bankrupted me.
-Tony?
-She was married to Mike Webber.
You’ll meet him later.
-Does Tony go out solo mission on…
-She’s still…
She’s just a woman, she fishes by herself.
She’s tougher than hell.
-How old is she?
-She’s probably about 47.
-Don’t overshoot.
[Peter laughing]
-Yeah, about 47 I think.
45, somewhere in there.
-She’s like 32.
-She’s tough, you wouldn’t never realize.
She might be older than that, I don’t know.
[engine idling]
-It’s a beautiful little downtown here.
-And we have a youth center
right over here.
-Youth center up here?
-Lot of the old guys, this used to be
our basketball gym way back in the ’50s.
-Okay.
-[chuckles]
-Does it get rough here?
-Rough?
-Broken glass, bar fights?
-It must.
[chuckles]
-It’s for sale, $1 million.
-Yeah, it is.
It’s been for sale for 20 years.
-Okay, but beautiful old bar.
Classic.
-This is our hatcheries.
-By hatcheries, that means
you’re growing the fish there
and then letting them out to sea?
-What they’re doing is they’ve taken
a natural egg stock out of the stream.
-Okay.
-They took the eggs and the milk…
…and they put ’em in trays,
and fertilize them,
and then they
ran water over ’em all winter.
So they wouldn’t freeze out.
So all they do is during the winter,
when they’re incubating
and growing into little fry.
-Mm-hmm.
-As soon as they get a little fry,
they put ’em into these ponds
and they feed ’em for about…
’til the plankton bloom comes
and then they release ’em,
and they might only be this big.
They’re this big.
-Mm-hmm.
-And then they go out into the ocean
and then they feed for themselves.
-Wouldn’t the best fish to be
one that grew up
in its natural environment, not in this?
-It wouldn’t be any better.
-It wouldn’t be any better?
-It’d be the same.
-Okay, okay.
-‘Cause the only thing you’re doing is
you’re keeping them from freezing…
…in the wintertime.
-Okay.
-Or drying out,
or the stream not getting enough water.
So they die.
They suffocate and die.
-Okay.
So what would you tell the consumer?
Say someone in the lower 48
going to a restaurant in a city.
Like, what to look for when buying fish.
Because the word fresh gets overused a lot,
organic gets over used a lot.
It’s hard to really know sometimes
what’s really going on behind the scenes.
-I would ask them
where they get their fish from?
‘Cause now things are
supposed to be labeled.
-Okay
-And if they have to get the manager,
“Hey, I want Alaskan Salmon,
are you really selling Alaskan Salmon?”
“Let me see.”
“Prove it to me.”
-How do they prove it?
Some certificate or?
-Say, “I wanna take to your su…”
“…and you’re work order.”
-But nobody’s gonna do that
at a restaurant.
-Oh, I would.
-You would?
-I would.
-So are there people claiming they’re
selling Alaskan salmon but it’s not?
-Yes… Yeah.
We get it all the time.
-Ah.
Isn’t there regulation?
-There is.
-Isn’t there someone inspecting that?
-Yeah, but there’s nobody’s inspecting.
Everybody’s on vacation.
[chuckles]
-What if you go to a fish market
and they say, “Wild Alaskan salmon.”?
Is that to be trusted?
-If you go to a market
usually they’ll either say,
“Oh, this is from the Kenai River
or this is from Bristol Bay…”
“…or this is Copper River.”
but they’d have to have
a label to prove it.
-So ask where it’s from in Alaska?
-In Alaska.
-Okay.
-Where it’s from…
…because there is a difference.
-That’s the pro tip.
-There’s a huge difference.
All my friends that come through here,
they won’t eat nothing
but Copper River reds.
This is the Cordova
Fishermen’s District United
and in here are some old things
that we used to use.
What we used to use in our fishery
You’ll see my gaff in the CDFU table
when I bought my permit
from my Uncle Charlie.
That was a trim color on his boat.
So it’s kinda cool,
it’s worth your time if you have it
-Do you miss the old school days at all?
-I do.
-Why?
-Because nobody would step from…
Nobody would set
from here to that sign from you then.
If you did, they’d follow you around
and cork you the whole day.
-Out at sea?
-Out at sea.
-There was more respect
with that stuff or?
-It was more respect,
if you drifted down from the marker…
‘Bout the time you get down past
the last sign you see, then they could set.
-Now it’s just more of a free for all?
-Now everybody just sets
whenever they want.
-Is it because there’s more of
a transient population coming in and out?
-Yeah, it’s more people…
and more people, they have their own idea
that they don’t care like the Rus…
We have a Russian fleet.
-Yeah.
-Some of ’em are just ruthless.
They just… They’ll look and see
if you’re outside in the ocean
and they see you picking fish,
pretty soon
you got a group of 20 Russians
around you corking you off.
-Coming from Mainland Russia?
-No, coming from… They’re in our fishery.
They’re integrated in our fishery.
When I was just young,
there used to be 20 of ’em.
They all had stern pickers,
now they all have bow pickers.
Now they’re all got their kids into it
and generational too.
-So there’s beef between different groups?
-There’s a little beef between them.
It’s not so bad
but it’s just changed the fishery.
It just changed it from what it used to be.
I wish it woulda been back…
I got great memories
of how it used to be…
…that they’ll never have.
-Yeah.
-Is it because when
how it used to be was
everyone had to come back into this town
and go to the same shop together,
deal with each other face to face, right?
-Yeah, and we used to
stand together for price.
-Stand…
-We stand together as a group.
-Why don’t you do that now?
Why can’t you stand together as a group?
-Because nobody’s got…
the balls enough to try it.
I mean, I…
-You seem to have ’em.
-I do, but you know what?
I lost a dad from that.
-Really?
He died from drinking.
And I didn’t want to be that way,
and I could see myself
trying to go that way.
-Because it’s so stressful standing
and trying to get a group organized
to stand up to the…
-Yeah, there’s a lot and have ’em
listen to you, and want what you want.
Everybody’s so individual now.
It’s just what they want.
It’s not what the group for the good,
or the town, or the community.
On the fishermen, some of ’em are,
the locals are that way.
I can talk to ’em like that
but not all of them.
My grandpa, and all the older people
that lived here, they started this place.
It’s for the pioneers
or the people that lived here, you know?
You had to be here like 30 years
or 20 years before you could be a member.
So it’s one of the last ones
left in the state.
I think there’s only
like seven of ’em anymore.
-What goes on in there?
-What goes on in there is meetings
and then there’s dancing,
and then when I was a kid
we have a parade in the winter time.
The first week in February
everybody gets dressed up,
there’s floats, they go down the road.
They start up there
and they end up over here
and then they do an ice cream feed there.
My grandpa used to serve me ice cream
so now I serve other kids ice cream.
♪ melodic acoustic guitar ♪
You see that building behind this house?
It’s kind of added onto the back.
-Okay.
-You can see the roof.
That was my mom’s cannery.
The second one.
-Okay.
-So where I was raised
in a cabin was in this one here.
It didn’t have all that roof stuff.
It was about the size
of that section right there.
Our outhouse was over there,
and we drank out of the creek.
-Wow.
You just didn’t have any money,
you were at those times, no money?
-No money, my dad made more money
trapping in the winter time
than he did fishing
and a job at commercial.
You know, in the summer.
-Did you have electricity?
-No, we had no electricity there.
No TV, no nothing.
-So and then when I was 13,
I had my 13th birthday.
We sold this house
and we moved into the other house
right on the other side of the creek
and then my dad
built a cannery in the back.
-So even though you’re not
getting as much for fish
as you did back in the ’80s, let’s say,
your quality of life
is way above what you grew up in?
-Oh yeah.
But I wouldn’t say that my quality…
I loved it. Cause I got
all these woods to play in
and when you challenge yourself to say,
“Okay, I’m gonna go from that point
to point B over here.”
“To this trailer
and not touch the ground.”
“I’m just gonna do it
tree, by tree, by tree.”
-You would jump tree to tree?
-I would jump tree, to tree, to tree…
’til I got to there.
‘Cause you gotta have your own fun.
There’s my beach.
We’d have picnics on the beach.
I almost drowned right out here
two or three times.
-On this beach?
-Yeah, right out here.
I mean I was floating around
on a piece of foam
flip over, not knowing how to swim
and just go straight to the bottom,
and push up
and grab that piece of foam, and say,
“Oh man, I made that one.” [laughs]
-So I’m gathering there was no
helicopter parenting out here.
-There was no helicopter, there was no…
Parents were busy and you were on your own.
-You think there’s something
to be missed from those times?
-Oh, yeah
It was so simple.
Now everybody’s
gotta worry about everything.
What car’s gonna hit ’em,
what this is gonna do.
Well, somebody’s gonna snatch my kid
or, you know, or whatever.
You know, in the big cities.
I have a friend who said, “I never had
a childhood ’cause I was always working.”
and we were.
And so I couldn’t go play baseball
like my friends did
or do that kind of thing
but you know what,
I learned how to work.
I learned you couldn’t have
everything in an instant.
I learned that it took time, and energy,
and hard work to get what you want
and to make your own life.
Okay, so that man right there
is Wayne Smith.
His dad was Mudhole Smith
and he started Alaska Airlines…
-Mudhole Smith is his father’s name?
-Yep, yeah.
-I have to say these days
Alaska is probably the best
domestic carrier in the US.
-Probably.
-No, no Wayne. [chuckles]
We’re filming ya.
WAYNE: You hadn’t seen that?
-You wanna talk to him?
-Sure.
-You wanna be on TV?
WAYNE: Oh, the TV?
PETER: How you doing?
-Tell him who your dad was.
-Oh, he’s TV?
-Tell him who you were
and who your dad was.
-I’m Wayne, Wayne Smith.
-Wayne, okay, Wayne.
-Mudhole Smith Airport
is named after my dad.
That’s the one you came in on in a jet
unless you brought the helicopter in.
-I came in on Alaskan yesterday.
-Yeah, okay, that’s the airport.
-So you’re still fishing out here?
-Oh yeah… Well, trying to.
I do it to keep myself occupied.
-Okay.
-And how old are you, Wayne now?
-[chuckles] 78, I just… Yeah.
-See, and he’s still fishing.
-But I do it because I enjoy it because
I used to fly, and all the rat race,
and I enjoy fishing.
A lot of these guys who grew up in it
don’t enjoy it that much.
-I do.
-Well, very few…
The guys that grew up in it…
-When I quit enjoying it, I’m done.
[giggles]
PETER: So you’re never
gonna retire then, right?
-Well if I quit enjoying it, I’m done.
-Okay.
-I’ll do something else fun
like go hunting.
[chuckles]
PETER: You were a pilot before?
-Yeah, yeah, I grew up in aviation.
-Okay.
That’s why I got the hangar here.
-Oh, that’s a hanger, yeah.
-That’s built in ’35, 1935.
It was the first
aircraft repair station in Alaska.
That was when
Anchorage wasn’t anything.
-Oh, interesting, Anchorage was…
-Used to bring the airplanes in here…
…to get ’em worked on.
-Anchorage was smaller than here?
-Oh, yeah, this was, I think,
the second largest population.
The whole Prince William Sound,
everything was all kinds of people around.
Lot of copper besides
the incline, you know, the railroad.
These are Blake’s Canning
fancy smoked Alaska salmon
and my mom did that,
started that cannery in the early…
Probably in the early ’60s.
-Okay.
So this is your garage, all styled-out.
-That’s a cannery map from 1952
on how many canneries were in Alaska.
-Over a hundred?
-Oh…
-Now how many?
-Maybe 10,12.
-In the whole state?
-In the whole state.
-And then this net,
you were saying is from….
-That is from somewhere in Japan,
my cousin Frank has
a little bit of that in him and he got…
I don’t know where he got it
but he found it
and had it in his hangar
down in Washington, and I said,
“Hey, that is so cool.”
and he sent it up to me.
-So most people when they say,
“Don’t bring work home with you.”
-Mm-hmm.
-You’re the opposite.
Work is everywhere, this is your life.
-This gray stuff down the back is all fat.
-Okay,
-All fat.
-And the white lines?
-The white line’s fat too,
marbling they call.
-So a good fish
is gonna have thin white lines?
-Yeah, and some of the farm has it
but it’s just in a pen.
Whatever they fed it, not wild stuff.
-Okay.
-So there is a difference.
-So this fish is eating plant life?
-This is going into the ocean
This comes from the Copper River,
goes out sea as a jack.
Spends his life out there,
three, four years, comes back.
-The lifespan is three, four years?
-Up to six on a king salmon.
-Oh, wow.
How long was a salmon like this?
-Salmon like that
would probably be about 30 pounds.
Probably about that big.
-So three feet?
-Yeah.
That’s a smoked king salmon collar.
So when I butcher my fish,
I cut the collar part off
and then I have a straight piece of meat.
This is brined and then smoked.
This one’s probably done.
[grill sizzling]
-So you go full heat here
because you wanna…
-See, so now that is done
’cause it’s white in the middle.
So I’m gonna set that aside.
[grill sizzling]
[both laughing]
And that just gets better and better.
-Okay, and this is the cured, smoked?
-This is just salted for three minutes,
taken out, and then hung in the smokehouse,
and smoked for about four hours.
-So do you do this also
because not only is it your living
but it’s your food source?
I mean there’s gotta be something
really valuable about doing that.
-Yeah, it is.
The food source is probably
the most important thing to me.
-Okay, even more so than the career?
I can see where that,
in the future, in the near future,
that we could maybe not
be commercial fishing anymore
and only be able to do subsistence fishing.
If it’s depleted up river too much
or if there’s too many takers.
-Okay.
-And if it’s reallocated too much,
they could say,
“Oh, you’re not gonna go fishing anymore
and wipe out our whole industry.
-So is there that worry every year
that that could happen?
There is, it gets worse and worse
every year.
We get less time, less area.
-Okay.
-When it first started we were supposed
to get less area for five years
to rebuild the stock.
Well they never did anything up river
to rebuild the stock.
They just kept raping it.
Now we’re down… 15 to 18 years
down the road, us still giving.
Saying, “Hey, we can’t fish
in our traditional area.”
and they’re going wide open up river.
So it’s just reallocation is all it is.
So we get less even though
that the world wants to eat it.
-Right.
-Even thought the US wants to eat it,
we get less and the people in
wherever in Alaska…
-Who are the people up there,
tourists or…
-They would be… Some of ’em are Natives
who deserve the right
because they actually live there.
-Yeah.
-People from Anchorage…
…that come in and pay for you getting
fish from fish wheels and stuff
and say, “Oh, I own a fish wheel
and I can take as many as I want…”
’cause there’s no limit on it.”
They can get up to 500 kings
out of a fish wheel if they want.
And that’s not right,
who’s gonna eat that many?
-An individual can get up to 500 each?
-Yeah, each owner of the fish wheel
that lives in the Copper,
that own a fish wheel, they get 500.
-What’s a fish wheel?
-A fish wheel is a thing that goes
in the water like this and it grabs…
The water runs this way
and it’s got all these, like, trays
that scoop up the fish
and put ’em in a basket.
And some of ’em’s fine.
The people that actually do it
for subsistence lifestyle is what it’s for.
-Right.
-It’s kind of like me.
They can get 250, 300, 400 fish
up there in their fish wheel.
I’m born and raised here, I’m an Alaskan.
I only get, her and I,
we can get 30 fish.
That’s all we can get, 30 down here.
For our subsistence lifestyle.
-And her is not some ghost over there,
it’s Shana, your wife.
-Shana, my wife.
-But she doesn’t want to be on camera.
-My family of two can get 30 fish
of only which five can be king salmon.
The rest have to be red salmon.
Absolutely delicious, I gotta say.
So what do you…
-Wait ’til you get to the end.
-To the end, okay, okay.
-And this very…
-Okay, let me just jump in there.
-There’s things that are
better than others.
-Why is the end better?
-That’s the belly meat,
that’s where the oil’s stored.
-Mmm, yep.
-And you’re gonna get better as you go.
[laughs heartily]
-Would you ever stop fishing?
-No.
I mean if I had to
and the resource needed me to stop fishing
I’m gonna have to stop fishing.
I don’t want to.
-You never wanna stop?
I’d like to do this rest of my life.
-All right, guys.
Nice look into a fisherman’s lifestyle.
The challenges, the love of the craft.
I had no understanding
of this industry before today
and it was nice to get
a little inside peek of what it’s like.
Lastly, I want to finish on the fact that
I, myself, am very
disconnected from my food.
I eat a nice fish dish at a restaurant
and I just see that part of the process.
But to see it from its source.
I mean we didn’t catch fish today
but we get an understanding
of what the process is like
and the challenges of the industry
and what people are doing
to actually get our fish.
I want to thank all the fishermen out there
who do the hard work,
deal with the challenges,
and provide for all of us,
the wonderful food that we eat.
All right, guys,
thanks for coming along on that one.
Until the next one.

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