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Econ 919 — Fishing season snagged on pending court decision

In 2020, a federal council voted to close a large swath of Cook Inlet to commercial salmon fishing. That decision was overturned earlier this year. Drift fishermen say the area is where they catch a majority of their fish.
Sabine Poux
A federal council voted to close a large swath of Cook Inlet to commercial salmon fishing in 2020. Now, a court has until Monday to decide whether to uphold that decision or not.

Monday could be a big day for members of the Cook Inlet drift fleet.

Like Jeffrey Widman, of Anchorage. Monday is when he plans to put his boat in the water to start his 47th season of commercial fishing.

And it’s when he might find out where he can fish. Widman, along with most of the drift fleet, is waiting to hear from the courts on whether a large section of Cook Inlet will be closed to fisherman like him for the first time this summer.

That’s after a federal council voted to close that part of the inlet to commercial salmon fishing in 2020. In the aftermath, Cook Inlet fishermen sued to keep it open. A judge said the court has until Monday to make a decision on that case.

Widman and long-time fishermen Tony Lindow, of Soldotna, say that’s where they catch about 70 percent of their fish. But standing around a campfire on a quiet weeknight at the Kenai Dock, they say they’re still excited about the start of the season — even with the uncertainty of the closures.

Jeffrey Widman: Our first opener is Monday the 20. And our last opener is usually around Aug. 14.

KDLL: So what do you have to do in these last couple days to prep?

JW: Getting nets on the boat, making sure the motor’s running. Have all our food and things we need aboard the boat, extra parts ready to go for the season. And then we launch.

KDLL: How has the fishing changed over the years? Of course, it has changed — is that something that’s impacted you specifically?

JW: Well, I went from making $100,000 a year to making $20,000, or $10,000. So that means that I can’t afford to buy a new diesel motor, which might be $50,000. It means I have to make old machinery work so I can make it through the times. And sometimes no deckhand, because you can’t really afford to have one here. All the good deckhands want to go over to [Bristol Bay].

Parts and pieces. And right now, my boat’s going to sit on the beach for a day or two, or maybe even an opener or two, because it’s not worth to go out at the very beginning here, along with we’re waiting for a ruling from the court system to tell us where we can and can’t fish.

Tony Lindow: At this first part of the season, that’s where a lot of the fish are. It’s way south from here, but sometimes it’s worth the run down there. Because the fish are down there in big schools and stuff.

But lately, with this corridor they’ve been putting us in, we just don’t get on those big schools of fish. We basically get them when they’re trickling in.

I mean, we used to fill up our boats. It just doesn’t happen anymore.

JW: A lot of these people, they’re hurting. Unless you’re a good fisherman or you’ve invested — like, you’re not going to go out and buy a $200,000 boat and then pay $37,000 for a permit unless you were born into this, win the lottery or you’ve been fishing for somebody who’s willing to help you out — you’re not going to get into a fishery. It’s the same way in the bay — unless you’ve been working for somebody for a long enough time, or you win the lottery, it’s not going to happen.

KDLL: So despite the state of things – what keeps you two coming back here? Why do you keep participating in the fishery?

TL: It’s in our blood.

JW: I love it. It’s in my blood.

TL: We’ve been doing it since we were kids. Just see big hits hit the net, you know, splashing on the cork line. And it’s exciting. You run the net and run into great big schools and stuff. Your cork line sinks, you can just see their silver bodies flashing and they break the circuit, and — wow. It’s fun.

JW: Nothing more exciting than being on the water. I mean, I do better when I’m on the water.

Sabine Poux is a producer and reporter for the Brave Little State podcast of Vermont Public. She was formerly news director and evening news host at KDLL in Kenai.

Originally from New York, Sabine has lived and reported in Argentina and Vermont and Kenai.
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