Young fishing crews question future of fishery
Wesley Blough and Jordan Manor are childhood friends, growing up crewing on their fathers’ boats in Bristol Bay. Now in their mid twenties, they live in Hoonah, Alaska and Bainbridge Island, Washington respectively but they return each season to deckhand. For the young fishermen, it's like a family reunion.
"Jordan and I have known each other now for nine years. And this is the only time we see each other," Blough said, "but you build friendships and there's camaraderie amongst fishermen every summer, because we all technically have our own business with our own boat but we're all in this together."
Manor agrees: "Like Wes said, there's kind of a shared suffering in it. And I think that everyone kind of looks forward to that, to get up here."
Four weeks into the fishing season, processors posted a record-low base price of 50 cents per pound - less than half of last year’s price - igniting outrage and frustration among crews across the fishery. Jordan and Wesley's fathers Darren Manor and Cheyne Blough helped organize the protest in the Naknek River on July 20, where over one hundred boats anchored up in a demonstration, calling on processors to increase the base price and transparency in the fishery.
Blough, Manor and their fathers have been through many fishing seasons, but this was their first protest together. Manor said it might be his last year commercial fishing.
"Frankly, it scared me away from fishing, I would have loved to be involved in this. My dad's been doing this for a long time. And I wish I could have gotten involved, but there's just no way you can make that risk for a family or build up anything when you just don't know what you're making," said Manor.
More and more in recent years, Cheyne Blough has discouraged his children from following in his footsteps. And, as a lifelong fisherman, it’s heartbreaking.
"My kids grew up on my boat, and before we even had this catastrophic offering of this season, unfortunately, I've had to tell each one of them that I don't think it's a good idea to get in the fishing industry," Blough said. "It's been hard, it's been tears."
"But the last thing you want is your children to get strapped to hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of debt, and then have the rug pulled out from under them. And that's what's going on. I didn't think it would happen quite this way, quite this fast. But it has, and thank goodness that I've given my kids that advice. And right now they see it clear-eyed," he added.
The younger Blough says he was considering investing in the fishery for the last six years but he is making other plans.
"My whole entire life, that's all I've ever wanted to do is buy a boat and get into fishing. But now, I'm thinking it's kind of like the gold rush - the guy selling the shovels are making all the money. So there's no point in coming out here, getting in all this debt, and then just hoping they're going to pay us a little something. I can't afford to do that."
With the way things were going, Wesley's father warned him they would have a year like this. "He's been saying 'not only are you going to be spending the rest of your 20s trying to get back above water on debt and everything, but I'm not gonna let you go down. So you're gonna take me down with you, and you're gonna kill a multigenerational fishing family.'"
The elder Blough has been through tough years with low prices and didn't want to see his son repeat it. He bought his first boat and permit at the age of 18.
"And I went through something similar to what probably some young men are going through right now," Blough recalled. "The sockeye price collapsed. And whether I wanted to be in this business or not, I was. For the next 10 years. It was a kept feeling, you felt like a slave, because you were upside down on everything."
The 32-foot fiberglass or aluminum fishing vessels of the Bristol Bay drift fleet often range between $100,000 at the low end, to over one million dollars. A fishing permit for the bay this year is valued at almost $190,000, according to the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission.
Blough believes for a young skipper in this market, those costs are insurmountable.
David Couch is a fisherman and a marine surveyor, which means he inspects boats, often because someone wants to sell. He said his phone has been ringing off the hook to do surveys because, as he puts it, "Guys are selling out. I'm talking to brokers, because I'm having a problem valuating vessels right now. We're seeing at least a 30% reduction from the spring to right now on vessel prices. I'm gonna have to write ranges of prices, and I won't be able to give an exact price anymore."
The economic burden and vulnerability fishermen face is complex. The marine surveyor said not only does this base price mean less income, but also less value for fishers' investments. As more people opt out of the fishery, their vessels are worth less. According to Couch, since Trident Seafoods announced their price, he saw that value plummet.
David Couch showed up in Naknek with a backpack in 1983 and made a good living fishing ever since, but now, he said fishing is a bad investment.
On the westside, Deenaalee Hodgdon is a young commercial fisher. They expressed solidarity with the protest but were busy preparing fish for the winter. They are Athabascan and Sugpiaq and grew up in South Naknek, setnetting with their family. Hodgdon returned to this fishery as a driftnetter at the age of 22.
“Because for people here in Alaska, the salmon means food sovereignty, salmon means food security, salmon means a way of life that connects us to our ancestors, our heritage, the land, this environment, this ecosystem that we are a part of. So when it comes into contact with this commercial system that only values us as fishermen, and the salmon at such a low cost, again, it's like a slap in the face," they said.
Hodgdon also emphasized that this low price will impact Alaska Native communities in Bristol Bay the hardest, where cost of living can be three even four times higher.
"It keeps people in an economic hardship, really," Hodgdon said while sitting at their kitchen table. "Folks that are living in the lower 48 that have access to a larger job market, grocery outlets, and other food opportunities - especially for those fishermen that are coming from places where food can be grown year round - are going to have an easier time than people that rely on this fishery here in Bristol Bay for their main income and food source during the year."
Hodgdon stressed that these fish prices hurt everyone, but there are many ways that costs and debt can pile up on young fishers. Especially as bigger more expensive boats can fish longer and outcompete smaller operations.
"They can hold less fish on deck, which means that you have to deliver more times than a boat that has higher capacity to hold more fish on deck or an additional crewmember to pick and bleed that fish. And so some of that economic disparity really comes from these boats that can maybe hold three to four people at tops and 12,000 pounds of fish at capacity versus boats that are running five people on deck and 30,000 pounds when they're deck loaded. That's going to really increase their catch ability," Hodgdon explained. "That creates very different seasons for fishermen out here. And it's not right. I think this fishery really is the epitome of neoliberalism. It's like 'pull yourself up by your bootstraps and in invest in in what you can' but again, not everybody's starting at the same place."
On the Naknek River at the protest, crews share coffee in the wheelhouses. For all the young fishers in Bristol Bay there is anger and frustration and hurt but also laughter and reminiscing. Fishers talk about what the fishery means to them and why it is worth fighting for.
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