Alaska's fisheries are among the best-managed, most sustainable fisheries in the world.
Each fishing area in the state, and every run of salmon, herring, cod, and crab throughout the year, is strictly regulated by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF & G).
The largest salmon producing area in Alaska is Bristol Bay, at the base of the Aleutian Chain. Bristol Bay is divided into five management districts: Naknek-Kvichak, Egegik, Ugashik, Nushagak, and Togiak, each named for the major river drainages where the salmon return to spawn each summer.
Biologists from Fish and Game count and monitor the escapement of salmon up each river, where fishing is not allowed and the salmon can sustainably reproduce. They have an escapement goal for each river and announce fishing "openings" based on escapement increments.
The Popsie Fish Company fishes in the Egegik District, where the upriver goal for the sockeye season is 800,000 to two million fish. At noon, we turn on the local radio station and listen as each district is announced. When we hear "This is the Alaska Department of Fish and Game with an announcement for fishers in the Egegik District..", we record the previous day's escapement and harvest numbers then the time periods that fishing is allowed, if any, for set netters (us) and drift boats. The opening times are based on the incoming tide and typically last 8 hours. Because they are based on the tide, our openings can start any time of the day or night, 2am, 2pm, anytime. Oftentimes, Fish and Game will announce two back to back openings, what we call double tides, which is pretty much round the clock with a couple hours rest at mid tide and low tide.
After listening to the announcement, we consult our Captain Jack's tide book to calculate what the water level will be at our opening time. One thing people have a hard time picturing about our operation is how much the tide level fluctuates. It goes out about a mile, leaving an expanse of glistening tide flats. When it comes in, it either creeps or races across the flats and up the beach, depending on the difference between low and high tide levels and wind direction, bringing the salmon with it.
Once we've evaluated all the conditions, we make a plan for either a dry set (setting each net on the tide flats using a four wheeler and flatbed trailer) or a wet set (pulling a raft through water while the net spills out the back).
The only time we dry set our nets is if we are certain our nets won't be wet at opening time, since having even one cork wet before opening time incurs a ticket and huge fine. If in doubt, we wet set, standing hundreds of feet from shore with the net attached to the outside buoy, as the water rises from ankles to knees to thighs, anxiously checking our watches until the exact minute we can run our rafts towards shore and secure the net to the inside buoy.
The same goes for closing times. All gill nets must be out of the water by closing time, which is not a issue for our set net sites since the tide usually runs out before then.
In addition, all set netters and drifters must have a PFD (personal flotation device) within reach while inside your raft, skiff, or on deck. We always wear ours, no exceptions!
Fish and Game officers periodically fly helicopters over our nets and the nets of drifters to make sure we are adhering to the above regulations, including how far from the beach our outside buoys can be (no more than 1000 feet from shore) and whether any drift boats come inside that boundary line during the opening period.
They also drive trucks on the beach, checking that the permit holder for each net is carrying his or her permit card and crew members have up-to-date commercial fishing licenses.
Even though we may grumble about the rules every now and then, we are thankful for these regulations that keep us safe and maintain a healthy fishery that brings the salmon, and us, back year after year.
Written by: Sarah O'Neill