Bristol Bay is one of the most lucrative salmon fisheries in the world. Owners of vessels and permits can earn, before taxes, more than $300,000 during less than a month of what is known as “Combat fishing” due to the close tight quarters from one boat’s rail to the next as nets are set and hauled. A good crew can expect to take home in excess of $20,000, a few new muscles and bragging rights around their homeports.
Most of that cash and action comes in a roughly 9-day period called “The Peak,” when the largest body of red salmon are pushing to get into the various river systems in “The Bay.”
Fishermen will push the limits of legality to ensure they get their fair share of that run, and crewmen will bury their heads, make sure their arms and hands are inside the protection of the bulwarks of their ships, and add up the bright red dollars plopping from plugged nets onto the deck.
“A lot of times what we find, if the forecast is to be a bigger run and we get a bigger run, the total distribution of fish per fishermen increases and the illegality decreases,” Alaska Wildlife Trooper Sgt. Brent Johnson said. “A lot of times people reach a point where they have caught what they feel is a good season or canneries get overloaded an put boats on catch limit, so the competition isn’t as fierce on the lines. Fishermen don’t usually push the boundaries or the times to catch more if nobody is going to buy it from them.”
Johnson has been a trooper for more than 10 years, six in the bay and the last two as a supervisor operating out of King Salmon. He pilots a fixed wing plane during the fishery, spotting wrongdoers from the air.
“By far this is some of the worst weather in the country, if not the world, to fly in,” Johnson said. “And you have the same thing when you are out on the boats. You can certainly have rough seas.”
The East Side of the bay features the Ugashik District, Egegik District, and Naknek-Kvichak District with its three rivers: Kvichak, Naknek and Alagnak. The West Side of the bay boasts the Nushagak District with rivers Igushik, Wood and Nushagak, and the Togiak District.
“Trying to board boats in our skiffs in rough weather is hazardous,” Johnson said. “And patrolling the lines when the fishing is hot and heavy you may find yourself amongst 200 30-foot aluminum 800-horsepower commercial fishing boats… and you are out there in a little foam mold thing.”
Boarding a fishing boat that has a crew minimum of three and usually five people pose another safety concern for officers. Some may have a gun on board, all do have knives and fish picks and gaff hooks.
“We are usually by ourselves,” Johnson said. “Help is nowhere around. You might be the only one working that whole district. Your ability to interact well and treat people with respect goes along way. We are very specific on the troopers we select to participate here for that very reason.”
The biggest infractions troopers encounter, by total number, are fishing in closed waters by going over the district boundary lines. Others include unlicensed vessel, employing unlicensed crew or improperly licensed crew, permit violations and failing to mark buoys or display vessel identification numbers. Occasionally officers come across individuals with drugs or who are wanted on warrants.
“For the most part people are cooperative,” Johnson said. “And we have assisted with some fights and assaults on boats this year. I am not aware of us having any serious confrontations in the last several years.”
All infractions are class A misdemeanors initially that can carry a fine of up to $15,000 and one year in jail. Almost all are reduced to violations, depending on the fishermen’s prior history and how egregious the violation was.
A violation reduces the maximum penalty significantly; A first offense carries a $3,000 maximum fine, $6,000 for a second, and $9,000 for a third or subsequent offense.
“The biggest issue out here is the demerit points,” Johnson said. “By far the vast amount of Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission (CFEC) demerit points are assigned to the Bristol Bay fishery. We have lots of people and permits who are very close to exceeding the number of demerit points allowed before a permit suspension.”
CFEC allows for a 36-month window, meaning the number of points accumulated in the prior 36 months from the day of your last infraction.
If a fisherman accumulates 12 points in 36 months commercial fishing privileges are suspended for one year, 16 points and no fishing for two years, and so on.
“We have never had one on the high end yet,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s most unusual violation has occurred twice this season. While flying on patrol in the fishery he observed a boat fishing illegally. When he flew in for identification, The crew took turns putting buoys over their vessel name and U.S. Coast Guard number.
“I don’t know how they thought they would get away with that,” Johnson said. “If I could figure out the mindset of the people I encounter I would be a richer man. It is an incident that has been on the increase. But when this type of incident occurs a number of other criminal charges are filed, depending on the circumstances.”
Captain and crew can be charged with hindering prosecution, resisting arrest, or more serious felonies.
As of Friday, troopers have issued 222 commercial fishery citations and 208 warnings since June 16 for the 2011 bay season. Ninety-nine percent of those had to go to court. Troopers have attended more than 130 cases in the last two weeks in the Naknek court system.
The most popular excuse fishermen use is that lack of law enforcement means they have to go over the line to be competitive and catch fish, that they have to be first to set net to get a fair shot at the fish, and this one-month season is their livelihood for their family.
“Nine out of 10 people we talk to, that is the tale we are told,” Johnson said. “There is some truth to that. Unfortunately we don’t have the manpower to be on every line 24 hours a day.”
In the 2010 season the fishery cops issued 218 citations and 408 warnings, which netted $400,000 total in court fines with $180,000 suspended.
“As I point out to the fishermen all the time, we don’t see any of that money,” Johnson said. “It goes to the general fund. It is not a revenue thing for our department or the state. And it wouldn’t even begin to come close to pay for our fuel or manpower.”
In 2009 there were 157 citations and 232 warnings, and $350,000 in fines with $130,000 suspended. In 2008 there were 122 citations and 168 warnings; in 2007, 116 citations and 197 warnings; and in 2006, troopers issued 192 citations and 287 warnings.
These totals are just the commercial fishery. They do not include DWI’s, misdemeanor assaults, and boating safety violations.
The biggest cost to violators is actually loss of fishing time due to being boarded, cited, and having to appear in court.
“That probably costs them more than the fines ever would,” Johnson said.
Alaska Wildlife Troopers use three to five fixed wing planes, one to two helicopters, seven 20-foot ridged foam safe boats, an unmarked 32-foot decoy fishing boat, and the 120-foot Woldstad from Kodiak and the 156-foot Stimson out of Dutch Harbor.
When the river fisheries are open the troopers will position ground base teams to monitor the action from bluffs.
The Bay enforcement program enlists 20-23 troopers and another 20-plus civilian personnel. Roughly 25 percent of the state’s wildlife law enforcement targets the Bristol Bay fishery. It is the largest enforcement operation the Department of Public Safety runs; bigger in manpower and time than the State Fair and Arctic Man combined.
“If there were no enforcement there would be no reason to follow the rules,” Johnson said. “Growing up in Alaska, a big part of this job for me is to ensure fairness and give everybody an equal shot. Certainly to give people the chance to pass on the fishing tradition to their children and grandchildren. A lot of these folks out here doing this fishery have been here thirty and forty years, and their families have passed down the permits through the generations. You like to see that kind of stuff.”
• Contact reporter Klas Stolpe at 523-2263 or at email@example.com.