FAIRBANKS - Byron Haley is president-for-life of the Chitina Dipnetters Association, though the 82-year-old has only been to Chitina a few times in his 63 years in Alaska. Most of the time, he relies on friends to bring him back a few Copper River red salmon.
"We took him down seven or eight years ago and it was the first time since 1981 that he had been down to Chitina," said Haley's good friend, Rob Hams.
All of that makes Haley's dedication to dip-netters more impressive. Haley has spent more than 30 years sticking up for dipnetters by writing letters to the editor, testifying at Board of Fisheries meetings, contacting legislators and raising money.
In fact, Haley had never gone dip netting at Chitina when he and a handful of other Fairbanks residents started the Chitina Dipnetters Association in 1976. As general yardmaster at the Alaska Railroad Corp. in Fairbanks, Haley said he was too busy working to make the long drive to Chitina.
But he was well aware of what Chitina meant to Fairbanks.
"I'd been giving guys time off for years to go to Chitina," Haley said. "They'd say, 'I need a couple days off to go to Chitina' and I'd tell them to bring me back some fish."
"I got involved only because I knew what was going on down there and wanted to support the fishery," he said. "The commercial fishermen were trying to get us shut down. They had us knocked down to 10 fish for a family and five fish for an individual. We went to the Legislature and got that changed."
These days, the limits are 30 fish per family and 15 for an individual, but the battle between dip-netters and commercial fishermen remains and Haley is still sticking up for dip-netters.
On Wednesday, he was sitting at the plaintiff's table at the Rabinowitz Courthouse as attorney Mike Kramer presented an oral argument in a lawsuit filed by the Chitina Dipnetters Association and Alaska Fish and Wildlife Conservation Fund that would re-classify dip-netters as subsistence rather than personal-use. A subsistence designation would give dip-netters a higher priority to the fish at Chitina than commercial fishermen.
Dipnetters should come before commercial fishermen when it comes to harvesting Copper River salmon, Haley said.
"We're putting fish on the table for families in Alaska," he said.
As to just how Haley was elected president-for-life of the Chitina Dipnetters Association back in 1984, well, that's like one of the mystery novels he likes to read.
"I don't know how that got started," Haley said with his trademark chuckle and grin.
But it's not just dipnetters that Haley looks out for. He has been a staunch supporter of hunting and fishing for the better part of 30 years in Fairbanks.
He put in 20 years on the Fairbanks Fish and Game Advisory Committee, a group that makes recommendations to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and state boards of fish and game regarding fishing, hunting and trapping issues.
For the past 26 years, Haley has been a trustee for the Alaska Fish and Wildlife Conservation Fund, a branch of the Alaska Outdoor Council, and he sits on the fund's board of directors. He has donates $1,000 a year to the fund, even though the minimum donation was reduced to $250 in recent years.
"No one has been more faithful than him," said Dick Bishop, AOC president. "He made that commitment and he's kept it. ... He's been a stalwart for decades in efforts to promote and protect hunting, fishing and trapping."
While Haley is not particularly vocal or eloquent in expressing his views - "He's not your soapbox type person," as Bishop put it - he gets his point across when he feels it's needed.
In his 15 years on the Fairbanks Fish and Game Advisory Committee, Kramer said, Haley has been a fixture at meetings, even though he no longer serves on the committee.
"He doesn't say a whole lot, but he absorbs everything," said Kramer, who also is a member of the Fairbanks Fish and Game Advisory Committee. "When it's time for him to weigh in on something people respect what he has to say. ... He really stands out as a pioneer Alaskan who's interested in passing on to future generations of Alaskans the activities that he's been fortunate to participate in."
Even at the age of 82, Haley is still partaking in those activities.
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