Gillnetters 'do the best they can' amid restrictions

“Right now, we’re in a low-productivity era,” said Bill Auger, a fifth-generation commercial fisherman with 35 years of experience. Salmon fishing in District 8, in front of the Stikine River, has been closed for several years, and the gillnet fleet is limited to two days a week in District 6, west of Wrangell.

“There is less out there to catch. Everybody is trying to do the best they can to catch what they can. Rebuilding the stocks is a big concern, and how you go about rebuilding them,” Auger said in an interview April 11, a week after Wrangell gillnetters met to discuss the state Board of Fisheries and the upcoming season.

Auger attended last month’s board meeting in Anchorage, where proposals were considered for regulatory changes to Southeast fisheries. There were no major changes for this year in the Wrangell area.

“We sit right here at the mouth of the Stikine River. Those salmon stocks have been performing pretty poorly for a while now. We haven’t been meeting goals in four years, maybe a little bit longer,” Auger said. “It’s had an impact on the sports fisheries. King salmon, especially for the gillnet fishery, you’re giving up time to catch sockeye.”

Jared Gross also attended the gillnetters meeting at the Stikine Inn on April 7.

“What's really happening here, in the gillnet fishery, is we’ve lost a lot of fishing time over the years,” Gross said April 12. “It's directly because of management and the escapement goal for the Stikine River.”

Separate from the state-managed commercial fishery in salt water, federal managers for the sixth year in a row have closed the Stikine River chinook subsistence fishery to help preserve weak runs of the returning salmon.

“The preseason forecast for the Stikine River is 7,400 large chinook salmon (greater than 28 inches in total length), which is below the escapement goal range of 14,000 to 28,000 large chinook salmon,” the federal announcement reported.

“The gillnet fleet went from fishing in May … and we would be fishing wild fish, king salmon,” Gross said. Now, “it’s not even wild salmon,” he said, noting that the fleet is allowed to fish at Anita Bay, a release site for hatchery salmon.

The gillnet fleet is on restrictions in July in District 6, said Wrangell’s Chris Guggenbickler, president of the United Southeast Alaska Gillnetters Association, who also attended the Board of Fisheries Anchorage meeting.

Fisherman Alan Reeves said the fisheries board and other managers try to create an even playing field between commercial gear types. “Trollers have never got (enough of) what they’re supposed to catch. Gillnetters are too efficient. Seiners are right behind in their allotment. … The real fight is over Anita Bay,” he said April 14.

“The fisherman owns the fish,” Reeves said, referring to self-assessments on commercial catches to fund hatchery operations. “They’re trying to catch their allotment during that time. Fish are weird, sometimes they come in this bay or that bay.”

A seiner can kill a gillnet run, “because they catch everything,” Reeves said.

“There is always someone looking to pick your pocket,” Auger said of the different gear types all going after salmon. The younger generation needs to be aware of that and get involved, he said.

“You can’t just run down to the harbor and go fishing. You need people like (Guggenbickler) doing the work and making sure you have the fish to catch,” he said.

Auger said it’s tough having only a handful of people go to Anchorage from Southeast to be the vanguard for gillnetters.

Keeping their industry alive in an era of diminished returns and continued restrictions, and turning over leadership to a younger generation, were the chief concerns for the more than a dozen gillnetters gathered at the Stikine Inn on April 7.

“They’re the future. We’re the guys fading out of the fisheries,” Auger said.

Guggenbickler’s term on the gillnetters association board is up in two years. Auger serves as Alaska’s alternative commissioner to the Pacific Salmon Treaty, and there will be a seat on the Southern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association.


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