Story last updated at 11:34 a.m. Friday, August 2, 2002

New technology, feuds fuel fishery
by Sepp Jannotta
Staff Writer

Incidents of vandalism and boat ramming are symptoms of what has become a turf war and a war of ideology this summer on the Chignik fishing grounds.

The difficulties of implementing an unprecedented cooperative in Chignik have been compounded by below average sockeye salmon runs.

Despite some strife, the cooperative Chignik Seafood Producers Alliance is forging ahead with the implementation of new live fish-pump technology designed to deliver a premium-quality, flash-frozen sockeye to consumers.

The 77-member cooperative salmon fishing operation, which the Alaska Board of Fisheries approved amid much controversy last winter, received an allocation of around 70 percent of the Chignik fishery. The remaining 22 Chignik permit holders, who hold the right to harvest the remaining 30 percent, opted to continue fishing in the tradition that has been the standard in the fishery for a century or more -- an every-boat-for-itself race to catch as many fish as possible.

Initial estimates for the Chignik sockeye fishery were around 1.5 million, and, as of Friday, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game put the total catch at more than 800,000 sockeyes, with the co-op pulling 68 percent of that total.

Hardest for the competitive fishermen to stomach is the waiting on the beach, watching while the co-op methodically pursues its portion of the resource. To cut down on its expenses, the co-op has used only a small percentage of its fleet -- 17 or 18 boats -- to do the actual fishing. The more leisurely pace has generally allowed Fish and Game to green-light the co-op boats.

Therefore, with the exception of nine openings for the competitive fleet, the co-op has been on the water nearly every day of the season. The first Fish and Game cooling- off period didn't come until July 5, after the co-op had fished for 25 straight days.

All the while the bad blood has continued to boil for the competitive fishermen.

"We feel like we're getting short-shafted because we haven't been able to use the whole fishery, so, yeah, there are some hard feelings," said Michael Grunert, who added that the competitive openings have been consistently troubled by stormy weather. "Like we need that (kind of luck). I don't need a handicap, 30 percent is enough of a handicap."

Chignik Seafood Producers Alliance President Axel Kopun said given that there are fewer boats competing for fish during the competitive openers, he assumed the competitive fleet was actually faring better than it had historically.

"For starters, they were actually allocated more fish than they would have had historically, and I think they're probably ahead of the game," Kopun said. "When they're (fishing) you've got 18 boats in the lagoon and four on the capes.

"Realistically speaking, (the co-op) has benefited both groups and maximizes efficiency for both groups."

Some of that efficiency has shown up in Fish and Game's ability to manage the fishery and meet its escapement goals.

George Pappas, the Fish and Game manager for Chignik, said when the co-op is fishing, he has been able to manage the fishery on a daily basis, giving the co-op a number of fish to catch. More often than not, the co-op has hit that number, he said.

"We're only about 1,000 fish behind (in escapement)," Pappas said. "That's not bad out of 564,000 fish at the weir."

Meanwhile, the co-op is working to refine its systems for delivering fish alive to Ray Wadsworth's vessel, the Wild Salmon, where processing machines fillet, de-bone and vacuum pack the still-fresh fish for flash freezing. From the live fish to the frozen fillet, the process takes around half an hour.

When Dan Veerhusen departed the Homer Harbor in early July and pointed his boat out toward Shelikof Straight, he had just run the first test of new net-tendering technology that employs a Transvac Silkstream fish pump to pull fish alive out of the co-op boats' seine nets.

So far, according to Kopun, the system has been working well on the fishing grounds, though he admitted that the co-op is moving slowly to work out the kinks.

The pump, which can be set on the deck of any sizable boat, pumps the fish into a live tank aboard the tender, then motors back to a net pen where the fish are kept until Wadsworth can process them. Each day, in addition to the fish it delivers to NorQuest Seafoods, the co-op puts 1,000-3,000 fish in the holding pen.

Kopun said the fish can survive four or five days in the pen with very little mortality. Any fish that don't survive go to NorQuest. Kopun said the co-op is getting 68 cents a pound for its fish from NorQuest. Wadsworth is reportedly paying $1 a pound for the fish coming from the live pen.

In an apparent attack on the new technology, Wadsworth's boat was marked with graffiti that pronounced "tradition rules."

Originally proposed by Homer resident Jamie Ross, the Chignik cooperative has so far survived the legal challenges of its opponents, as a Juneau judge on June 28 threw out a motion seeking to put an injunction on the co-op. Legal wrangling will likely continue, and the issue is sure to be debated by the Fish Board over the winter.

But one battle on the fishing grounds proved to be somewhat more tangible.

In an incident just days before the ruling, the competitive fishing vessel Christine K allegedly rammed into the 46-foot Amber Nicole, a co-op vessel.

Alaska State Troopers have filed charges stemming from the incident.

Where the fishermen had been, by and large, in friendly competition in years past, now there are hard feelings over the changes.

While Pappas said he thinks that Chignik is still a "gentlemen's fishery," he acknowledged that change had left those outside the co-op very upset.

"I believe that the tensions will come down, now that everybody has a better understanding of the way all this works," Pappas said.

Grunert wasn't so sure.

"I can't make it like this," he said. "If this co-op is happening next year, I'm going to get a permit for Kodiak or somewhere else.

"Watching these guys fish is like watching a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest."