INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT - Charlie Christiansen

Charlie Christiansen is a commercial fisherman in Petersburg, Alaska.

Could you speak about some of the changes that the industry has gone through and some of your feelings about it?

Well, I'm one of the people that have gone through all of those changes, starting 30 years ago. You used to fish long, long seasons and not for very much fish, with lots of conservation, and we built seasons up to where it was extremely good fishing. Went into derby style fishing where it was really unsafe for people to participate in it. The consumer was getting a bad deal.

I've seen limited entry come in. I'm one of the people that weren't around during the salmon limited-entry and crab limited-entry, so I've had to purchase my permits to continue fishing. I've been around during the IFQs change when some of the fortunate people that got awarded some IFQ.

And as I see it, one of the things that changed the industry early on was the advent of hydraulics power, where you haul things aboard. And during that time was, "Oh my! This is going to be the death of the resource." That it's way too efficient, that we're going to catch everything. Management adjusted, industry adjusted and we are all better off for it.

And then we got into things like the limit on seine boats - the big influx of great big sardine-type seiners from California, Oregon, Washington that had fished their fisheries out and were looking for a new home. And that was a protection type of thing to protect the resource and the industry we had going at the time, so they imposed the 58-foot on seine boats. And that was a big change in the industry.

And then came along limited entry in salmon and that was a huge change. That was a whole new management scheme. And we have gone through IFQ's now. Every change that we've done has been a major turmoil in the industry. And then we go through the change period, and then we go through the adjustment period, and then we've always been better off for it.

The industry is healthier, the resource is healthier, the market is better. We've adjusted. And if we don't have these types of shake-ups in the industry, we grow stagnant. And we may fall by the wayside like the east coast, or some of the other fisheries where interest was just lost in it because of complacency.

Could you speak to some of the technology, like the electronics?

GPS is another thing. Basically, anybody can navigate a boat or a fishing boat. Anybody that wanted could go fishing. And it puts a lot of people on more equal footing as far as knowing where you are, when you're going to get there. The individual part of fishing is still very unique in its own way, in terms of the decisions you make when you fish, but with the sonar and our radar anyone could fish.

And now in my vessel we have communications with my company, our fish buyers, home, at all times now, whereas before, that was not an option. We can call around; get the best prices. Where before, you had your company, you went there, you took what you got and went back fishing again. So there has been major changes in the communication part in the fishing industry that has brought out a lot of price changes because you have the option to go somewhere else by calling ahead or not catching as much fish right now because the price is low, or you can catch more fish because the price is high or run it to a different community.

The communication in the industry in the last 3 or 4 years has probably been one of the bigger changes since IFQs. How has it helped you keep in touch with your family?

We can be online on the fishing boats now. We can check different things with the Department of Fish and Game - what the analyses are, what the changes they've done, the sex ratio difference in salmon, because that gives you a good indication about what the strength of the run is.

I can stay in touch with my wife and my family at home at all times for anything important that comes up or just to chat. And my children who are all in college and fish with me, they have email accounts. They deal with their people in school and working on other projects with the computers on board. So all these innovations that we have put on these boats now have not only helped my fishing, but has made life more convenient on here.

Could you speak a little bit about your family? It seems like they are part of your crew.

They've been part of my crew, my family. My children have been with me since they have been old enough to be on the boat. And they have gone along just to go, and then as they grew older, they moved into the fishing part of it. They fish with me all summer, and then go to college in the wintertime. They all are full-working members of this boat and 3 of the 5 crewmembers are my children.

And I enjoy having them with me. I love the old father adage - Do you know where your children are? And I like to say yes, within 58 feet of me. I can always find them and have a conversation with them. They're a captive audience, as opposed to living in town where they are always gone all the time. So I really enjoy this time that I have with my children on the boat. I am sure they enjoy it too. It's mutual. At times, it can get a little testy-having family on the boat, and bad weather and poor fishing and long days. It gets to the best of crewmembers, let alone family. We can have our times, yes. But we do get over that.

I am sure they enjoy it too.

It's mutual. At times, it can get a little testy having family on the boat, and bad weather and poor fishing and long days. It gets to the best of crewmembers, let alone family. We can have our times, yes. But we do get over that.

You were talking a little bit about what happened 5 or 7 years ago. You lost a boat. What kind of impact does that have on your outlook on life or fishing?

Well, of course the first thing I wanted to do after spending that time in that cold water and having a close call was to go home and hug my children. And be happy that I was alive. It was very close. And after going through that kind of situation where you think you are going to lose your life in this industry, I have changed my philosophy quite a bit about it. I don't have to catch all of the fish that are out there. They have tails. They'll swim to me. If it's too rough, they'll be there tomorrow.

Before, we'd try to fish no matter what. But a lot of that had to do with the way fishing was. It used to be real high pressure, high fish regardless, no matter what. And after this has happened, it made you reflect and find out what is really important and what is important is having a safe and happy crew and a safe vessel and living to fish again tomorrow. And I am a very big proponent in survival suit safety. Without them, we never would have made it. So what saved our lives was having our equipment in good shape.

Is there a sense with your pals that even with the technological equipment and the survival suits, fishing can be a dangerous occupation?

It is a very dangerous occupation. For one of the facts is you have a lot of weight and power and things flying around and moving all of the time. You are on a small boat and the ocean is very big. And you are isolated if something does happen. It does take awhile for people to get there. It is dangerous. And safety can't be stressed enough. And all the inroads we've made into vessel safety and boating safety is always a good thing because it saves lives.

It sounds like your experience of losing your boat has changed your attitude, but it also sounds like ITQs have created a saner approach to fishing, at least in the halibut fishery.

The change has happened, and like I mentioned before, the adjustment period is what we're doing now. We're learning, we're adjusting to this type of fishery. And it has really helped the resource. I think the resource is the big winner in the IFQ fishery.

And then the second big winner is the consumer, even though some fishermen are out of business. They didn't' get enough. They had to invest in other things or get out of it completely. Some of the processors have taken a big hit because they've worked on large volumes and they took a big cut in that.

So the change in it, as long as the resource is the one that wins, that there will be a fishery there when I retire, and my children take this over that they can fight for and maintain to keep going is what it's really all about. It's not whether I am going to catch a lot of fish tomorrow or in the next two years. It's what's going to be there in 20, 30 years from now.

How about to the degree that it eliminated the derby open and so on?

That's the mindset that I had when I sunk my boat was that derby style of fishing, where you had to get there no matter what; there wasn't any extension for bad weather, for breakdowns. In the derby style, you get it or missed it. And being in debt, my production depending on paying that debt, you're there.

And you take risks that you shouldn't normally take because you've got 24 hours or 48 or 36 or two 24-hour openings and you have to make the majority of your livelihood in those couple days. And not only for myself, but for five other guys that fish with me. Their livelihood depends on it. And we have to be there.

And by having IFQs and being able to make those decisions on when I want to fish and how I want to fish and who I want to sell the fish to has eliminated the disasters that were looming in the horizon during this derby style of fishery. And even though the resource was managed well even at a derby style of fishery, it was still suffering because we were taking it all out at the same time of year. It wasn't spread out. It was a lot of our concerns.

And all of the fisheries resource, politics and resource meetings I've been to, the outcome has always been very conservative to worry about what we're doing to the resource and err on the side of the resource of the fish, instead of err on the side of economics, because they will be there to catch another time.

It seems that a lot of the fishermen we talked to are always talking about resource coming first. How come there is such a difference in attitude between fishermen in Alaska and fishermen in New England?

I think it's got a lot to do with our history here, all the way from fish traps. When the big companies owned the fish traps and the management, they were fishing it out of existence. And when that changed to this style of fishing, they did away with king's statehood, which got rid of the fish traps and all the years that we conserve.

We had years where 100,000 pounds would be a big season. That would be tremendous. And we've been through all these years of rebuilding these streams and rebuilding our runs and being very careful.

And now we've come full circle where we've built such big runs that there's not enough consumers to take care of the amount of salmon that we've built these runs up to. And these are wild salmon. There's been no help from man or hatcheries. They're on their own.

And by being very careful about selection of how much fish we take out of different areas, we've built these runs up to that. And unfortunately, they've gotten so big, in some creeks that it's become a detriment-they've run out of oxygen in their streams, and there's too much fish in 'em, but we have nowhere to sell 'em.

A lot of people would be dying for that problem down in the lower 48.

Yeah. That's one of my biggest gripes being in this industry in Alaska. The armchair conservationists in the lower 48 that don't really have a clue about how much time and effort we spend to have this resource and to keep it around. And it gets to be political then when we get to have closures, like in Glacier Bay and in other areas, where it has nothing to do with resource management. It's all political.

And that, I think, is one of our biggest fears in the future. It's not the health of our stocks. I think we've done a good job. We are well on our way to knowing what we have out there, how to maintain high yields.

My biggest worry is the closure of special interest areas with no biological means whatsoever. It's just all political because somebody wants to look at something, or they don't want us there, or it's a user group argument and it's not based on what should be caught and shouldn't be caught. That's my biggest worry - they misinform public.

What is your favorite thing about fishing?

Well, it's the independence; it's the freedom. I get to spend all summers with my children on a boat. Being independent is probably the most important thing. I don't have to commute, I don't have job inside. I get to go all the places everybody would like to go. It's hard to explain why. I was born and raised into it. And I don't really know any other type of way to make a living. And it's not so much a job; it's a way of life with me. And it's a way of life with my family.

Will your children carry on the tradition?

My children hopefully will. My daughter already has. I've already transferred several permits, into my daughter's name. They are slowly taking over other parts of the fisheries already, and I do fully intend to retire some day, either on a small trawler with my wife and goof around southeast Alaska. And let the children take over this business because that's one of the main reasons why I do all this. It's a way of life for them.

Do you have a sense that they plan on taking advantage of these permits?

So far, they have. They show a great interest in fishing. They'll go on with life and meet people and do other things, but in the meantime I'm sharing with them everything that I have and my knowledge in the fishing business. It's something they'll always have, if everything goes to pieces in their life somewhere, they can always come home and go fishing - something that won't go bad.

Was your father a fisherman?

I am a second-generation fisherman. My father came here from the Midwest during the dustbowl and started fishing right away. And he fished with me up until and during the beginning of the derby days, and that was getting on his 50th year of fishing and decided this was too crazy for him and got off. And now my children are the third generation of fishermen coming up into this business.

I've made my peace with my fears of the resource being managed politically instead of biologically, since once it gets to the political realm we don't have control over it. With management we have meetings, we have public hearings, we visit, we call 'em up, we write letters.

When it gets to the political arena, especially in the federal level, we don't have any control over that. And unfortunately, they feel if they throw money at us, we'll go away. Like in Glacial Bay, we're getting paid to leave there. And that is what I see as could kill our industry up here.