Jev Shelton is a commercial gillnet fisherman in Juneau, Alaska.


How's fishing lately, compared to years past?

For now it's approaching the last 20 years, fishing for salmon here has been extraordinary, almost annually testing the all-time highs. So what's occurred is that from a period at about the time Alaska became a state, which is back in 1958, there was a very low period for 15 years or so in salmon production. That's now come up rather rapidly to the point that it's at or above any recorded catch level that could be documented in any way as far back as the fishery goes, which is about 100 years.

That's true both in this region and statewide; particularly in southeast Alaska, which is where we are, Juneau is home here. This is probably the single biggest salmon-producing region in the state. It's right in the middle of the range of the salmon and catches in a given year will range anywhere from on a very poor year maybe 20 million salmon to a very large year of roughly 100 million, which occurred just in last year, in 1999.

We won't approach that, it appears, this year but still it's a very, very good year for the fishery thus far. We've had more trouble unloading fish than we've had catching; there are a lot of them that get caught.

Why do you suppose it's so good?

There are a number of reasons salmon are doing so very well in southeast Alaska. The freshwater habitat in particular is really is as good as it's been. We're dealing with a very small human population here, and almost undisturbed freshwater habitat, which is crucial for salmons even having a chance to survive.

We've had a stroke of good luck over a series of years where Mother Nature has been very kind to us in the oceans so that ocean survival has been very good. Probably the most fundamental reason though is that there is a very well developed and studiously followed management system in place, where there's a set of biologists whose sole job is to make sure that the salmon populations flourish.

They control the fishery and they are able to monitor the strength of the runs pretty much individually as they occur during the season. So they are able to react almost on a day-to-day basis, at least on a week-to-week basis. And the upshot of that has been that they've been able to ensure, even in a relatively poor year, that adequate escapement occurs to parent the next generation.

And that in itself has produced a very, very consistent pattern of returns over the last 20 or 25 years, and even farther back than that as the populations were recovering, to the point that I think it's probably the case that these are populations operating as high as they are biologically possible. And I think we're really testing the maximum virtually every year.

I'm not sure we'll ever see a year where there are more fish than occurred in 1999. It's hard to imagine that; you could walk on them.

What makes this in-season management regime so good?

The management system in Alaska works so well and is so good because the biologists are charged with being sure that there is adequate escapement every year to perpetuate the runs. That's their sole charge; it's built into the state's Constitution. They must not allow a harvest that's over-harvested any run of fish. And they take that seriously and they do it very, very well and the results have certainly proven that out.

Has it been your experience that most of your colleagues - the salmon fishermen - respect the management regime?

I think there is a great deal of respect from the fleets for the management individuals and the management system. I think one of the things that may be unique in Alaska is that that has evolved into a rather mutual respect between the managers and the fleets.

Alaska developed a limited-entry system so that there is a fixed number of permits that may be fished at any given fishery. And what that's done is to make a very stable fleet over time. The same individuals, for quite a period of time, have become quite the professionals themselves. And so you have a professional level of interchange between the Fish and Game managers and the fleets.

And that I think has proved to work for everybody's benefit. I think the managers learned from the fishermen, and the fishermen certainly have a great deal of respect for the managers and the system.

How important is fishing and salmon to this community?

We're in Juneau which is Alaska's capital and fishing is less dominant here than anywhere else. But it remains the case that fishing is still the state's largest private employer; it is still the driving industry in this state. The state's dependent on natural resources; this is a renewable resource. Most of the communities in southeast Alaska are dependent almost exclusively on fishing, so it's in everybody's interest that these runs aren't depleting in a short period of time and that they're here on into the next generation.

Is there any room for improvement, in your mind, with what's going on in the management of this fishery here?

If the question is, is there room for improvement in this particular fishery's management system the answer is obviously yes, in any management systems that are evolving. We're dealing with a very large region, very remote; there are a better part of 5000 salmon-producing streams in the region.

The managers are on sufficiently limited budgets. They're able to keep a close track of only a tiny minority of those systems. So that they're working with indexes and general feelings on how things are progressing in a given year and they're using catch levels, rather than direct observation of escapements lots of times, to estimate the function of the population that works well and it works very well thus far. But I think it's apparent on the surface that there's lots of room for improvement. You know, it's still possible to make a mistake.

Our managers so far right now are rather experienced. They've been around in the fishery probably for as long as I have. They're not all that prone to misinterpret or to be led astray by one week's data, and it's the kind of thing they don't necessarily come by on years of experience. So I think yeah, there's a long way to go in improving the system.

On the other hand I would say that I'm certainly unaware of a fisheries management system that matches this one. It's very good. It's very tuned to the abundance; it's very conservative in the respect of fostering the long-term health of the population; it's very good at getting the harvest when they are available.

Is there anything else you care to add?

I guess the only thing that I would be inclined to add is the fact that the salmon populations in southeast Alaska, and in Alaska in general, are so healthy is not a fluke. And it should be remembered in the world at large that when there's so much publicity now in the demise of salmon populations in a lot of places where they are listed as endangered species and in general viewed as being on the verge of going beyond harvestable levels anyway, to the point of only being fractions of their historical level, should not be taken as a general view of the status of the salmon.

The ocean that bears them is in good shape. As long as the freshwater habitat that can sustain them is maintained, they'll continue to flourish. And the focus should not generalize too much from the readily available publicity about the most status of salmon. Say the Columbia River right now, the salmon are not in tough shape. No species is about to go extinct, certainly not around here. And that is not a mistake and it's not a fluke and it will continue to be that way as long as this system stays in place.

If you had to do it over again, would you do it the same way? Have you really enjoyed fishing?

Oh absolutely, I would do this again if I had the chance. It's been a delight. In the years when my kids were very young it was a bit of a trial because there was very little time at home, particularly during the salmon season or during the fishing season. I was gone from home for the better part of 6 months a year.

Once they got old enough to be on boats, starting with my daughter who is the oldest, she fished for six full seasons with me until she became a teenager and dad was not any longer one to be seen with. And each of the others of my kids has done pretty much the same. My sons still fish halibut with me. My wife spent 3 or 4 years on the boat and it's permitted us to be out and catching fish is one part of it, which I thoroughly enjoy; it's a good test of wits.

It also provides an excuse to have the equipment to get into an exquisite piece of this country, which this is. We've managed to get around an awful lot of southeast Alaska where most people will never see it. Being nose to nose with brown bear and whales and the like is a part of the lifestyle that I would not forfeit.