TRANSCRIPT - Jev Shelton
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.
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.
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?
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.