Cordova Chronicles: Fishing on the Dark Side

Those 23,159 pounds of chum salmon turned out to be real pricey

During a sunny May 2017 subsistence opener, bow pickers work short 50 fathom gill nets in a Copper River area marked open by electronic GPS markers. Photo by Dick Shellhorn/The Cordova Times

Cordova is a fishing community, and we’ve all heard stories of seiners or gillnetters being caught plying their trade in closed waters.

It is sometimes called “creek robbing,” for the action often involves harvesting salmon inside the protected waters of countless streams around Prince William Sound or elsewhere in Alaska.

In the Copper River drift net fishery, the term is aptly named “going over the line,” as the salmon being illegally caught are inside imaginary lines marking closed waters. At one time they were delineated by signs on poles driven into the Delta mud prior to the start of the season.

Several years ago, an amusing story about a local fisherman who had been busted for going over the line made the rounds. When the intrepid gill netter showed up for traditional early morning coffee at one of the local restaurants, where fishermen gather to exchange lies about how many fish they caught during the last opener, he headed for his usual seat, only to be directed to sit on the other side of the table.

It was called the dark side, to which all the fishermen who had been found guilty of illegal harvesting activities were banished.

Supposedly, the violator tried to retain his original seat by using the same argument that had not persuaded a judge of his innocence, which went something like this: “It was such a big minus tide I couldn’t see the markers, even when I stood on the cabin of my bow picker.”

This was greeted with raucous laughter, and also meant he had to buy the coffee that morning.

These days, physical markers are a thing of the past. It’s all based on GPS waypoints, which has resulted in some equally amusing plea bargaining.  A local old-timer who was spotted over the line by an ADF&G enforcement plane later explained that his daughter, who was on board to help him out, misinterpreted the data on his plotter. The judge was not sympathetic to that argument either.

What brought all this to mind was an article that appeared in the Jan. 17 edition of the Anchorage Daily News, titled “Alaska commercial fisherman who robbed creeks of spawning salmon forfeits boat and gear.”

The F/V Tlingit Lady.  Photo courtesy of the Alaska Department of Law
The F/V Tlingit Lady. Photo courtesy of the Alaska Department of Law

It seems the F/V Tlingit Lady, a 58-foot wooden seiner that was built in 1951 and was skippered by Curtis Demmert of Klawock, was so far over the line in Southeast waters that state prosecutor Aaron Peterson termed it “extraordinary,” stating “the level of egregiousness is what sets it off.”

He had a point. Demmert was fishing in an area near Prince of Wales Island that not only had been closed for “at least 29 years” but was 65 miles inside the borderline.   Now that’s truly “going over the line.”

It’s a navigational fact that one minute of latitude equals one nautical mile, so I suppose one might have argued that he misread one of the major digits on his GPS.  However, it must have seemed a bit strange to be as far as the distance across Prince William Sound from the nearest competition.

It turns out technology, in the form of a satellite phone call from an unidentified man to report the incident, who also provided video and pictures, was crucial to the investigation.

“The fact that the defendant was caught in this manner is nothing short of miraculous,” wrote Peterson. “Wildlife troopers do not have the resources to patrol all state waters. And Demmert was in a remote area far from where anyone expected to see a commercial fisherman.”

Fishing in solitude, Demmert hauled in 23,159 pounds of chum salmon. They turned out to be rather pricey. Magistrate Judge Kay Clark sentenced him to a year of probation, $32,728.78 in fines, and also ordered him to forfeit money and property:  $17,728.79 — the value of the illegal caught salmon, his interest in the Tlingit Lady, his skiff, nets and all other fishing gear.

The description of his illegal activity also includes this tidbit: “After pulling in its nets, the vessel’s lights were turned off and it left the area in the dark.”

We all know how long Alaska summer days are. Clearly Demmert and the Tlingit Lady had crossed over to the dark side.

And even the boys sitting on the dark side of the local fisherman’s coffee klatch had to get a little chuckle out of that one.

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Dick Shellhorn, author, reporter, ref and grandpa, can be reached at shorn@gci.net. Shellhorn was born and raised in Cordova, Alaska, and has lived there his entire life. He has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 40 years. In his Cordova Chronicles features, he writes about the history and characters of this Alaska town. Alaska Press Club awarded Shellhorn first place for Best Humor column in 2016 and third place in 2017.