By Matt Alward
For The Cordova Times
When I was 18 years old, I had an itch for adventure and headed up the Alaska Highway. From there, I followed Alaska’s roads to Homer, arriving in 1992. I grew up in construction, but always had a calling to the water and hard work. Construction work can be hard to find in the winter so I took what I could get and ended up fishing my first fishing season herring seining in Kodiak and Togiak in the spring of 1994. This was pivotal for me; suddenly meaning was given to what seemed like an arbitrary decision to pick up my life in California, throw it in a duffel bag and move it to Alaska.
After that, I seined salmon as a deckhand off Kodiak and found myself inspired to build a fisherman’s lifestyle of my own. I bought my first seiner in 2004, the F/V Shrike: 32-feet, 40 years old and made of plywood. This boat carried me and my crew through three years of fishing salmon in the Lower Cook Inlet. I bought my second boat in 2008 and have fished the Kodiak seine fishery every year since.
The life of a commercial fisherman is not for everyone, nor is it a life everyone can understand. It is an unrequited love story with the ocean, where men and women are called to some of the harshest climates to harvest food that quite literally feeds the world. This is also why sustainable fisheries are so important to my lifestyle and the lifestyles of those who enjoy wild Alaska salmon. If we cannot count on the fish, what’s left for those who make a living out of fishing?
Now, as the president of United Fishermen of Alaska and owner of Bulletproof Nets in Homer, my life rotates around Alaska’s fisheries and servicing those engaged in them. Not just the Deadliest Catch version of commercial fishing, but how to practically, collaboratively address the issues fishermen face today. Many of the answers we come to only lead to more questions: How do we toe the line of supporting the wild stocks and still maintaining robust harvests for all users? How do we support Alaskans while keeping up with international demands? Can we supplement natural fluctuations in run cycles? Should we? How do we ensure Alaskans have plenty of salmon, while still protecting the stocks and providing healthy protein for American and the world?
Commercial fishermen are not ignoring the science, as some accuse; they are at the forefront of advocating and relying on it. Salmon hatcheries, for example, spend millions of dollars conducting research statewide. Alaska’s hatchery program is a feat in off-grid innovation and provides for those – like myself – who provide for others. The hatchery program also provides significant opportunity for sport, personal use and subsistence fishermen. In fact, in 2018 alone over a quarter0million hatchery salmon were harvested by sport, personal use and subsistence fisheries. At the end of the day, we are working toward promoting not only sustainable lives for those who love what they do. All Alaskans need to come together with that goal in mind.
Fisheries in Alaska make up the largest employer in the state, each job with its own story of how a person found his or her way to the water. This is about fish, but it’s also about people. Contrary to some, I am excited for the future of Alaska’s fisheries, knowing passionate men and women are working now to secure and foster it or all user groups. Commercial fishermen are used to working hard, and creating a strong future for Alaska’s fisheries will be no exception.
Matt Alward, a resident of Homer, is a commercial fisherman and president of United Fishermen of Alaska.