On a bright July day, Auke Bay’s Don Statter Harbor was overflowing with commercial fishing vessels. Each slip appeared to be filled, as fishermen from across the state and the Pacific Northwest arrived for a scheduled opening for salmon fishing.
Sig Mathisen, a commercial fisherman of 55 years, was among them. Mathisen has fished the waters of Southeast Alaska since he was 12, when he first stepped onto his father’s boat. Based in Petersburg, he fished through the historically tough years of statehood, when he said the salmon returns where dismal. He watched the state take over the management of Alaska fisheries and the subsequent rise in returns.
Mathisen said he thinks Alaska’s salmon species — the chum, pink, silver, sockeye and king — have seen strong returns in recent years overall, but he has also seen the returns ebb and flow like the tides of the ocean. Some years are better than others, he said.
This year — which saw a state record of some 270 million salmon harvested —Mathisen said he, “was impressed and proud by the way the salmon return came in.
“The volume was incredible. The numbers we’re seeing on the good cycles are good enough to sustain the salmon fishermen.”
Not counting the sport fishing industry, commercial fishing is the No. 1 private employer in Alaska, with more than 60,000 people working in all sectors from fishing to processing and support services. According to recent federal data, total fish landings in Alaska for 2012 totaled 5.3 billion pounds worth some $1.7 billion. The preliminary value for Alaska salmon at the docks in 2013 is pegged at $670 million, and that will increase in the next few months as processors make end-of-season price adjustments to fishermen.