­­­­At the age of 18, Matt Alward left his hometown of Berkeley, Calif., and hit the road heading north until there was no more road to drive on. At the end of that road was the fishing town was Homer, Alaska, and he’s been there ever since.

In the spring of 1994, Alward found a job fishing for herring in Kodiak and Togiak, which led him to a winter job in 1995 r­­­epairing nets at Just Knots, under master net builder Dan Moran. Twelve years later, in 2007, Moran turned the business over to Alward.

“I’ll never forget it,” Alward recalled of his old boss. “He told me, ‘When we come into work tomorrow you’re the boss, I’ll be working for you.’”

In 2004, Alward bought an old wooden seine boat for $5,000 that he ran in the Lower Cook Inlet, seining salmon with two of his three kids on the back deck. Four years later, he upgraded and purchased a 53’ fiberglass seiner, the F/V Challenger, the same boat that he runs today with his son still on board.

Alward speaking on the VHF on F/V Challenger
Alward speaking on the VHF on F/V Challenger

What differentiates Matt Alward from most, leading to his nomination as a 2023 National Fisherman Highliner, is his commitment to advocating for American fisheries.

“If there’s a fishing committee, Matt will get signed up for it and he’ll be on the board almost immediately,” said one of his American Fisheries Advisory Committee (AFAC) colleagues. 

The AFAC oversees the competitive grant program through the Saltonstall-Kennedy (S-K) Act of 1954, a program established to provide financial support for the promotion and development of US seafood. The act originally included the AFAC, but the committee was dissolved in the mid-1970s, and over the past 25 years there had been a conscious effort to reinstate the AFAC to govern the S-K grant program. 

Alward joined the reinstatement effort roughly a decade ago, and the new AFAC Act was finally signed into law last year. In December of 2022 the AFAC held their first meeting. They voted Alward, one of the four appointed at-large members, as the chair.

In a brief sit-down with Alward, one quickly realizes that he’s involved in just about everything. If airline miles could talk, they’d paint a picture of the sacrifices he’s made to improve fisheries management and the overall growth of domestic fishing communities.

To get a glimpse into his involvement, Alward’s fall travel plans were telling.

“I just got back from fishing last week. I got home on Tuesday, and on Wednesday I got a call asking if I could get to Anchorage on Thursday to meet with the undersecretary of the Dept. of Commerce for Economic Affairs. So, I jumped on a plane and flew to Anchorage. Then I flew here, to Portland, Maine, for the AFDF meeting. I fly to Homer on Sunday before flying to Anchorage on Monday for a North Pacific Research Board (NPRB) meeting.” Alward continued listing board meeting after committee meeting until the dates hit the middle of November.

He’s currently the vice chair for NPRB, which is a federal board that provides grants for research in the North Pacific region. He continued, “after NPRB, I head to Portland, Oregon to visit my oldest daughter and then on to Seattle for a Coast Guard commercial fishing vessel safety advisory committee meeting, which falls under the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA)”, another committee where he serves as the vice chair.

His next stops are to a wedding in Montana with his wife, youngest daughter, and son, then back to Sitka to work on some nets, followed by a trip to Washington, D.C. for the Seafood Harvesters of America annual meeting. From there, he plans to fly home for a few days before attending the United Fishermen of Alaska (UFA) fall meeting, where he serves as active president.

“In between there, there’s a council meeting and a Board of Fish meeting that I should probably be at,” he recounted. “Then we have the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute’s all-hands conference where I serve on the salmon committee and from there to the PME (Pacific Marine Expo),” he said. “I leave in the first week of June to fish and I just got back from fishing last week. Once fishing season ends, this is the beginning of meeting season.”

Not included in his two-month itinerary are his involvement in several additional advocacy groups. Matt serves as a board member for both the North Pacific Fisheries Association and the Alaska Fishery Development Foundation, helping to direct initiatives and grant proposals for fishery development in the region. After realizing there were no advocacy groups for seiners in Kodiak, he also helped create the Kodiak Seiners Association, where he currently acts as the group’s treasurer. 

“You could probably just list all of the committees and you’ll hit your word count,” he joked with a reporter.

Yet Alward abstains from talking much about himself, in fact, he’d probably prefer that all the advocacy groups he’s a part of be bulleted. He talks fervently, though, when discussing the initiatives of all the councils and committees that he’s involved with. He believes in them, and he wants them to improve.

It’s estimated that he spends roughly $30,000 of his own money advocating for the fishing industry, annually, which he summarizes as “having a problem saying ‘no’.”

His efforts are best summarized in his quote for a UFA campaign, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu, and that couldn’t be more true in the fishery politics world.”

Matt Alward is a deserving nominee for the 2023 Pacific Marine Expo's Highliner of the Year. His contributions to the fishing community and relentless advocacy for sustainable practices continue to shape the future of America’s fishing industry.

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Ben Hayden grew up in the shipyards of northern Massachusetts.  His passion for storytelling came about on a freelance film that highlighted businesses, farmers, and fishermen while sailing up the coast of Maine. He can be reached at [email protected].

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