Bristol Bay’s commercial salmon fishery can be fast-paced and competitive. Many local fishermen support a longstanding regulation they say keeps competition in check by limiting the size of the boats.
Commercial drift gillnet boats must measure 32 feet or less to fish in the bay. And the fleet got a finger-wagging from the Alaska Wildlife Troopers earlier this year — a reminder to keep their boats within that limit.
Wildlife trooper Capt. Aaron Frenzel said they fielded more complaints than usual about big vessels last year. So after the season, they went over to boat yards in King Salmon and Naknek to see what was going on.
“A lot of the stuff is below the waterline that we can’t see… while we’re out on the water inspecting vessels,” he said. “So we started seeing some areas that just kind of expanded.”
Those boats were a little bigger than what’s allowed in regulation, and troopers decided to raise awareness among the fleet ahead of this season. In February, they published a public letter outlining exactly what is included in the 32-foot measurement.
Frenzel said they hope fishermen will bring their boats into regulation this year. For some of the vessels, the extra length comes from equipment meant to help with safety or increase the quality of the fish — like ladders or refrigerated seawater systems. But troopers won’t be targeting boats for transgressions due to safety or quality equipment, he said.
Instead, they will focus more on what Frenzel calls “performance enhancing” additions, like hull extensions.
“Maybe a vessel that’s actually 34 feet in length, or has some kind of adaptation that provides a significant performance benefit to the vessel that’s beyond the allowable length,” he said. “Those are the type of vessels that we’ll be taking a closer look at this summer and determining if we need to take enforcement action on.”
Bristol Bay’s 32-foot rule has been a point of debate in many Board of Fisheries meetings over the years. Some fishermen argue that bigger boats could allow for safer seasons, more efficient harvests, better quality and more money. But others say they would disenfranchise the local fishermen, who may have smaller boats and may not be able to buy into a more competitive fishery.
Rep. Bryce Edgmon of Dillingham is among those who want to keep the status quo. Edgmon said he and Sen. Lyman Hoffman of Bethel met with Alaska Wildlife Troopers and the commissioner of the Department of Public Safety to ensure there was follow-through to protect the 32-foot rule.
“Myself and the senator, we’re going to, you know, really go to the mat on this issue if there were any attempts to deviate from that regulation,” Edgmon said.
Frenzel said people probably started calling out bigger boats last year because they’ve gradually gotten bigger; he said one fisherman compared Bristol Bay boats to accordions.
“It got stretched out here and there, until all of a sudden, there were some vessels that were so stretched out, that the flag started being flown by other fishermen,” he said. “And that’s what we started looking at.”
Frenzel said the fishery has also changed a lot in the past 20 years — newer boats have equipment that may make them bigger.
“The vessels are just a different breed now. So they’re doing things that one would never have thought was possible before,” he said. “So I think that has a lot to do with it is just the new equipment that’s being put on it. And the new engines, the outdrives that are on them, things have just changed. And the regulation just didn’t change with it.”
This isn’t the first time troopers have focused on the issue.
Tom Glass, a commercial fisherman who lives in Dillingham, said troopers cracked down on the 32-foot limit in the early 90s, when he was working as a deckhand. And some fishermen went to drastic measures to comply by shortening the bows of their boats.
“Some would just grind off a couple inches and others would cut off like two feet,” he said. “They were too long by two feet or maybe more.”
At one point, Glass said, someone took a cut-off boat nose and threw it in the brush near the Alaska Commercial grocery store in downtown Dillingham.
“And after a while there was a whole pile up in that area there, of noses from the boats. It’s just kind of funny,” he said, “everybody getting their noses cut off that season.”
Glass said some of those boats are still around – some of the fiberglass vessels have caps bolted on with the help of some sealant, and aluminum boats are welded up.
Today, Glass said, he’s happy with the 32 foot limit, although he could use a few extra feet in his already-crowded engine room.
Troopers say anyone with questions about their boat can call the post in King Salmon at 907-246-3307, Dillingham at 907-842-5351, Kodiak at 907-486-4762 or Capt. Aaron Frenzel at 907-334-2501.