Kodiak jig fishermen explore other markets during poor cod season

Darius Kasprzak and his vessel, the Marona, which he says he’s in the process of repainting. (Photo by Kayla Desroches / KMXT)

Kodiak processors and fishermen are seeing the effects of the 80 percent cut to cod quota in the Gulf of Alaska.

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Some small boat fishermen who previously relied on targeting cod are turning to other means to make a profit. One way to do that is to join a community supported fishery, or CSF.

That’s what some Kodiak jig fishermen are doing to bolster their incomes.

Jig fisherman Darius Kasprzak holds up a scrap piece of iron from WWII. He says he picked it up off a beach and uses it as a weight for his line.

“When people were making money cod fishing, you’d just buy lead weights, but those days are over,” Kasprzak said.

Kasprzak is the president of the Alaska Jig Association, and says – like him – a lot of jig fishermen made the bulk of their income off cod.

And with the decline of cod, he says he’s also seen the association drop from around 40 members to 15 or 16.

Kasprzak says where he once harvested rockfish in the summer to diversify his catch, it’s now his target species. However, he says his rockfish catches have been less plentiful recently.

“We can no longer continue to do business on a volume oriented business model, because the volume just isn’t there anymore,” Kasprzak said. “You have to get paid more for less fish. It’s the only way we can remain in business.”

Kasprzak describes a careful process of ensuring the rockfish remains fresh from sea to dock. The goal is to emphasize quality over quantity.

“When you hold the finished sample in your hands, it’s just a like a piece of Ivory soap. It’s just white and clear, there’s no bruising, there’s no gapping.”

That’s the kind of quality people in the Lower 48 are willing to pay for. At least that’s what some jig fishermen are banking on.

Kazprzak along with a handful of other fishermen are selling rockfish to Sitka Salmon Shares, a direct-to-consumer group that markets fresh, sustainably-caught product to customers in the Midwest.

The organization is also working with a couple of processors around Kodiak, like Global Seafoods.

Plant manager Nik Morozov says Global Seafoods had the space available to accommodate the group.

“And then we just in general didn’t want to turn down the small guys in town, so we decided to take on a project,” Morozov said.

And Morozov says with the 80 percent cut to cod quota this year, it also provides his employees with extra work.

“So, anything that we could plug up into those empty spaces there would help,” Morozov said. “It gives them at least an extra couple of hours here and there.”

Right now, Sitka Salmon Shares’ business is not a money maker.

Morozov says they’ll be breaking even, and they’d like more fishermen and a bigger harvest to make a profit.

Ryan Horwath is the Kodiak fleet manager for Sitka Salmon Shares and calls their 4 to 6 fishermen a “happy” number of participants for the group at this point.

But Horwath hopes there could be room to grow in the future.

“If we can fill these orders, these early orders, then they are talking about expanding their business to include more species from Kodiak,” Horwath said.

Horwath says Sitka Salmon Shares is buying more rockfish out of Kodiak this year after a preliminary purchase in 2017.

That’s good news for fishermen targeting rockfish. Horwath says Sitka Salmon Shares offers vessels around a dollar a pound for the fish, which is at least twice the profit Kodiak jig fishermen would usually make on rockfish, if not more.

And while Horwath is optimistic about getting other processors involved, he says companies may give priority to more profitable operations. Breaking even might not be enough in the long run.