In the village of Chignik Bay, it’s all about salmon. It’s a tiny South Peninsula outpost with a population of about 200 during the summer and about 70 during the winter, and the economy has been built on fishing for over a century. But now, the fish just aren’t coming.
“They call it fishing, not catching,” said fisherman Ben Allen. “So we know we got to go try, but there’s nothing out there.”
For the second year in a row, Allen and other Chignik fishermen have mostly been left to twiddle their thumbs. During the summer of 2018, they did not have a single opener. That was a year without fish, and a year without income.
With a healthy dose of optimism in the offseason, many were ready to write off the bad summer as a fluke and get back to fishing in 2019. The second half of the season has produced a handful of openers, but after the entire first half of the season passed with no catch, fishermen say there’s still a dwindling sense of hope.
“People are honestly just looking to leave,” Allen said. “The mood is not even ‘Oh no, our fishery is gone.’ It’s more of a, ‘I need to go find a new place to live and a new place to work. I have no job here.’”
Ben and his wife Raechel have been fishing Chignik together every summer for the past 21 years. Raechel has been coming to this fishery with her dad for over four decades. While some in this town have gotten fed up and left — getting their hands on permits to fish in other districts such as Kodiak and Sand Point — the Allens are part of a small group that has chosen to tough it out and stay put. But that decision is getting harder by the day.
“Even for us,” Allen said. “It’s getting down to the point now where we’re going to have to make a decision to either leave and go fish somewhere else or go find a new completely new industry to be in.”
In a harbor that’s about half as full as it might be in a good year, fishermen have stuck around for a variety of reasons. Some do not have the money to get a permit in another district. But others, like Axel Kopun, whose family has been fishing here for more than fifty years, simply feel too connected to Chignik to take their boat anywhere else.
“It’s just not right to give up on it,” Kopun said. “And if it wasn’t for this area, none of us would have anything. Chignik has given all our families everything we have.”
For those who have dug in their heels and committed to fishing in Chignik, a year without a catch was bad. But a second year without fishing — and without income — is pushing things to the brink of catastrophe.
“It’s hanging by a thread,” Kopun said. “Everybody’s has to really take a serious look in the mirror and say, ‘What am I going to do?’ You know, if we don’t fish it all this year, what do we do?”
People in Chignik say the two-year shortage is no accident. Of course, conditions can change from time to time, and there are good years and bad years. But the running theory here is that these weak runs are the result of mismanagement.
“When you know the area right next to you is hammering your fish at levels they weren’t able to before,” Kopun said. “And they’ve been even given more fishing time, you don’t have a whole lot of faith in your fish getting back to you.”
People in Chignik think the fish are still heading their way, but they’re being cut off by fishing in Area M and other nearby districts. Most of the blame and frustration, then, is directed at the Board of Fisheries, the state body that makes regulatory decisions about where and how much fishing goes on in Alaska. Recently, Allen says, those decisions have left Chignik by the wayside.
“The heads of the groups believe that this place is more of a thorn in their side,” Allen said. “Basically they just don’t see the money coming from it. And when you don’t have money coming from somewhere, then it’s really not something worth protecting.”
The Board of Fish contends the opposite. Fritz Johnson, a board member serving in his second term, says the decisions aren’t as cold and calculated as they’re being made out to be.
“I would suggest there’s a lot more nuance than just numbers,” Johnson said. “You can’t help but feel for what’s what’s happening in Chignik and the people there.”
Since they’re not out fishing, Allen and his wife have turned their energy to research — poring over statistics and data, trying to put together a case for Chignik that they can take to the Board of Fisheries. But when they’ve done so, he says, they haven’t found much sympathy.
“We’ve been over and over to these board official meetings and we’ve begged and we pleaded,” Allen said. “And this is not a new thing. This is something that we’ve been calling to the board, saying something’s wrong with our system. It’s slowly going down hill. And decisions were made at the board level that said, ‘It’ll bounce back, it’ll bounce back. Don’t worry about it.’”
The Board of Fisheries has held that their job is primarily to make sure that the run is biologically sustainable, a priority that doesn’t necessarily account for the commercial viability of a given fishery. Johnson says it’s keeping an eye on the Chignik situation, and the board has already tried to make some corrective moves in the past.
“I have to appreciate their frustration,” Johnson said. “That fishery is long standing and has been healthy for a long time. And the fact that it was an abject failure last year is the result of probably a combination of factors. The board took some action to enlarge the windows for escapement in a couple areas and you know, that that needs to be looked at again, if it’s not working.”
Johnson claims that, to a degree, the board’s decisions are at the whim of changing environmental factors. Because of those changing factors, it’s hard to know whether the paucity of fish in Chignik is the result of mismanagement or unpredictable environmental shifts.
“The ocean is changing,” Johnson said. “The climate is changing. If we had the answer to that question, it might be a much easier solution to fix the problem.”
Whatever the reason for the shortage, it’s not just people in Chignik that are suffering. The city itself is feeling the sting of two missed seasons. When fishermen aren’t bringing in money, the city is missing out on tax dollars. With a skeleton crew of boats, they aren’t getting much in the way of harbor fees either.
As the money is dwindling, there are fears that essential services could go away. At a recent city council meeting, things got tense when someone asked where the funds would come from to pay for fuel for the village’s generator. While a hydroelectric system is currently under construction, Chignik currently relies on that generator to power, light and heat homes and businesses throughout the community.
“How long is this city going to be able to function here,” Kopun said. “If they can’t keep the generators on and the water going, then all of a sudden you’re asking people to buy their own generators for electricity and then pack water.”
There are fears that a host of essential services in Chignik could die off. For example, the school is down to about a dozen students across all grades. If that number dips down below 10, it loses state funding and would likely shut down. For Raechel Allen, who’s been coming here to fish with her family since she was two years old, having to go anywhere besides Chignik would be devastating.
“It’s my home,” Allen said. “It’s my family. It’s my friends. I put my sweat, blood and tears into it. It’s everything. I’d have to rebuild.”
But as long as she is still in Chignik, Allen says she’ll keep pressing on and doing what she can to try and bring the fish back.
“I think it’s worth fighting for as an example,” Allen said. “To any community. It’s the wrong way to go about things when you have a community based on a resource. And to let it die is wrong.”