Salmon Fishing in Alaska
Mike and Malani O’Toole
What’s life like in Cordova?
Mike: Cordova is a small fishing community located on the eastern edge of the Prince William Sound and the western edge of the Copper River Delta. There is no road that connects Cordova to the rest of the state, so access is restricted to either boat or plane. This makes for a tight knit community, as we Cordovans must often rely on each other whether it’s needing a tow or building a house. People here have to help each other out.
How did you get involved in the fishing industry?
Mike: I was in college studying marine biology and was looking for a summer job. I was hired by a family to fish here in Cordova and I just fell in love with the fishery, with the town, and my wife. After five years fishing for the family that brought me up here, I decided to buy into gillnetting. Gillnetting is a hands-on way of fishing that suits me. It is often exciting and challenging whether it be due to competition among us fishermen or bad weather. There is always something more to learn out on the water and every day presents new challenges and adventures. I never know what I may be faced with on any given day.
Malani: I grew up in Cordova in a fishing family. I spent many years going out on the water with my father catching wild salmon and learning the ropes. Fishing for me is a way of life, not just a job.
What does the fishing industry mean to you?
Malani: Sustainable fishing has been happening in Cordova for generations. We don’t just think about fishing for those here and now, but maintaining a way of life that will benefit our children and our grandchildren and even their grandchildren. Wild salmon is a natural resource that we carefully manage and protect for longevity.
The fishermen who go out on the boats are all members of small family businesses – not large corporations – who dedicate their lives to this industry. Every single member of the fishing family plays a part. When you buy wild Alaskan salmon you are supporting a hard-working family business.
What is the quality like of Alaskan produce?
Mike: Alaska is the world’s prime location for wild salmon. The fish here is very high quality, it’s sustainable and is also a very healthy food product.
Alaskan waters are still pristine. There is so much untouched coastline here that makes for a great area for the salmon to spawn.
How are fish stocks managed and sustained?
Mike: Where, when and how long I fish for is up to the biologists. They give us openers, which are periods of time and areas that we’re allowed to catch the salmon. As my old captain used to say; ‘you have to strike whilst the iron is hot.’ If we are given a 36-hour opener, I’ll often stay awake for the whole time to maximize my catch.
Having these openers in place is important for maintaining a sustainable industry for our future and our children’s futures. The fishermen here are proud of our fishery and strive to protect it. We are all invested in this lifestyle and have personal stakes in the health of our fishery. This keeps us all accountable for maintaining sustainable practices for the sake of our families as well as our community.
Malani: Sustainable fishing is a really big deal in Cordova. The fishermen here take pride providing the world with a beautiful food product in a sustainable, clean, and responsible way.
As a fisherman, what’s life really like on the water?
Mike: Gillnetting isn’t always easy. In my eight years, I have been through breakdowns on the water, bad weather and injuries. Often these are the stories we share around bonfires to learn from each other what to do (or in my case what not to do) when things go wrong.
Fishing is very competitive which makes it intense. You can’t afford to get too comfortable out there or you may just miss a fishing opportunity. During the four month season, my every thought is focused on fish; watching each wiggle of the net, watching each boat that is coming, watching each boat that is going, each ripple, each bird, each change in wind, each temperature change, each tide change…it is all consuming.
It takes a bit of time after each season to “decompress” so to speak and learn how to relax again. It’s hard to just “turn it off”, but the contrast between the on and off seasons is part of what I love about this lifestyle. Winter is a great time to unwind and spend time with family. Cordova is a great community to raise kids and we stay busy with our two young children.
Malani: It can be hard sometimes. Mike can be away for up to eight weeks at a time and I worry when the weather turns, but I feel better knowing that he has a group of guys out there – his radio group – that he stays in contact with. They look out for one another and make sure that everybody is staying safe and doing well.