A heritage of fishing
Towamensing resident harvests 20,000 pounds of salmon in two weeks
By ELSA KERSCHNER ekerschner@]tnonline.com
For some people, fishing is more than a casual hobby. It’s in their blood, or part of their constitution.
Lorrie Cockrell, an Alaskan Aleut, moved to Towamensing Township to find specialized medical care for her daughter who has reflex sympathetic dystrophy, a difficult and hard-to-treat lifetime disease.
In July, she returned to Alaska for the two-week salmon fishing season. Cockrell is very familiar with the fishing industry.
She said her grandfather, Carl Aspelund, was Swedish. When he went to Alaska he told his family he “was going and not coming back.” Cockrell still has the letter he sent his family.
He settled in Naknek and married Anna, an Aleutian native and lived at Libbysville, one of the major salmon canneries, which was built in the early 1900s.
Her maternal grandfather was Oloe Peterson, a Norwegian, who also married a native.
“In my grandpa’s day they used sailboats,” said Cockrell. She thinks motorboats were not used until the 1950s and 60s. They are made of fiberglass and are not damaged by being pulled up on the shore for much of the year as wooden ones would.
Fishing became a family tradition.
“My mother said we can do everything as a family,” said Cockrell. “It’s wet, cold and dark. My brother started fishing at 6. My father, Alvin, was a boat operator versus fishing on the beach.
“Mom, Freda, was an orphan and just loved kids. She had a high heart for kids teaching us to work,” said Cockrell.
“Mom and the children were set netters.”
Cockrell said by fishing the hard way they found easier ways to do things. A person could carry six or eight salmon at five-to-eight pounds each from the nets to the truck that came to pick up the catch. They made it a goal to see how many they could carry.
It was round-the-clock work because the fish came in on the morning and evening tides. By the time one catch was brought out of the water the next tide filled the nets again.
“Mom gave us positive reinforcement that we could move a lot of fish,” Cockrell said.
They had two to three weeks to earn a year’s income. Although a few fish come earlier or later and can be fished, the busy season is short.
The government’s Department of Fish and Wildlife decided it wanted to manage the fish, Cockrell said.
Her dad still thinks fishing should be open to any person. All they would have to do is lower the amount of gear that can be used and anyone could be allowed to do commercial fishing, in his opinion, and that it would remain sustainable.
A boat permit costs $150,000 and the cost for a set net permit is from $40,000 to $65,000. However, the annual renewal is only $100 to $150 for set netters.
To qualify for a permit you had to have points that were gained by justifying every year you fished. She had enough points that she earned her permit by right, not the high fee.
“My dad felt as soon as you were old enough to work, we worked. We got a crew license when I was 13. When there was a limited entry I could prove I fished and had enough points to get a permit. I thank my father for making it possible,” Cockrell said.
“We moved so much fish in a short period, which is why we could get a crew member license. It was my Mom’s and Dad’s main income,” she added.
When boat fishing, the boat should remain idle in one spot. When someone is caught drift fishing, there is a fine of $1,000. If a boat operator receives three tickets, they lose their license.
The catch for a boat fisherman would be anything from 100,000 to 500,000 pounds of fish.
Cockrell’s mother told her you can’t chase the fish, you have to be where you know they will be so it’s best to be in the channel when they are coming. She said her mother always knew where and when that would be.
When Cockrell was 16 she started her own site for beach fishing or set netting. The sites a person can fish are set by the state shore fishery.
She will bring in between 20,000 and 25,000 pounds per season, but has caught as much as 50,000 pounds.
This past year the price for fish was 70 cents a pound but it has brought as much as $2.25.
“You set the nets at low tide and the tide brings the fish in. Now, many use set-net skiffs. The nets are brought closer to shore to empty,” said Cockrell.
She has since received the legacy of her mother’s site.
Natives are allowed to do sustainable fishing for their own use, for barter or to sell with a limit of $700. Some are going beyond that point and illegally sell their catch which puts them in competition with legal commercial fishermen.
Cockrell smokes and cans fish for her own use, and provided fish for her daughter’s recent wedding.
The Naknek River, the salmons’ destination, is a mile wide at the coast. Naknek is a fishing camp. The natives live upriver at Old Naknek except during fishing season.
Many of the fishermen begin the season in Alaska and follow the fish south as far as California.
Cockrell said her family did ice fishing for food and did a lot of hiking for recreation. In winter, recreation was ice skating and sledding, although she also played basketball in school.
Her parents ran a movie theater that they built by hand, with hammer and saw. Her father wanted a place for children to go.
Her mom was generous, giving things to local kids. If youngsters didn’t have money, they were allowed to go to the movie without paying.
“My generation thinks of them (her parents) as angels because, thanks to them, they could do the things people with money could do,” said Cockrell, who is the mother of four Kreistal, Robert, Samantha and James.