Rapid erosion threatens set net fishery in Southwest Alaska village

A truck bed equipped to chill a set-netter’s catch. In Ekuk, fishers are able to set nets by truck, and the local processor collects catches from truck beds. (Brian Venua/KDLG)

It’s midmorning in Ekuk, as people get ready to pull nets from the beach and pick fish. Kay Andrews, an Aleknagik resident, is cutting a Chinook salmon to have for dinner.

“I think what makes us unique is, we have Ekuk fisheries,” Andrews said. “They support their fishermen by providing eyes and we deliver by vehicles, trucks.”

Kay Andrews with a Chinook salmon. (Brian Venua/KDLG)

Ekuk is about 15 miles southeast of Dillingham, yet it’s different from many other beaches in Bristol Bay: Fishers are able to set nets by truck, and the local processor collects catches from truck beds rather than a tender collecting fish from skiffs.

The beach acts as natural infrastructure for the fishery. But as the rapidly-eroding coastline takes away a top layer of gravel, it’s causing weight issues for the trucks delivering large catches to the processor about a mile away.

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Andrews and her family have a long history of set netting in the Ekuk, home to just two winter watchmen year-round. Andrew’s grandfather ran Columbia Ward Fisheries for more than 20 years, and her grandmother has sites along the bluff where her cousin fishes. Set netting by truck gives Ekuk fishers a slight advantage over those that transport their catch by boat, she said.

“I think we can get our fish processed quicker versus getting it into a holding cell, in a processor, then getting it barged to the cannery sight,” she said. “So we pick the fish out of the net, place it in the slush water or ice water, then we deliver it to the cannery.”

That advantage has waned in recent years, with the introduction of ice and refrigerated seawater systems to chill fish on boats.

A truck pulls a net from the beach, while boats in the distance fish from the sea. (Brian Venua/KDLG)

“You know, I think days are different now, compared to what my grandfather used to do,” she said. “They used to pick fish one by one with a pick on the beach. With no ice, but that was all canned back then.”

Further down the beach, another set netter, Julie Wiss, is picking fish with her son Ryan. Wiss grew up fishing in Ekuk and each season they return to work on the family site. She said some of the changes over the years are due to a demand for higher-quality salmon.

“Now there’s a lot of fillets and people want pretty stuff and everyone’s aware of it,” Wiss said. “You know people pick their nets and clean them, much more — the ropes, the nets, the lead lines — all much better. So in that way, it’s changed a lot but same concept.”

Julie Wiss (right) and son Ryan (left) pick fish at their site in Ekuk. Wiss grew up fishing in the village and returns each summer. (Brian Venua/KDLG)

Beyond new technology and products, the eroding coastline looms over the fishers. 

The village is losing about 5 feet of coastline per year, a rate that’s doubled over the last century. Set-netter Jamie O’Connor grew up in Ekuk. As a kid, O’Connor would play and climb the bluffs.

Jamie O’Connor outside a cabin in Ekuk. (Brian Venua/KDLG)

“It’s been really interesting to look at it through that lens and see how the changing shore ice conditions in the winter are impacting how quickly the bluff is eroding,” O’Connor said. “It’s made of silt and composite rock that is vulnerable to the ocean.”

Weather events like severe wind storms rip away large chunks of the coastline.

Each season, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game sets regulations for how big or wide a site can be. O’Connor said they have to make constant adjustments to their sites.

“We’re happy to do that, but it makes you a little more aware of how the coast is changing,” she said. “But at the same time, it’s been changing my whole life and my great-grandparents’. I mean my great-great-grandmother had a wall tent at first creek and she would stay there and watch the net. That’s the site people in our family still fish but it looks very, very different.”

Researchers from the University of Alaska Fairbanks traveled to the region this summer to install new erosion monitoring equipment. Ekuk’s Village Council also recently applied for a climate change and resiliency grant.

Kay Andrews said she hopes to see a long-term solution for the village.

“I could tell this year the tides, are a lot higher. I’ve never really witnessed 24-foot tides as much as we have this season,” Andrews said. “And I think it’s our grandmother’s prayers that are still being answered, that our cabin is still up ’cause we’re right on the beach here. I think, in all, we need to have a sea wall that starts at the cannery.”

Despite the threat of rapid erosion, optimism thrives in Ekuk.

People are happy to return to their sites with family and friends, like the Andrews, Wiss and O’Connor families. And a surge of salmon is providing hope for a bountiful season: That morning was the start of a record-setting push of sockeye up the Nushagak River. While some people said it was a slow morning for most camps, the trucks never stopped hauling fish.

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