The sight of dazzling emerald hills caressing the shoreline. The smell of salty waves. The rhythmic rocking of the boat. The sound of sea birds crying. The feel of fresh, cool, Alaskan air.
And the slick thud of fish after fish landing on the boat-bottom as Scott Lee and his sons pull them out of the net.
This scene is a complete change of pace from Lee’s usual life as a professor of finance at Mays Business Schoolâ€”a change that Lee finds more than refreshing. Lee says that communing with nature and doing something physical rather than sitting at a desk offers a vital chance for him to recharge each year.
His career as a fisherman began in 1973, when youthful wanderlust led him to hitchhike along the coast of Alaska. A friendly couple picked Lee up one frigid morning and gave him a place to stay at their home in Kodiak.
Over the course of the next three summers, the couple helped him land a job on a “tender,” a small boat that goes to the fishing grounds, buys fish from the scattered fishing sites, and re-supplies the fishermen with food and fuel. The next year, Lee learned to fish, staked his own fishing-claim, and started hauling in the salmon in the same remote bay where he and his family still fish today.
Although he catches all five species of Pacific salmon, Lee concentrates on sockeyes (red salmon) during the summer spawning season. Salmon are born in freshwater and eventually go to sea, living in a saltwater environment most of their lives. When they are mature, they return to the place where they were born to reproduce in freshwater.
Mays finance professor Scott Lee has been fishing in cold Alaskan waters since 1973.
Lee’s fishing operation is an “intercepting fishery” just off the coastâ€”targeting the schools of salmon returning to spawn. The mesh size of his nets is chosen to catch salmon that average around 6 pounds each. He likens the system to a shower curtain blowing in the breeze of the current, held up by corks and secured on the bottom with lead weights.
“It’s called gillnetting,” explains Lee. “Ideally you’ll catch them right behind the gillsâ€¦then you’ll pull them through the net.” Lee jokes that it’s not the kind of fishing seen on “The Deadliest Catch,” but generally is a much more peacefulâ€”and safeâ€”process near the shoreline.
But it is hard work, and the hours are long. “Like any other commercial harvest, we have to make hay when the sun shines. So, most seasons have days when the run peaks that we are at the nets from 7 a.m. until past midnight,” said Lee.
In the 1970s and 80s, there was a lot of money to be made from the abundant salmon runs in Alaskan waters. Today, due to increased fish farming and higher production costs, it’s not the lucrative business it once was. (“Atlantic” salmon is the euphemistic term for farmed salmon at the grocery store.)
Regulations were originally designed to maintain traditional (and relatively inefficient) fishing techniques such as gillnetting, but progress was inevitable. Consolidation within the industry has made it increasingly difficult for small fishermen and processors to stay afloat. “I understand it from an economic perspective,” said Lee. “It’s not sustainable to maintain a huge [processing] plant in the middle of the wilderness that you’re only going to run for two to three months a year.”
Lee’s fishing expeditions have brought him close to some of Alaska’s wildlife, such as this orca.
Despite the diminishing monetary incentives, Lee has other reasons to return to the remote setting each summer, including spending time with his best friend, P.J. Hill. Hill is a fellow part-time fisherman and a professor of economics at the University of Alaska Anchorage. The two met when Lee unknowingly “jumped” Hill’s claimâ€”that is, he set up his nets in an area Hill had legally reserved. They sorted out the details and became great friends thereafter; in fact, each served as the other’s best man at their weddings.
As life continued, Lee got married, had two sons, earned a PhD at the University of Oregon, became a professor, and moved to Texas. His fishery started as a solo-operation, but became a family affair, as Lee involved his two sons in the business from a young age.
“It’s been a working vacation where I can spend time with my family,” he said. “Spending a couple of months every summer with them has been a priceless gift. It makes me sad that it’s coming to the end of that, but it’s inevitable.” Lee’s sons, Nick (21) and Nathan (17) are increasingly busy during the summer with activities and internships, and Lee says he knows they can’t keep fishing with him for many more years.
Lee and his wife, Laurie, and their younger son still spend about five weeks fishing each summer during the peak of the red salmon season.