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Board Profile: Once a fisherman, always a fisherman

Discover the life of Emil "Beaver" Nelson, a passionate fisherman with over 50 years in the industry, advocating for sustainable fisheries.

by | February 29, 2024

Beaver Nelson, CIAA board member
Beaver Nelson has been a CIAA board member since 1979. Lisa Ka’aihue

“A fisherman.” That is what CIAA Board member Emil “Beaver” Nelson always knew he wanted to be. “A fisherman or involved in fisheries,” he says, without hesitation.

He is definitely one of those few who knew exactly what he wanted to do from a young age. Fortunately for Alaska fisheries, Beaver pursued his dream and has been a fisherman for over 50 years.

Beaver came to Alaska as a three-year-old, moving with his family from Long Beach, California. “It was after the war, and everyone was looking for work. Morrison Knudsen was rebuilding Anchorage and the Elmendorf Airforce Base.” Beaver’s father Emil came up to work in Anchorage, and he liked it so much that he brought his family up the next year.

Arrival in Alaska

The Nelson family got off the steamship in Seward. The ship did not have enough help to unload, so Emil helped. He found long shoring to pay more than he was making in Anchorage. He took a job right there in Seward and stayed with his wife Bucki and their family. 

“Everyone is so surprised that I was not born into commercial fishing. My dad was a longshoreman who became the general manager of the dock; but he never commercial fished,” Beaver said. George Discher, a “big-time, successful fisherman,” gave Beaver his first commercial fishing experience while Beaver was only in the eigth grade. “As a little kid, I was always in George’s garage while he skinned various animals he trapped and things like that, and he took a liking to me.” 

The Dischers had moved to Cordova, and they invited Beaver to spend a summer there. In June 1959, George took Beaver out to fish on the Copper River Flats. “I fished with him out on the Flats for about a week, and George decided I could handle my own little boat. He gave me two shackles of gear, an open skiff with a roller in the back, and a 25 horsepower motor, so I actually fished the Flats for a few weeks,” Beaver said with a chuckle. Beaver went on to say George instilled in him the importance of conservation.

After graduating from Seward High School in 1961, Beaver went straight to college, spending two years at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and then two years at Oregon State University (OSU) where he earned his degree in Fisheries Science in 1965. Beaver also met his future wife, Jessie, at OSU. They were married in 1965, celebrating their 59th wedding anniversary this year. 

While attending OSU, Beaver needed to make more money to pay for college, so he became a drift fisherman in Cook Inlet. He fished with a Columbia Wards company boat, a converted Bristol Bay sailboat known as a “conversion.” After graduating, Beaver worked as a salmon research biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G), out of Homer.

A fisheries career

Beaver Nelson fishing in Cook Inlet in a “conversion” boat.
Beaver Nelson fishing in Cook Inlet in a “conversion” boat. Provided by Beaver Nelson

He was working on a new fisheries project called “PL 88309” that evaluated salmon escapements in the Kenai and Kasilof rivers to develop sonar counters. “We worked with the Bendix Corporation. We went to Bristol Bay and tested it [sonar counter] in Lake Aleknagik and the Wood River, but most of the work was mainly done around the Kenai.” 

After two years with ADF&G, Beaver decided it was time to go. “I am a guy of action, I like to make things happen, and the Standard Operating Procedures Manual was so thick and so many volumes…it was so frustrating that I decided to give commercial fishing a try, especially because I knew what was going to happen in Seward.”

Beaver described a project that ADF&G Sport Fish Division had in place at Bear Lake, where they performed an experimental poisoning of the lake in 1962 to get rid of the sticklebacks, with the goal of enhancing the coho fishery (which also involved coho stocking). Beaver was in Seward that year and witnessed an immense outmigration of sockeye smolt due to the poisoning of the lake, and he knew there would be a good adult return in 1968. Beaver went to the Board of Fisheries and got a gillnet fishery open in Resurrection Bay for a few years to harvest these fish.

“I was the only boat in Resurrection Bay for the opening [end of May, 1968] and I caught 500 reds in one day,” recalled Beaver. Of course, more boats showed up within a couple of days. This sockeye fishery that Beaver helped create gave him a jump start on getting into salmon seining, starting in Lower Cook Inlet. He has also seined in Kodiak and since the early 1980s he has primarily focused on salmon seining in Prince William Sound, aboard his vessel, Nuka Point. He has also fished for herring from Sitka to Togiak.

Fishing runs in the family

Beaver and Jessie grew a strong fishing family, taking their two sons, Rob and Tom, on the boat as soon as it was safe for them to go along. “I just remember how much I enjoyed it. I had always been a fanatic sport fisherman, and knowing how much I liked fishing, I wanted the kids to experience the same things as I did,” said Beaver. “We always made it fun for them. We went out of our way to make it a good experience for them.” Rob and Tom both salmon seine in Prince William Sound and partake in herring fisheries. 

Beaver has a steadfastness about him that really comes out when you ask him about life lessons learned from fishing. For Beaver, it is simple: “When things are the most confusing and stressful, stay calm.”  He described how some of his biggest successes in herring fishing could be his ability to stay calm and allow space for strategic thinking.

He recounts what he called “flare” openings in the herring fisheries where the boats rush wildly to make that first (and maybe only) big set—resulting in what can be best described as complete chaos. Beaver described “the ability to not just wildly set your net because it is open but to evaluate positioning, and just to wait and let everyone else mix everything up to where all the nets are in the water, and you are the only one there with a net left on the boat. All these fish driven down by the commotion suddenly pop back up, and you are the only one there to catch them.” 

Beaver has been advocating for commercial fisheries through various volunteer positions. He has served as the chair of the Homer Fish and Game Advisory Committee, on the Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet Regional Planning teams, and on the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation and North Pacific Fishing Association (NPFA) boards.

“I spend a lot of time at the Board of Fish, trying to stay up to date with everyone,” said Beaver. He has developed a reputation as a reliable resource for fisheries information and he works to maintain relationships with fisheries managers and regulators.

Board service

Beaver was first on the CIAA Board of Directors in 1979, representing NPFA. Since 2008, Beaver has represented the City of Kachemak on the CIAA board, and he has served as the second Vice President since 2015. 

In addition to having kids in the fishing industry, Beaver’s zeal for fish inspires him to advocate for fisheries. “I have always been fascinated by fish, especially salmon. I grew up with a salmon stream in my backyard. And as a kid, I spent all my time by that stream watching fish. I guess you could say I am obsessed with salmon.”

That obsession gives Beaver high hopes for CIAA’s Paint River Fish Ladder. CIAA operates this ladder at the outfall of Paint River in Kamishak Bay, and it’s beginning to show signs of natural colonization of salmon. “That river system is just amazing, the size, the variety—it will be a five salmon species river. As long as wild fish have access to it, over time, it will develop into something special,” said Beaver. 

Beaver said that one of CIAA’s ongoing challenges is “CIAA encompasses such a wide range of fish and areas; it is spread out all the way from Seward to Anchorage and the Susitna. It is so wide-ranging with so many facets that it is hard to concentrate in any one area.” 

The most successful things CIAA has done, Beaver said, are the Trail Lakes Hatchery projects and Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery before CIAA closed it in the 2000s due to poor pink salmon prices. “It was producing plenty of fish, but they were not worth much, so we temporarily ceased operations and waited for the market to reopen.” He also pointed out that when the State of Alaska was running Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery, they did not have the same challenges CIAA faces with permitting and adequate funding to pay for hatchery operations. 

Beaver pointed out that aquaculture has been a great benefit to the public and that is not always realized. “The projects such as the red salmon releases and people dip netting and snagging the returns from those releases, that is a big deal,” he said, referencing CIAA-produced fisheries in China Poot, Tutka Bay Lagoon, and Resurrection Bay. 

For Beaver, his hopes for salmon fisheries are straightforward and speak to everything salmon aquaculture is about in Alaska: “I want to see fish available for everyone to make a living and to put food on the table.”

Upcoming Board meeting

The next CIAA Board of Directors meeting will be held on March 16, beginning at 10 a.m. The meeting is open to the public and an agenda will be available closer to the meeting date. Please visit CIAA’s calendar for more information.

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