Forty-five years. That’s how long Steve Vanek has served as a volunteer board member of the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association (CIAA).
During that time, Steve has continued to be one of the most involved and informed board members, not afraid to question the norms as well as bring historical context to complicated discussions about salmon aquaculture and fisheries in Alaska. He is CIAA’s longest-serving volunteer and one of its most beloved board members.
Teaching brought him to Alaska
Steve grew up in Pennsylvania and went to college in Ohio. A teaching job brought him to Homer in 1964, where he taught until 1968. His first experience with commercial fishing was drifting for salmon in a skiff out of Ninilchik in 1966 with resident Bud Deitz. Steve was immediately hooked. Because he grew up on a farm, the transition from harvesting food on a farm to harvesting fish in the sea was easy for him.
After obtaining his master’s degree in elementary science at Stanford University and a short stay in Fairbanks for another teaching job, Steve moved to Ninilchik in 1975. He had one of the original drift gillnet limited entry permits for Area H and still holds and fishes that permit with his son or grandson. “It is exciting to see fish in your net, regardless of the price,” Steve says. “You look forward to being out there.”
Aquaculture science won him over
When he joined the CIAA Board of Directors, Steve considered himself a “purist.” He did not want to see hatchery fish or fisheries enhancement in Cook Inlet. Steve lives in the old village of Ninilchik and was not in favor of a proposed Chinook salmon enhancement project there. This was his main reason to join the CIAA Board in 1978 (just after the CIAA was incorporated in 1976).
His involvement on the board led to a change of mind about salmon aquaculture because of the scientific way Alaska salmon hatcheries operate. Steve currently represents the Cook Inlet Fisherman’s Fund on the board but has also represented the Ninilchik Village Council.
Regional planning keeps him engaged
One of the areas that Steve has been deeply involved with for CIAA is as a representative to the Cook Inlet Regional Planning Team. Regional Planning Teams (RPTs) are made up of ADF&G personnel and representatives from the various regional aquaculture associations.
The RPTs are important in the overall planning for each aquaculture region, through the development of comprehensive management plans as well as providing the ADF&G commissioner with recommendations on hatchery permits and plans. Steve’s depth of knowledge about salmon planning in Cook Inlet stems from his participation on the Cook Inlet RPT for so many years now.
“I think for anything involving fish and game, there is a certain amount of responsibility to my livelihood,” says Steve. He has spent many years volunteering for organizations besides CIAA, including the Central Peninsula Fish & Game Advisory Committee, the Cook Inlet Fisherman’s Fund, and the Ninilchik Emergency Services board.
CIAA connects him to all area fishermen
Steve believes CIAA brings together fishermen of all salmon gear types—setnetters, driftnetters, and seiners. He says CIAA is a place where these fishermen can sit down and work together for a common cause: preserving and protecting the salmon resource in the Cook Inlet area for all users.
These groups tend to be adverse and do not have many venues to truly work together to protect the salmon resource they all use, he says.
He has seen this diverse group of people guide CIAA to many successes over the years including enhancing salmon populations in the Cook Inlet through hatcheries and stocking programs; and habitat improvement projects such as the notching of beaver dams that impede salmon passage.
Public opinion keeps him motivated
Steve says that one of the biggest ongoing challenges faced by CIAA is the public perception that it is just an arm of the commercial fisheries operation, tainted by the self-interest of the commercial fishermen, instead of a scientifically-based organization dedicated to the preservation of the salmon populations.
He describes CIAA as a scientifically-neutral organization with professional staff not subject to political pressures sometimes faced by staff in governmental organizations.
The biggest opportunity identified by Steve is that CIAA simply exists and has been and can continue to be a great asset to the State of Alaska as the State seeks to protect, maintain, and improve the fish resources of the state.