Cordova Chronicles: A seine web Christmas tree

Brandon Maxwell, Sabin Landaluce, and John Banks (L-R) hanging a seine at LFS Marine Supplies on December 10, 2019.  Photo by Dick Shellhorn/for The Cordova Times
Brandon Maxwell, Sabin Landaluce, and John Banks (L-R) hanging a seine at LFS Marine Supplies on December 10, 2019. Photo by Dick Shellhorn/for The Cordova Times

As Christmas Eve approaches, Santa’s Elves are working around the clock at North Pole, Alaska to fulfill the wishes of all good girls and boys.

Meanwhile, right here in Cordova a small group of workers — not likely to be confused with elves — is busy laboring away to fulfill the wishes of numerous fishermen for next year’s seine season.

While many locals may be familiar with the vast array of hardware and gear available at LFS Marine Supplies down on Jim Poor Lane, quite a few are likely unaware of the happenings in the back half of the building.

In an open bay that stretches 100 feet, Sabin Landaluce, Brandon Maxwell and John Banks are busy hanging seines for the upcoming Prince William Sound salmon fishery.

Working under the direction of seine manager Rob Maxwell, the huge nets they are creating would not fit in Santa’s Sleigh, nor would they find enough space on the decks of many seine boats of just a few decades ago.

As catches of pink salmon in Prince William Sound have skyrocketed, so has the size of boats and nets used to harvest them.

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The length of many of these nets totals 225 fathoms, with depths now reaching 70 feet. Heavier lead lines, weighing 8 pounds per fathom, add almost a ton to the bottom of the gear. Consequently, bigger and more numerous corks have been added at the top to float the seine. In many cases the cork line is now a solid continuous array of 2,250 floats.

The results are massive nets that fill the back decks of today’s big seiners, some which are 58 feet in length and 24 feet wide, with capacity for 100,000 pounds of fish.

For those whose only glimpse of a seine is when it goes by piled on a trailer on its way to the boat harbor, a little math is required to visualize their actual size.

A plastic “needle” used in hanging and mending seines can be seen in the hands of LFS’s Brandon Maxwell. Photo by Dick Shellhorn/for The Cordova Times
A plastic “needle” used in hanging and mending seines can be seen in the hands of LFS’s Brandon Maxwell. Photo by Dick Shellhorn/for The Cordova Times

A fathom equals 6 feet, so a 225-fathom seine is 1,350 feet long. If one of these nets was stretched out on Main Street, it would reach from the Masonic Hall all the way to North Star Lumber, and drape mesh across the street between buildings on both sides.

Amazingly, the LFS crew can build one of these monsters in five to seven days. The process involves sewing the web on both the lead line and cork line, as well as stringing all the corks, plus hanging purse rings on the bottom.

Since the actual work space is only 70 feet long, the process is done in “stretches,” pulling 10 fathoms of web and lines out at a time, and meticulously fastening the web using hanging twine on “needles,” which in this case are uniquely-designed large plastic holders to facilitate the endless knot-tying efforts.

Several years ago, the LFS crew hung a record 52 seines; most years they average 35.

A considerable amount of careful mathematics and counting is involved to create these massive nets, as well as a considerable amount of cash. These days, the cost of new seines starts at $40,000, and can jump up to $70,000, depending on the use of special items such as Kevlar mesh which literally slides through the water quicker and hence allow faster retrieval of the seine for the next set.

Of course, all of this investment can result in big hauls and earnings.

Many years ago, in search of such a big payday, I just happened to be involved in a unique attempt to create a big net that was decades before its time.

Back in the ’70s, I crewed on Olaf Gildnes’s Cheerful II, with a couple characters from Washington state named Pick Howsan and Dan Barclay.

Howsan was a hot-shot skiff man with lots of experience in Southeast Alaska, and such crewmen are crucial in the process of setting out and bringing in a seine. Barclay was a burly rugby player for the Chuckanut Bay Geoduck squad, and even traveled to Australia on an All-Star squad, returning with a missing ear lobe after it was bitten off during a scrum.

The skiff tows as the Cheerful II purses up off Chenega Island in Prince William Sound. Without this force, the boat would be pulled inside the seine. Photo by Dick Shellhorn/for The Cordova Times
The skiff tows as the Cheerful II purses up off Chenega Island in Prince William Sound. Without this force, the boat would be pulled inside the seine. Photo by Dick Shellhorn/for The Cordova Times

These guys were great workers, and with Olaf at the helm, we had several very good seasons. 

One year, after the pink season shut down, rumors abounded of a possible late “dog” opener.  Chum salmon are nicknamed “dogs,” due to the large teeth they develop prior to spawning.

Their performance as “walking dogs” is famous in seine lore.

Walking dogs are large schools of fish that can be seen merrily finning in lazy fashion inside the encircling seine cork line, only to somehow vanish by the time the net is brought on board.  Their secret: dive under the bottom of the web at the last second.

While waiting for the late opener, Olaf asked us to hang around and create a secret weapon that would outsmart these wily salmon. In the dusty upper reaches of the old APA cannery, he had us strip the web out of an old seine and add it to the bottom of another seine. The result was a net twice as deep as normal, which surely would baffle the walking dogs.

After a week or so, with no opener in sight, Barclay and Howsan decided to call it quits and head south. However, the “Super Seine” was complete.

Sure enough, a week later, ADF&G announced a special dog opener in Valdez Arm. Olaf needed replacement crew members and recruited his dad Pete, plus an experienced skiff man, Charlie Cabanilla.

We loaded the Super Seine onto the deck of the Cheerful and received more than a few strange looks while idling out of the harbor with a mountain of web on the stern.

In the misty waters of Galena Bay, the dog derby began at 6 a.m., with seiners racing at full throttle to slap out their nets. We surrounded a promising school of dogs, and Charlie began towing the Cheerful away as we “pursed up.”

For those unfamiliar with purse seines, lines pass through rings at the bottom of the net, and these lines are winched on board, thus closing, or pursuing, the net together, so the fish cannot escape.

The forces of the pursing process pull the boat into the floating net, so it is essential for the skiff to tow the boat in the opposite direction to counter this, or the boat can become entangled in the gear.

Wouldn’t you know it, the skiff went dead in the water, so as we pursed up, we pulled ourselves further and further into the seine.

Not good.

Finally, we managed to get the rings onboard, but were surrounded by corks on all sides. We began bringing the seine through the power block suspended high in a boom overhead. As we did so, web gradually began surrounding the entire boat. Halfway through the process, we were inside a tepee of seine web, and had to stop.

Father-son dialogue in stressful situations can be quite entertaining, and Pete, in heavy Norwegian accent, muttered: “Vhy I haf neder seen any ting like dis. It looks a-likka Chris-mas tree to me.”

Olaf, showing wisdom beyond his years, did not respond.

Fortunately, in the spirit of Christmas, a nearby seiner sent over his skiff to tow us out of the mess.

Hours later, with our gear on board and a dead skiff, we headed to town.

Our catch for the derby: five dog salmon tangled by their teeth in the web, so watermarked with yellow, purple and black stripes they looked like winners of an ugly Christmas sweater contest.

When I called shipmates Barclay and Howsan, they howled with laughter that could almost be heard all the way to Cordova.

And Super Seine No. 1 never left the APA attic again.

Ho, ho, ho, and Merry Christmas, everyone.

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Dick Shellhorn
Dick Shellhorn is a lifelong Cordovan. He has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 50 years. In his Cordova Chronicles features, he writes about the history and characters of this Alaska town. Alaska Press Club awarded Shellhorn first place for Best Humor column in 2016 and 2020, and third place in 2017 and 2019. He also received second place for Best Editorial Commentary in 2019. Shellhorn has written two books about Alaska adventures: Time and Tide and Balls and Stripes. Reach him at [email protected].