Kelsey Hayden helps fisherman Loyd Montgomery renew his annual CDFU membership. Photo by Kinsey Brown for The Cordova Times

Fishermen and stakeholders sheltered from the rain inside the historic Union Hall on Main Street last Friday for the annual Cordova District Fishermen United (CDFU) membership meeting. And while much of the annual picnic was business as usual, there were new faces to meet.

Jess Rude was tapped the organization’s new executive director last year.

“I was new to commercial fisheries,” she said of her past year as executive director, “but not to the idea of coastal community resiliency. Commercial fisheries are the basis of that in coastal Alaska.”

Rude comes from a nonprofit background, working with the Red Cross in Alaska, and is new to commercial fisheries. She has spent the last year working for the organization remotely in Anchorage, but has made frequent trips to Cordova to attend important meetings in person, such as Salmon Harvest Task Force and Board of Fisheries meetings.

In a short time, Rude has been able to get up to speed not only with understanding the specifics of the industry but identifying areas of needed intervention as well.

Rude’s primary focus has been to strengthen CDFU’s organizational competency, which she said is a difficult task within an organization run by volunteer board members in between demanding fishing seasons. The annual meeting is a gathering of stakeholders to hear from board members about upcoming political issues and concerns. Many attendees were interested in seeing what updates the board had to share considering recent significant changes in both staffing and strategic planning during the off season.

Gillnet Co-Chair Darin Gillman presents former board member John Renner with an appreciation award. Photo by Kinsey Brown

The executive director is not the only addition to leadership that has driven the political advocacy group’s direction recently. The organization also has new leadership within its board structure.

In the spring of last year, Ezekiel Brown took over for longtime CDFU president Jerry McCune. Brown addressed the gathered members at the meeting this Friday with a list of recent initiatives CDFU has accomplished.

One such accomplishment was a strong showing at this year’s Board of Fish policy cycle, resulting in successfully supporting statewide change. A specific proposal supported by the organization resulted in a statewide ban of commercial guiding in subsistence fisheries.

In addition to highlighting the continuation of community programs like Fish to Schools and Senior Salmon Day, Brown also spoke on current regulatory and legal challenges for nearby fisheries that may have an impact on activity in Area E.

“We’re here to be prepared for whatever comes down the pipeline,” he said during his welcome speech.

While Brown spoke he was flanked by other young members of the board of directors who have volunteered their time this past year in hopes of defending their future livelihoods.

The board has seen an influx of younger fishermen participating in recent years who say they want to revitalize a politically strong fleet by addressing problems that have hampered the board in the past, and look forward to addressing larger scale changes in the industry as a whole.

“We’re stronger together,” Phyllis Shiron, Gillnet co-chair, stated in her plea to the membership following Brown’s address. “We work in divisions for specific fisheries but we also work together as whole for the good of everyone in the fleet.”

Though young faces were clearly front-and-center during board presentations, there was also a nod to those who have mentored these fishermen and kept the organization alive all these years. Gillnet Co-Chair Darin Gillman presented former board member John Renner with a plaque honoring his years of service to CDFU. Renner took the opportunity to speak about his concerns with Copper River salmon management and a lack of open fishing opportunities in recent seasons.

Members gather in CDFU’s Main Street office to listen to board member updates. Photo by Kinsey Brown

While the Copper River salmon fishery was indeed fresh in everyone’s minds following the first two open periods this last week, there was also considerable discussion about fisheries other than salmon. Developing and diversifying new fisheries at various scales has been a major concern of the new CDFU board.

Board member Marc Carrel attended this year’s International Pacific Halibut Commission meeting in Vancouver, Canada in his capacity as CDFU’s Co-Groundfish Chair. His efforts resulted in ensuring that the federal management area of 3A, which extends from Yakutat to Kodiak, is now represented via a voting seat on the commission’s board. As halibut is allocated internationally, Carrel stressed a desire for CDFU to continue building relationships with fellow political advocacy groups at home in Alaska and abroad. The board’s ambition to do so does not come without an acknowledgement of the high level of membership engagement this will require.

“There’s a lot more challenges coming down the road,” Carrel said, “and we’re going to need all hands on deck.”

For now, CDFU looks forward to its yearly board election. The organization plans to continue to revitalize its direction as evidenced by a ballot item to change bylaws that have not been updated in 11 years.

Steven Swartzbart is a young gillnetter who has been nominated for an upcoming board seat and has been encouraged by CDFU’s recent successes.

“I’m excited for the organization,” he said. “It’s just good to have an organization that’s looking out for fishermen.”