Troopers warn Bristol Bay fishers: 32-foot limit on vessel length will be enforced

Alaska Fish and Wildlife Troopers have sent a letter to Bristol Bay commercial salmon fishermen warning that they will be checking to make sure their vessels meet the maximum 32-foot length limit.

Similar enforcement in the 1980s led to a number of fishers making modifications to their boats, by, for example, cutting portions off their bows and fiberglassing or welding over the holes — creating what at the time were called “pie-faced” boats.

Also at that time, some fishermen commented that only one trooper would come to measure the boats, leaving the boat owner to hold one end of the tape measure, with predictable results where the owner was able to adjust their end of the tape. Most boats were only 6 to 12 inches over the limit.

The letter to permit holders states, “The Alaska Wildlife Troopers are aware of the increasing concern fishermen have regarding drift gillnet vessel lengths in the Bristol Bay Salmon Fishery. AWT has inspected multiple vessels postseason and have noted several areas of concern regarding overall length in the fleet.”

The letter details which kinds of extensions beyond the 32-foot limit are acceptable, and in what manner, things such as anchor winches/rollers; trim tabs; “fish drop-out baskets”; gillnet rollers mounted fore or aft; trim tabs; and outdrives and outdrive guards, essentially nothing that adds to the flotation or length of the vessel.

Although Indigenous Alaskans have fished the region for thousands of years, the Bristol Bay commercial salmon fishery began in earnest in the late 1800s when 32-foot double-ended sailboats were built by the processors and leased to fishermen. Motorized vessels weren’t allowed until 1951, and the 32-foot limit stayed in place.

Several proposals to eliminate the 32-foot limit have come and gone before the Alaska Board of Fisheries, the most recent in 2009, but it has held its ground. In the meantime, boat builders across the West Coast and Alaska have done their best to fit more boat into 32 feet. Boats have gotten wider and shallower, added more horsepower, and have tried to balance hauling capacity with living quarters, maneuverability and shallow water capability within the 32-foot limit.

They are a long way from the wooden 32-foot sail-driven double ender, although there are still some of those around, including one that sailed from Homer to Bristol Bay last summer with a volunteer crew. Judging from the letter from the Fish and Wildlife Troopers there are enough other boats left around to warrant caution from some boat owners.

Cristy Fry can be reached at