05/26/2020 – Interview with Tim Lopez, VFDA Founding Board Member


“Oh boy, I hope this works out” :  A walk down memory lane in the early days of VFDA



Tim Lopez, Former Valdez Harbor Master and former VFDA Board Member

What’s your background in Alaska, specifically Valdez, and where did you grow up?

“My parents came to Fairbanks in around 1950, and we moved to Valdez in 1961. I lived there until 2000. I started commercial fishing in high school, and we had a family boat. Then it was pipeline days, but I always kept my hand in the fishing business. I had a Prince William Sound gillnet permit, and in 1978 I was hired as the harbormaster. I did that for 20 years.”

You probably have a lot of context for the ways Valdez changed since then because those were some pretty pivotal years for the hatchery and fishing industry.

“Yeah of course. I was about 8 years old during the earthquake, and I remember it like it was yesterday. And then you move into the pipeline years, and the construction of the pipeline and the oil spill.”

Tim Lopez, Jason Wells. Dedication of PWSAC Armin F. Koernig Hatchery

Can you talk a little bit about your connection to commercial fishing when that was part of your career?

“In the mid-60s, my dad had owned a charter boat, and then it got wrecked during the earthquake. So he and a more experienced friend cobbled together some boats, and by the time I was about 10, I was going out in the boat some of the time. When I was about 12 or 13 — in ‘68 or ‘69 — that’s what we did every summer. We did that until the opportunity to go to the pipeline came along, which was too good to pass up. But even then, my brother and I, we were still partners in a gillnet operation, and they’d let us go fishing because there was an agreement that Alaskan residents could go subsistence fishing and take off a few months. It was no problem for us to leave our job, knowing in a month or two we could come back. It was like going on vacation compared to driving a truck on the pipeline. And by 1976, we had enough money working on the pipeline to buy a brand new boat. We had it built in Tacoma and shipped to Alaska, and he used it for quite a few years. I moved off into being in the marina business.”

“My dad had a seiner and tenders, and continued on for years and years, so the family was involved in the fish industry. Personally, I stopped commercial fishing in 1978.”

Crooked Creek egg take, 1980. Dave Gaither (ADF&G), Ted Wells, Jason, Wells, Don Daniels

Was it hard to stop fishing?

“Yes and no, everyone comes to grips with their mortality. I went to work for the city in ‘79, and by the time I reached that point I realized I was not very good at commercial fishing. I was a good mariner and a good mechanic, and not very good at catching fish. I finally realized that someone else could go catch the fish. I also wasn’t super secure in that type of lifestyle. I was always worried about where the next dollar was coming from.”

“Back in the day, the fishing industry wasn’t a real money-maker in Prince William Sound until the early eighties. It was okay, but no one was getting rich at it. It wasn’t until we started seeing the hatcheries that people started making some money. I had qualified for a free permit, and at the time we hadn’t realized how big a deal that would be.”

Can you speak to the importance of commercial fishing to the region?

“Pre-pipeline years, Valdez was always a small town. There wasn’t much else to do in Prince William Sound besides commercial fishing until the pipeline. If you weren’t born in the industry, you may have had a different viewpoint of it, but I started running my own boat when I was 16 years old. I had a pretty good understanding of what the fishing industry did for the economy of the area. Valdez wasn’t really a presence in those days, and it wasn’t until the hatchery did we start to see some growth in the processors in that area. It was a struggle to even convince anyone to consider moving in. It wasn’t even until after the hatchery was fully established that processors felt comfortable coming to Valdez. Eventually one of the VFDA founders convinced Peter Pan Seafoods to move in. It was not uncommon, in the seventies in particular, that you’d have someone show up and go broke and leave. That wasn’t particularly uncommon then, and it wasn’t until we saw big investment by the Japanese that we saw a solidifying on the processing industry. With new capital, the process was modernized.”

Crooked Creek Chum egg take, 1979

Can you talk about your connection to VFDA right around the time it was getting founded?

“I’m one of the original founders of the hatchery, but most of it was started by Bob Kellar. He had gone to Cordova for a seminar that was put on by Armin Koenig, and he had really fired him up about the concept of hatcheries. One time Bob was on my boat, and he told me I really needed to get more involved in what was happening, and he was pushing us to get off our butts and get organized. He was a longshoreman, and we had the attitude that working together would help. It wouldn’t take long before we got two to three other guys– Max Wells, Jason Wells, Old Man (Walter) Day — and there was Ada Tremer, a banker at First National, so we had a mix of the community. I was also the harbormaster, so I was a source of communication before cell phones. You could call my office, and we’d go look for someone for you. That was really the start of it. Bob got all fired up and said that this was something we could potentially do in Valdez. We started talking, and some of the guys like former Lt Governor Steven McAlpine, Valdez Mayor John Devens, Old Man (Sen Jay) Kerttula, some of these people were really instrumental for getting this off the ground. McAlpine and Devens were instrumental for helping us get the seed money from the City of Valdez – when Valdez had lots of money – and that allowed us to start doing stuff. It allowed us to hire Jason Wells, who knew what he was doing. Kerttula was a big shot and our representative back in the day when they were handing out money right and left, and he helped us get more money from the state. It was a series of people helping to grow it until it was enough to actually be called a hatchery.”

“Jason was hired by us to start this thing and provide justification, and it worked out well for us and he had background. It was a very good match. He and I made trips back and forth to Cordova, and the Board started putting money together to build the structure. It was a long process.”

VFDA Founding Board Members (Ada Tremer absent)

VFDA Project Manager, Jason Wells

Can you talk about some of the conversation you had to have early on to build support for a new hatchery?

“We ran into a lot of problems with the fact that Valdez was not considered a great place for a hatchery. We had a lot of water, but we didn’t have a terminal fishery. It was never an indigenous area for salmon, other than the fact that a few reds went up the river, and there were some pretty sizable creeks. There was political pushback by ADF&G, and that was why Kerttula and Armin Koernig helped a lot. They argued that any hatchery was better than no hatchery.”

“There were also more than a few people from Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation, who were not enthusiastic about it because there was always a competition between Valdez and Cordova. As time went by, that competition started swinging more towards Valdez, but some of the old timers got past that and decided that having a hatchery — if we could make it work — wouldn’t be bad.”

“So first we had to convince the locals in Valdez to fund it. Nobody was going to fund this thing except us, and it wasn’t a whole bunch of money. So we had to get out and talk it up to city council people and politicians, and luckily Valdez was always interested in progress, so it was about convincing the people with the checkbook that this was a good risk. That’s where Steve McAlpine, John Devens and Bob Kellar, who were on the city council, made the difference at first in the political aspect of it. Without that, we couldn’t hire Jason or ship him back and forth to Cordova to meet with PWSAC or ADF&G.”

Solomon Gulch Hatchery, 1981

Was the pushback you got from ADF&G a competitiveness?

“No, it was more of a political problem because we weren’t getting as much support from PWSAC. The real problem was that they didn’t think it was a good site in their mind, as far as all the aspects it takes to make a hatchery work well. The fact that there were not any indigenous fish had to be overcome, and we had to overcome it with money and politics. I’m sure a lot of people never thought it was a good idea until it started producing lots of fish, and then everyone thought it was a good idea. But in the early days, it took some time, as hatcheries do, to be successful. We also had to deal with the idea of the terminal being there, so it had more things going against it than for it. It took a lot of “bulldogging” to get where we wanted to go. It was knowing how to push the right buttons. We had to do what we had to do, and there were some high-ranking ADF&G guys like Wally Noerenberg, until someone eventually told him that this was just what was going to happen.”

“As time went by, everyone realized the next generation was going to take care of this, and people realized it was going to happen whether they liked it or not.”

VFDA board and staff inspecting the Solomon Gulch Hatchery site, 1980

How many years did you work with VFDA?

“I was on the board of directors from before we even had a board of directors. When we had one, I was on the board for about 20 years, from 1980. There’s a fuzzy line between when we were working on establishing VFDA and when it was official. We were working on it a couple years before we even got the paperwork done to be official. I was the treasurer that was my official title. We had the non-profit status approved in 1980. I do remember signing a lot of loans. Me and Bob Kellar were putting our names on millions of dollars of loans from the state thinking, “Oh boy, I hope this works out.”

Can you talk about the importance of the role VFDA plays in Prince William Sound?

“As the harbormaster, I had a front row seat. I watched it go from barely catching any fish to every single year the numbers would continue to increase. The more the catch increased, the more boat traffic there was. There were some years where, on closures, we couldn’t get any more into the boat harbor. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to see where this was going.”

“As the hatchery developed, more fishermen came to town. The processors started to develop. We knew that a steady level of fish over a period of time was the only way this was going to work. We had to create the demand for commercial fishermen.”

“I remember one season during the seventies where we caught thirty-thousand pounds of fish, and we thought that was a big deal. But now we had to create something people could make a living of. Between us and PWSAC, we worked to create that for the region and the region’s harvesters. The goal was to make it so fishermen could make a living.”

“Most of us on the board weren’t even fishing. I never fished again, and Bob just dabbled in it. It wasn’t that we were out there making any money–I never made a dime off of it–but we saw how it helped everyone in the community. It’s economics how the money earned through catching and selling hatchery fish cycled through the economy.”

Chum egg take, Valdez

Can you speak to one challenge that was overcome during your time with VFDA?

“The single biggest obstacle we had to overcome was getting the permit to build the hatchery. We had to apply for the permit, we had to convince the politicians, aqua culturists and biologists at the state that we should have the permits, that this was a good location and that we could do what we said we were going to do.”

“The money never seemed to be the biggest challenge, but we really had to convince everyone that Valdez was a suitable spot for a hatchery.”

What are the greatest contributions VFDA has made in its 40-years of operation?

“The fact that we were able to actually produce the fish and allow commercial fishermen to supplement their income considerably, while also satisfying the sport fishermen, was a great success. We realized that the sports fishermen really loved when the bay was loaded up with fish because they could cast and catch a fish every time, and that became legendary. The sports fishermen also wanted us to do kings, but they weren’t indigenous to the area, but silvers were. So we started that project. Every one benefited from the extra fish, impact of tourism, processors being built and operated — the hatchery was a business generator. It generated a lot of jobs and opportunities that probably never would have happened. All the fishing and industry would still be going to Cordova right now if those fish weren’t there.”

Feeding Fry at the Solomon Gulch Hatchery, 1990’s

What are the ways in which you recall seeing VFDA expand and grow during the last 40 years?

“The growing pains were trying to come up with a way to have an amicable relationship with the water source. We had to have a cooperative agreement with the people who controlled the water, and the water source was controlled by the power company, the Copper Valley Electric Association. We had to work with them, and they had to manage how much water we could take out of the stream. You aren’t inventing the wheel, but you are awful close to it. You had other hatcheries to lean on for some technical support, but every site is different. Valdez hatchery sits on top of solid rock, and that’s very difficult to deal with. We just had a vision we were going to make happen, and we were going to make it happen no matter what. The sun was going to come up, and we were going to make this work.”

Incubation Boxes, Crooked Creek, 1980

Thinking about the earthquakes and the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Alaskans have been through a lot. Can you speak to Valdez’s resilience during that time?

“I was the youngest guy on the board, so I remember the earthquake as a child. I think some of the other guys on the board had a harder time starting the hatchery because they had been through a similar process before when they had to move and shift the whole town. Perseverance probably never even occurred to them because their mentality was, “we’re going to do this and we’re going to try like hell.”

“In terms of COVID-19, I think Alaska is going to have an interesting time with this because a lot of the industry depends on people from Outside. I have three family members who work in commercial fishing in Alaska, and I was telling them that if something happens to the processors that they won’t sell a fish. It seems like Alaska is getting things together ahead of schedule and keeping cases down, and I think that everyone needs to have some degree of perseverance and optimism to make anything happen.”

“I’ve seen this industry age so much–we have a lot of old people in the industry–and I hope younger people can take over.”

“I get into it all the time with my two nephews, and they’ve been fishing since they were little kids, and I tell them that they wouldn’t have the chance to catch any fish had it not been for the community effort and resources that went into the hatchery. That’s why you can make a bunch of money, and you don’t even live in Alaska. We missed the boat on educating some of these young people on where the fish come from.”

“When I was a kid, the Prince William Sound fishery did not amount to anything. It was the reason we built the hatcheries to begin with.”

Chum egg take, 1979. Jason Wells & Dave Gaither (ADF&G)

What would you tell your younger self before you dedicated all the years to VFDA? What would you tell today’s young generation?

“You cannot appreciate your past if you don’t know it. And your future depends on how much you know of your past. There are too many people who go fishing every day and don’t know where the fish come from and how bad the salmon runs were in the past.”

“Learn more about your past so you appreciate it. We are talking about how the hatchery was built and why it was built, and it was because we wanted to see things get better for the fishermen. We hung in there as long as we did because we wanted to see things get better for people. A lot of the board members didn’t even go fishing. Just the amount of money I made from revenue from the harbor increased, so I never had a huge financial incentive. None of the board members got paid. We did this because we thought there was some benefit to the community, the state, and the fishermen. You had to bust your ass to do it right, and we were fortunate to have the right people at the right time and money was rolling in from the pipeline. Everyone had to hug each other and say, let’s make this happen.”

“I’m sure this has changed so much, but there was always competition in the hatchery world. We were going to make this work just so we could prove it to Cordova that we could do it. We were going to make this work, and we didn’t like being told what to do.”

Solomon Gulch Hatchery, early 1980s

If you had one hope or accomplishment for the next 40 years, what would it be?

“To me, the hatchery is like the post office: it’s going to be there. Jason and I talked a year or two ago, and he says, “well, I’m no longer involved, and I hope these guys don’t screw it up.” I guess I have a bit more faith in that. I just look at it like it’s going to happen. It’s just going to go on, like the highway, like the sun coming up. Do the best you can every single year. That’s what I expect to happen, the next 40 years will be as good as now or better. God knows what could happen, but that doesn’t stop you and the staff from doing the best they can for the next 40 years or 100 years.”

Photos Credits – VFDA, Tim Lopez, and the Max H. Wells Archives