It was hard to hear the announcement over the din of the 150 people who attended 40th Anniversary banquet for the United Fishermen of Alaska — but when a table mate leaned over and said “Boy that’s great,” to Jim Butler, the Kenai man knew something was up.
Longtime commercial fisherman and Kenai attorney Butler and three others were given UFA’s “Fisherman of the Year” award during a Sept. 26, ceremony at the Hotel Captain Cook in Anchorage.
“At first, I wondered why they mentioned my name. Did they want me to do something?” Butler said. “But I was sitting next to Kenny Coleman and he’s like … you got fisherman of the year.”
When recognizing Butler for the award, UFA members cited both his experience in the fishing industry and his work to advocate for fishermen.
Butler was on the first public advisory group that formed the Regional Citizens Advisory Committee for the Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet. He helped with oil legislation after the Exxon Valdez oil spill and has been a member of the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association, the Kenai-Soldotna Fish and Game Advisory Committee, president of the Kenai Watershed forum and helped form the Alaska Salmon Alliance, according to his UFA bio.
Butler said he was surprised to receive the award.
“I thought everyone went to meetings ad nauseam,” he said, with a laugh.
Butler started his fishing career on a crab boat in the Bering Sea before moving to longlining and drift gillnetting in the Cook Inlet.
His family has operated a setnet site north of the Kenai River since 2005.
Coleman, who also setnets in the Cook Inlet, said the award was given to Butler because of the Kenai man’s dedication to the fishing industry.
“It’s not so much the prowess of the fisherman so much as it’s what he’s done for the fishery,” Coleman said. Jim’s a genuinely good guy and his heart is in the setnet fishery. He’s got a fire in his belly and that’s great to have on your side.”
UFA is a commercial fishing advocacy organization that represents 35 Alaska commercial fishing organizations and thousands of fishermen. The organization does not give the fisherman of the year award every year, but when it does — member organizations vote on nominees.
Roland Maw, executive director of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, said he supported Butler for the award .
“He’s one of those unique individuals that has been able to bridge both of these major industries of oil and gas and fishing,” Maw said.
Butler shares the 2013 award with Bruce Schactler, a fisherman from Kodiak. Schactler is the USDA food aid program coordinator for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute and has been a longtime advocate for Alaska seafood in the global marketplace.
UFA President Jerry McCune said Schactler had been promoting the use of Alaska’s seafood as aid for food insecure countries.
“When I first worked with Bruce, we got a grant to get pink salmon to Third World countries,” McCune said. “I didn’t realize how important this project was until I realized that kids in the Third World may get one meal a day and that’s a can of pink salmon. (Schactler) broke into that and it takes a lot of federal red tape.”
The 2014 award was given to Jim and Rhonda Hubbard, of Seward, who market longlined halibut, sablefish & rockfish. The Hubbards, owners of Kruzof Fisheries LLC, were prosecuted by the state and subsequently exonerated of any wrongdoing early in 2014 after the two pioneered ways to market seafood that spotlighted the complicated set of regulations governing state and federal agencies. UFA awarded the two Fisherman of the Year as they have advocated for the development of “fair and reasonable regulations” for the fishing industry,” according to a profile of the couple sent to UFA members during the voting process to determine award winners.
McCune, who nominated Butler for the award, said there are no set criteria — just the requirement that the fisherman be worthy of recognition.
The award was launched in 2004 when a then 13-year-old Clam Gulch boy, Jess Russell, saved his father’s life on a commercial drift boat in the Cook Inlet.
McCune said he nominated Butler for the award in 2013 after the two worked together on the newly-launched Resources for All Alaskans, an organization formed to oppose an ongoing ballot initiative proposal to ban setnetting in certain parts of the state.
“Jim volunteers a lot of time and his expertise,” McCune said. “He really stepped up to help fishermen statewide with this initiative. That’s something that you very rarely find in people —someone who will step up and volunteer that much of their time and money.”
Butler said he considers his work with Resources For All Alaskans to be an effort to help Alaskans understand how important the fishing industry has been to the state.
“I think education is an important component and I think people understand advocacy a little bit better if they have a better understanding of what it is you’re trying to talk to them about,” he said. “It’s not just, sort of educating them about your particular position or you view of something, but sort of a larger picture of the history of the state, how things got to where they are now and how important they are in ways the people might not understand. Then, try to have conversations as opposed to debates.”
Butler said he was honored to join the ranks of fishermen who had been given the award.
“It’s a recognition among peers who are from around the state and see a lot of different things in their communities and the fisheries they participate in,” Butler said. “It’s the recognition of not just harvesters but support industry and processors. It’s not just flattering, it’s kind of humbling.”
Going forward, Butler said he would continue to explore ways to bring fishermen together.
“I’m just going to try to continue to work and look for opportunities to help people understand how we have to address some of the complexities we have in front of us now, without having unintended consequences that we regret,” he said.
Reach Rashah McChesney at firstname.lastname@example.org