HOMER, Alaska — It's been 17 years since Matt Alward did his first for-hire work on nets. Today, Alward owns and operates Bulletproof Nets and, with the help of an eight-10 person crew, keeps a steady flow of work — seine nets to be built and repaired — coming in and out of his shop in Northern Enterprises' boatyard.
"What is it about nets that's fascinating? It's challenging. Just tying nets is pretty boring, but the whole art of building a net is really interesting," Alward said.
Growing up in Berkeley, Calif., Alward worked in construction, doing remodels. At the age of 18, he and a friend drove to Alaska. He found his way to Homer during the winter of 1991, only to discover construction work was less than booming that time of year. He found employment fishing for herring in Kodiak and that led to doing net repairs in the winter in a Homer shop operated by the late Dan Moran, owner of "Just Knots, Mostly We're In Seine."
"We hit it off," said Alward of the connection he made with Moran while working in the seine "alley," Moran's name for the long, narrow area designed to accommodate work on long, narrow seine nets.
During the winter of 1995, a fishing captain hired Alward to work on his nets.
"I did two jobs the skipper was paying me for and at the end of that, that's when Dan hired me," said Alward.
The standard he'd worked to in construction was one shared by Moran.
"His attitude toward seines was the same I grew up with: Build it right and as fast and economical as possible, but building it right is the No. 1 priority," said Alward.
Newer technology means lighter nets and the ability for seiners to pull against the current.
In 1997, Moran and Alward swapped roles: Alward took over the business and Moran worked for him.
From those first two jobs, Alward's work has continued to grow.
"It's pretty much seven days a week from September until June," he said.
Bulletproof Nets' customer base encompasses King Cove, Sand Point, Chignik, Kodiak and Togiak, as well as several captains from Southeast Alaska, "a whole lot of guys from Prince William Sound and some guys that live out of state."
Technological advancements mean lighter, stronger materials for nets that Alward has incorporated into the work, an activity he describes as "an old world art."
An art it is. From a seine net's color — black so the fish will see it — to its design. The webbing comes in strips that Alward and his crew piece together to regulation depths and lengths depending on where it will be used. A cork line on the top of the net keeps it afloat. Some captains use a rib line to keep nets from snagging on rocks. A lead line weighs the bottom edge of the net. Purse seines have rings and a line passing through them to draw the bottom of the net together.
"We put everything together by hand," said Alward.
Mesh sizes vary depending on whether the net is for salmon or herring fishing. Net sizes vary depending on which area in Alaska is being fished: lower Cook Inlet, Prince William Sound, Southeast, Kodiak, Chignik or Area M (False Pass). They can be as long as nearly a quarter of a nautical mile and as deep as 60 feet for salmon and 120 feet for herring. A net's weight runs between 5,000-10,000 pounds. Nets are delivered to Bulletproof Net's double doors, fed through a winch and move from one end of the alley to the other as the work is done.
One of Alward's biggest challenges is ensuring he has the materials he needs when he needs them. Working with MARCO Global, a producer of fishing equipment based in Seattle, Wash., helps him stay current with developing technology.
"We're our own companies, but we benefit from each other's knowledge,' Alward said.
He also works closely with Kinematics Marine Equipment in Marysville, Wash.
Last year, Alward doubled the space of Bulletproof Nets with the addition of a second alley. The workload in 2011 included more than 60 nets. That kept him and his crew, including shop foreman Josiah Campbell and Vern Alberts, who was working for Moran before Alward came on the scene, busy until June.
Then Alward hung up his own "gone fishing" sign and spent the summer commercial fishing aboard his boat, the 53-foot Challenger.
"That's pretty much my vacation," he said.
His fishing crew includes daughter, Naomi, 18, and son, Quinn, 14. His oldest son, Eliott, 19, is an artist and writer studying at University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau. Alward's wife, Renee, does the paperwork for Bulletproof Nets.
After 15 years in the business, Alward continues to adhere to the same work standard with which he began.
"When you're done, it's something to be proud of. We know we've built the best net we could build," he said. "I like a challenge no matter what I'm doing and there's no two nets alike."