The Pen Air departure gate is unlike anything I have encountered in the United States. It lacks baggage screening and for that matter any security at all. A homogenous crowd surrounds me. The obvious descriptors are white and male. The older individuals are heavy set and wear hardened looks. The youth are athletic, gathered in laughing clusters. All are dressed in a similar mix of ratty clothing, assorted t-shirts, hoodies, and worn outdoors apparel. I feel a mixture of pride and anxiety to be seated among them. Glancing at my hands, my pride swells. The last months of manual labor and twice daily workouts with the black gel exercise ball I carry in my pocket has made them strong. They are the tools of my new trade, and I am sure they will serve me well in the coming months.
An hour later the roaring turbo-prop plane begins its descent into an alien country. A tundral plane stretches as far as the eye can see. Aquamarine lakes dot the landscape and are interwoven by snaking rivers. The occasional stand of evergreens or impenetrable thicket of alders is all that exists to break the barren monotony. Stepping onto the tarmac a strong wind greets me carrying with it a chill despite the warmth of the summer sun. Clouds hang in a low plane across the sky, creating a claustrophobic sensation of too little headroom, despite the endless two-dimensional expanse in all directions. It is like the physical manifestation of being trapped within human consciousness. The population here is small; there are no societal distractions. When not absorbed in labor one is trapped with his own conscience and the demons that lie therein. It has been said of those who come here that they either had no choice by way of birth or that they are misfits elsewhere.
I make my way across the pavement into the shoddy terminal building; it is even less official than the previous. I am greeted by crushing handshakes that quickly turn the pride I felt earlier to a sense of hubris. This is not going to be easy.
A month on, I step off deck and wash the blood from my face. I am delirious. For hours now my head has been filled with numbers, nothing but numbers, 38, 38, 38, 38, 39, 40 41, 41, 41, on and on, etc. My body and clothes are covered in blood, slime and scales. It has been a week or more since my last proper shower, but there isn’t time for one now. The need for sleep outweighs the desire for hygiene. It has been 5 days since I slept a full night. Four hours a day is all we have time for and it comes in two shifts of two hours each, twelve hours apart. After washing my face, I eat quickly and in silence, canned beef stew. I take the remaining stench on my person to bed with me.
I want nothing more than to comfortably relax now, but I cannot do so even here in bed. My hands and back ache beyond belief. I lie on my right side curled into a fetal position. This sleeping posture does my back no good, but it is the only option. I face the wall, creating as dark a space as I can; the nearly endless sunshine falls on my back through the window. I draw my feet up as high as possible. My bunk is too short and the individual in the adjoining v-birth prevents me from taking full advantage of what I have, relentlessly kicking me in his sleep whenever I stretch out any further. My mind races, it betrays me, it ignores my insisting that it sleep; it will be less than 3 hours until I am on deck again.
Bristol Bay Boat
Bristol Bay Sockeye
The shallow Eastern arm of the Bering Sea, where the Alaska Peninsula meets majority Alaska, is known as Bristol Bay. It is home to over half of the worlds Sockeye Salmon. Sockeye are an anadromous fish; they are born in the rivers and lakes of the North Pacific. They then travel downstream and complete a 3-5 year lifecycle in the ocean. At the end of the cycle they return to their freshwater birthplace to spawn and die. The fish arrive back to Bristol Bay each summer navigating by scent. The event is known as the salmon run and the coastal cities and villages are growing in anticipation. The majority of the fish will push upstream over a two-week period in late June and early July. Though the total run can span three months, this most important period is known as the peak.
Local human populations have exploited the Bristol Bay fishery since times prehistoric. Early outside visitors included Russian explorers and James Cook, who christened the bay Bristol after an archduke of the old world. The modern commercial fishery organized during the latter half of the 19th century as west coast canneries expanded north. In these early days the fisherman worked from 25-30 foot double ended sailing skiffs. Workers were comprised of Alaska residents and immigrants (most commonly Italians, Russians, and Scandinavians) who through experience from home or desperation were strong enough to face the hellish and dangerous conditions.
Very little changed until the 1950’s. Despite the availability of internal combustion engines, beginning in the 1920’s, the fishery was legally limited to sail until mid-century. The reason was fisheries management. It was feared that if the efficiency of the fleet increased, the stock would be depleted. Secondly, the cost of engines would have been prohibitive to many native Alaskans and so the limit was a protectionist measure as well. A second constraint, requiring that bay boats be no longer than 32 feet in length, was instituted with similar aims. Today, the 32’ rule remains in effect. Rather than longer, the boats instead have grown wider, deeper, and powerful. Further legislation limiting the fishery, including a entry cap at 1800 boats, helps to regulate ecological and economic impacts.
In the first ~75 years Bristol Bay’s product, canned salmon, stayed the same. Its remote location made this preservation for shipping to market necessary. Much of the canned fish was shipped to Asia as the west coast of the lower 48 provided fresher domestic product. In the latter half of the 20th century advances in processing and transportation allowed the Bristol Bay Canneries to begin shipping frozen product. This structural transformation continues through today. Although the US market still relies on catches from the lower 48 and Canada for fresh fish, Bristol Bay now ships significant amounts of frozen salmon to the domestic market. Canned salmon is still produced for home and Asian markets, but newer plants are expanding into frozen fillets (as opposed to headed and gutted fish) and even beginning to ship fresh fish direct to market.
On the water early wood conversion motor boats are still visible alongside new three quarter million dollar aluminum vessels. Despite the differences in these boats, their “gear” is largely the same as it was when the fishery began. All Bristol Bay boats are drift gill-netters. Gillnets are made of mesh designed to allow a fish to swim part way through before becoming entrapped, prevented from moving forward by their girth and backward by their gills. Modern manufacturing has made some advances in the regularity and weight of the nets, but their look and size has changed little, thanks to regulation and efficacy. Besides the boats, a second type of fisherperson is visible in the bay. Set-netters use the same nets as the drift boats, but as their name implies, their nets are anchored to shore and tended from small skiffs. The same governing bodies regulate the set nets, in similar fashion to the “drift” boats.
Erin, Past Her Prime.
The Road to Naknek
My Journey to Alaska began in October of last year while traveling in Europe. I met my fishing captain on crew finder. He had recently acquired a sailboat in France and needed crew to bring her from Northern France around Spain and into the Med. I jumped at the chance to do some sailing, especially on such a fine boat. This shakedown cruise proved to be a shakedown for more than the boat. After surviving 25-foot waves in the Bay of Biscay and a second experience with 60+ knot winds in the Straights of Gibraltar, I was judged sufficiently competent to be offered a spot in Alaska the next summer. Again, I jumped at the chance, but knew this experience would be a tough one.
I was fortunate to land on a modern top producing boat my first year. Our gillnetter was entering her 4th season of service and is one of the more advanced boats in the fleet. Despite her modest length, she is a comfortable vessel for our four-man crew. As a modern boat, she is fully equipped with a fish hold refrigeration system, known colloquially as a reefer. This system, along with several other procedures (to be described shortly) allows us to sell the best quality fish to a top quality cannery and thus earn the highest price per pound. (Video To Follow, hopefully soon!)
The Mighty Vulcan… The God, not Star Trek!
The process of fishing is as follows: We first set the net by throwing a buoy attached to the end over board and allow the net to flow off the reel while the boat drives forward. Once set, the net does most of the work itself provided that we put it in a good place. We may run back and forth near net to scare fish into it, or tow it to keep it well placed in the current. After it has been allowed to soak for the desired time, we begin hauling it in using the hydraulic reel. As the net comes in, the real work begins. The primary job is to pull fish from the net, which is known as picking. This may sound easy, but picking is a skill that takes time to learn. While some fish come out easily; many others have twisted and fought their way into a mess. The skill comes in recognizing how the fish is snagged and freeing it quickly. The faster the fish come out of the net, the faster we can re-set it and catch more. A talent, only second in import, to “reading” the net is having strong hands. Pulling thousands of fish from the net per day is an exhausting process even with the aid of a net pick. Eventually, all crewmembers wear down; even our first mate whose hands resemble bear paws more than human appendages.
Once a fish is freed of the net it drops onto a slide that prevents it from hitting the deck and bruising. This is our first defense in preserving quality. The second action we take to sustain quality is bleeding the fish by severing a gill with a specially designed blade on a stick. Bleeding removes waste products from the muscle and also helps decrease bruising. Finally, the fish are counted as they are transferred into the refrigerated hold system. Counting and balancing the holds prevents the fish from piling to high and being crushed under their own weight. For all this effort we are awarded roughly 20 cents per pound extra on top of the base price. Most of our fish will be processed into frozen filets, among the highest quality product to leave the bay. Many boats, however, still sell their fish dry and un-bled. This lower quality product becomes canned salmon.
Fish at the Top of the Hold.
A Shining Example of Sustainability?
Bristol Bay’s Salmon fishery is known as one of the best-regulated fisheries in the world. An often cited fact, sustainability is of fisheries is written into Alaska’s constitution. Today’s regulatory framework begins with the historical law limiting boats to 32’ in length. The continued utility of this rule is questionable, as the boats have grown in every other way. The new expensive behemoths bare no resemblance to their forbearers. They are so specialized that were this rule ever to vanish they would become instantly obsolete. This fear of obsolescence may be why the rule still exists.
As previously mentioned the fishery is also limited to just more than1800 boats by the Alaska Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission. To enter a new fisherman must buy another out. Despite the limited access, further limitation via permit buyback is being considered to improve the economic outcomes for participants.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) overseas the fishery on the water and provides further regulation to ensure sustainability. Three managers regulate the bay to ensure that each river achieves desired “escapement.” This term refers to fish that makes it past the nets and into the river to spawn. A minimum and maximum goal is set each year. The minimum allows that sufficient numbers spawn to ensure the species survival and continued fishery productivity. The managers claim that the maximum goal is to prevent over-escapement. If too many fish spawn, they can disturb previously laid gravel nests and decrease the overall survival rate and productivity. Thus, once the maximum is reached, the fishery is generally opened around the clock. Until that time managers institute open and closed periods to spread the catch temporally. Openings for drift boats can be as short as two hours or the catchment may be opened 24/7 during strong periods. These openings are managed real time and on a daily basis
To further prevent overexploitation of a fishery subset, the managers limit fishing over space, in addition to time. Drift boats are allowed to operate in small districts at the mouth of each river system. The legal areas are located such that they allow fish to approach each river and turn back if it is not their home river. Confining the boats may be a good management practice for the fishery, but the limited cause chaos as fisherman jockey for best position. Collisions are frequent, verbal shouting matches common, and rifles are brandished on occasion.
The most astounding part of the fishery is the sheer number of fish. The average Bristol Bay sockeye run over the past two decades has been 36 million fish. Each year, biologists at ADF&G slate approximately 67% of the projected run for commercial harvest. For 2014 the projected harvest was 17.92 million fish from a total forecast of 26.58 million. The actual run and harvest turned out to be higher than expected. Given the biological success of this fishery over time, ecological management practices appear sustainable. I find it remarkable that over half the biomass can be harvested sustainably. Considering the number of fish taken, it is also surprising that there is little to no by-catch. Occasionally bottom fish or non-target salmon species end up in the net, but the strength of the salmon run precludes significant by-catch. Its no wonder many people take pride in this fishery.
The biological success of the fishery has, unfortunately, created economic difficulties for the fisherman. Peak prices, around 2.40$ a pound, crashed in the late 80’s. A mix of high supply from the wild fishery and expansion of farmed fish caused the drop in price. Questions about the health of farmed fish and a strong advertising campaign by the fisherman has increased the appeal of wild caught fish allowing the price to recover from a low of 0.40$ a pound to a present level of about 1.20$, half the all time high. Despite the recovery, the competition among fisherman for money and space to continues to drive efforts to downsize the fleet.
Two Dollars a Pound?
In the early summer the fleet was bristling with rumors that the price of fish would be back at two dollars per pound. They were confident that a surge in demand would keep the price high despite the strong run. A new cannery outfit was guaranteeing a two-dollar per pound base price. It unfortunately folded due to financial difficulty mid season.
Regardless of the final price, each captain has a singular goal that drives him or her throughout the season: to catch as many fish as possible. This trait, perhaps referred to as fisherman’s greed, causes each captain to push his or herself, the vessel, and crew to the limit throughout the season. Its brevity intensifies this effort, eliminating the need to pace effort.
Nothing about the job is too difficult. Picking fish, mending nets, cleaning the boat, life on board, etc. The difficulty begins when completing these tasks over and over, without sleep, for days on end. During the peak of the season our crew fished for 9 days with little more than 4 hours of sleep in every 24. Sleep came in shifts of 1.5 to 2 hours at a time, not enough to complete one sleep cycle. When on deck adrenaline kept us going, but over the aches and pains grew relentlessly. Our schedule, dictated by Fish and Game went something like: 12pm-8pm fish, 8pm-10pm delivering fish, 10pm-1am wash, eat, sleep, set up for the next opening, 1am-9am fish. It would shift a bit each day with tidal changes. Fortunately, we never saw a 24/7 opening during the peak and I am thankful for the little sleep that we were afforded.
After each closing it seems that respite has come, but this is never the case. The size of the vessels means fish must be delivered each day. Because of the bay’s size returning to the cannery is not possible. Thus each cannery employs a fleet of tender vessels, some of which operate specifically for this purpose while others are off season crab or seine fishing boats. After a busy opening the waiting lines can last upwards of 1.5 hours during which crews must wait at attention. Delivering means lifting fish bags (called bralers) from the holds, and reloading them once emptied. This is a dirty and physical job, so it is no respite. A full boat takes 30 minutes to unload, and then it may need fueling or to purchase food from another tender. The tenders keep the fleet operating near continuously, wasting little time in the relentless pursuit of fish.
A Famous Tender
Yesterday I was ready to give in. My eyes are bloodshot and sleepless. After standing on deck all day, my knees threatened to give out. My hands ache like never before; not like a muscle group tired from a workout, they ring and surge with pain. Each time the net was set, I looked across the line (the fishery boundary) to the horizon. As far as I could see in all directions fish were leaping into the air, headed for us. It was the most fantastic display of biological power I have ever seen. The fish leapt as if for joy, escaping the friction of the ebbing tide. They are hell bent on reaching the river, hell bent on reproduction. We caught over 10k pounds of fish a day for the past week. There are 700 other boats in this district alone. We are all taking as many fish as we can handle and yet they kept coming! Nothing but fish as far as I could see! Surely this cannot go on any longer. Surely I cannot go on any longer. I even prayed for respite last night.
Bucking the Tide
Today though something has changed. The fishing boats are roaring around the line like yesterday, but there is even more chaos. They ram one another in disagreement. The density of vessels setting nets seems higher. I ask the first mate has changed. The fish! They are not coming today. Without much fish in the nets to keep each boat busy they return to the line to set the net more quickly. Thus, more boats are setting at the same time. After more than a week or relentless fishing, the peak is over just like that and I am sent below for a nap. Perhaps my prayers were answered. Perhaps I can go on and survive this yet.
Gone dry, a respite.
In this fishery the only challenge greater than physical endurance is coping with strong personalities who, like you, have reached their limits. Captains have no patience for error or delay. Their stress builds with the need to cover costs, provide for their crews, and to provide for themselves. Reasonable requests quickly turn to screaming. Any error made by the captain is taken out on the crew as he forces them to make up for his mistake. Experienced crew members lose patience with newcomers, referred to as greenhorns. Personality quirks, and personal preferences cause criticism and arguments about everything from fishing to food. As the crew tires of living so close to one another quarrels are inevitable.
Despite the challenges, the people here amazed me. They come from an astonishing array of backgrounds and most have done amazing things beyond the fishing. My co-deckhand, a college student from anchorage, had just returned from climbing Denali at the start of our season. My first mate’s offseason job is blazing the trail for the Yukon Quest, facing 50 degree below temperatures and countless other obstacles on his 500 mile long leg. My captain has fished hear for 38 years, a feat to have survived, and it may explain his taste in harp music, River dance, and Enya. Another captain spends his off-season as the first mate of a cruise ship. A former deckhand makes hammocks and farms hazelnuts in his spare time. One Captain allowed an undercover policeman onto his boat to aid law enforcement. When this angered fellow fisherman he had is boat fitted with metal spurs to dissuade others from ramming him. These are not the individuals you encounter in cubicles, and each one has a fascinating story.
Meeting on the Beach
An Anachronistic Industry?
In my worst moment I found myself critiquing the structure of the fishery and dreaming of how it could be changed to ease my pains. When I arrived in Naknek the first thing I noticed was the scale of the mobilization. The sleepy town, permanent residence <1000, is swarmed by thousands of seasonal workers in early June. 1800 boats must be repaired and readied. A marine supply and repair industry grows around the fisherman. At the same time fishing tenders are arriving by sea. As the boats take to the water black clouds of diesel exhaust trail them to see. In addition to the tenders, a fleet of law enforcement helicopters, skiffs, and mother ships lies in wait preparing to hand out tickets in excess of 5000$ per violation. Though fascinating, it screams inefficiency. Our boat alone chews through 8000+ dollars of diesel in five weeks. Multiply that by 1800 to account for all the testosterone crazed captains with 500+ horsepower engines roaring about.
It is easy to imagine a different scenario. Because the fish swim past each cannery on their way up river, the boats are really superfluous. A single mechanized net spanning each river in front of each cannery could harvest all the fish necessary. In fact, it would be cheaper, require fewer fishermen, and make the fishery infinitely easier to enforce. Profits in this scenario would soar and consumer prices could drop and fossil fuel emissions would fall near zero. Even my own captain labeled the fishery as, “prehistoric,” so why has this not happened? Current fishery laws are protective of the fisherman and prohibit it. Such changes would of course have drawbacks, most obvious: killing employment. All fishermen and the supporting industry would disappear. This would eliminate at least 6000 jobs and render the 1800 highly specialized boats useless. The acute benefit fishermen derive and the relatively diffuse cost of higher consumer prices prevents a changing of the status quo. That said I am surprised that some influential and enterprising cannery owner has not tried.
Boats on the Hard, Pre-Season.
Dregs on the Beach
Conclusions and Takeaways:
Despite the hardship, many things made my time in Alaska worthwhile. Personally bearing witness to the place and to a job, which the majority of Americans will only see from a couch is an accomplishment. Many good moments punctuated the difficult days. Watching belugas and seals in the river, grey whales and harbor porpoises in the bay, eagles on the beach, jaegers and gulls in the sky were among the best. Witnessing the power of the fish was unbelievable, their r-reproductive strategy driving them relentlessly upstream. Holding the fish in hand it is impossible not to hold their beauty in high regard. While filleting fresh salmon for dinner, I was taken aback by the deep red of their flesh, which fades and pales in comparison behind grocery store glass.
Alaska is as beautiful and remote a wilderness as I have seen anywhere, I can hardly believe so much unspoiled land exists in the United States. Bristol Bay is a starkly beautiful place. The scrubland of Naknek has no resemblance to the dramatic beauty of the mountains I flew over to get here. That said each place we fished was different and intriguing. Egigik is barren tundra compared to Naknek. Walking through such terrain almost reminded me of a Scottish golf course. The west side of the bay, the Nushagak and Qvichak districts, contains more evergreens than the east. Our last stop for the season, Ugashik, was the most beautiful of all. Mountains filling the background included the smoking Chigniak volcano. It was the perfect backdrop for the final days.
Will I return? At seasons conclusion I find myself responding in the same manner as the characters from books about the fishery: It depends. I am exhausted. I have come to regard the net as a fickle and evil entity. It seems hell bent on destroying all that comes in contact with it, including me. I remember being hit upside the head for a minor mistake. I feel the pain from the three-inch gash in my shin that should have been stitched days ago, but is instead held together by duct tape. But, it will depend. The money is good as long as the fishing is good. This of course is a gamble. The sights are fantastic. The bond forming, character building, and insights both external and internal, are uncommon. They are irreproducible in normal society. So will I return? It depends what happens this year, but I will not rule it out now.
Calm Weather Fishing, Egigik.
Guardian of the Coast.
Beach Shack and Volcano, Egigik
Looking for an Easy Meal, Egigik.
Beluga, Naknek. They wouldn’t come closer!
The Ugashik River
Bear Tracks, Ugashik
Quite a Footprint
A stereotype of tropical cultures says that warmer countries are lazy and inefficient. As with any stereotype, it is not universally true. Even so, my experience in Alaska makes me feel that its reciprocal may be. I have worked hard at many jobs and in school, but never this hard. Furthermore, I have never been around so many people making a similar effort. The brevity of the season mandates it, but the Alaskan stories I read here make me believe that these are the hardest working people on earth. Think chopping firewood at 50 below, and fishing a season just to feed your dog team. For me the season is finally and today is my first day off in two months.
Cessna on the Naknek
The Katmai Air floatplane terminal is located just outside King Salmon, Alaska. I wait for my name to be called and survey my surroundings. Dressed in my ratty black hoodie and ripped jeans I feel out of place for the first time since arriving. Seated around me is a crowd of 50 and 60 something’s dressed in new purpose bought apparel bearing names like: Colombia, Patagonia etc. Massive cameras are flashed as though establishing pecking order. I have never seen so many white lenses in the United States. I imagine that these people are doctors and lawyers at home. They are seeking the outdoors to relieve the stress of their offices. It is clear that most have spared no expense.
I meet a variety of strange thoughts whilst among this crowd. The fisherman and Alaska Natives who I have worked with over the past months are in touch with nature on a daily basis. I am struck that they have a more natural view of nature, of the give and take between human society and wilderness. These Sierra Club types, I imagine, have bought this trip as an idealized commodity, a packaged experience. It is a happy, though limited, story about nature. Or perhaps this is just something I fear for myself.
Partaking in this fishery, in the food production industry, I have a new view of our impact on the natural world. It is astounding what can be taken from an ecosystem without harming its resilience. As a result of this experience, I feel more positive about those who hunt and admire people who can provide for themselves, taking what they need from the sea and land. At the same time, our impact on the planet appears all the more grave, knowing the height of the bounds we have exceeded.
Arriving at Naknek Lake
I didn’t get to see the rest of the Moose
The floatplane skitters across the Naknek River and flies upstream towards an eponymous lake. I retract my limbs against my body to avoid bumping the co-pilot controls. Below the tundra gives way to an aquamarine lake system, colors I would not expect outside the Caribbean. As we touch down two grizzlies scamper down the beach. They are my quarry today, my camera a less lethal instrument than the net I have just given up. We arrive at Brooks Camp, one of the two best places to view brown bears (grizzlies) in Alaska. The camp offers numerous opportunities to see the bears, but the best place is the falls, where the bears fish for salmon. There are two platforms at the falls and the closer is the place to be. Only 40 people are allowed on, an hour at a time each. It is nearly as interesting to watch social fabric unwind while photographers jockey for position, as it is to watch the bears. (Video to follow, hopefully soon!)
Bears at the Falls
They call this one Otis.
Leaving the platform, I walk alone on a dirt road to Brooks Lake. An unidentified animal was it a bear or a wolf? scampers through the trees. Returning I round a bend and meet a grizzly cub. It rears onto its hind legs less than 100 feet away. The fuzzy cub, which stands a foot shorter than I do, does not instill fear itself, but this is the danger zone. I cannot see the mother! I announce my presence and backtrack as I attempt to change camera lenses. Too slow, the cub disappears and I see nothing more.
Not a bad spot.
Thats a red salmon!
Otis with a fish