I don’t know when I began to love what I kill.
The blood of thousands of sockeye salmon is on my hands. I have applied my intelligence, physical body, experience and competitive nature to kill as many as I can, as fast as I can. For thirty years my family’s income has come from selling salmon. That makes us commercial fishermen.
I am in awe of wild salmon and want them to swim in abundance across the earth forever. Three weeks from now I will be out there killing them again. This seems terribly hypocritical.
Is it just our modern American culture that builds this sanctimonious fence between love and harvest? Have humans revered their prey through time? Does the gardener love broccoli while cutting it for dinner? I heard about a trophy bear hunter who sobbed after the kill. Even the devout fly fisherman inflicts pain and injury before releasing the cherished fish.
Probably we truly love our prey mostly for what we get from them.
Perhaps we love them for the act of harvest itself.
Will I work to save salmon for the sake of salmon and not only for a promise of continued personal gain?
“I have been fishing since 1979 and my Great Grandpa Paul Chukan fished with us at that time. He was the first commercial fisherman in our family and my children and nieces represent the 5th generation. My mother and I fish our permits and gear on the site that my Grandpa established after he transitioned away from drift fishing in a sailboat. He said that the king salmon liked to go scratch their bellies on the rocks on the high side of his site and that is why he chose that spot.
My daughter is now a full-fledged crew member in our family operation and my son comes out with us in the early and late parts of the season when the fish ing is light and the water isn’t too rough. Migrating to the Naknek River every summer is something that brings constancy to my life and I am so proud to share this with my kids and continue our connection to Bristol Bay; the place that has given us life.”
“Bristol Bay is a home-away-from-home and became so after I spent my first summer there in 2010, at age eighteen, cooking at a setnet camp and nannying for my dad’s godson’s kids on Nushagak Point.
I grew up on the water in southern New England, even commuting by boat to high school, raised by a community of parents, families and neighbors each with a unique and strong relationship to the ocean. After my first summer at fishcamp my own relationship with the ocean grew. I came to understand the water more as a source of life than I ever had before.
This is not more palpable anywhere other than Bristol Bay. Mid-season, the river itself pulses with life, and you can feel it swell with the lives of fish, a life source themselves, just standing on the riverbank. Time away from Bristol Bay has only changed my appreciation for water by nurturing and growing it. Each precious body of water supports the health of this Earth and pristine Bristol Bay is the glowing leader that we must protect and use as example. Not to mention, its wonderful people, with whom the shared experience of knowing this place is truly something special.”
“I have called Bristol Bay a second home since I was a kid, fishing with my family and friends every summer. Wanting to share my experience of this amazing place and the people that fish there, I began to photograph what I saw each season.
Long days on the water off the windswept shores of Bristol Bay and Western Alaska began to reveal a different type of landscape; one of ever-changing light and clouds, vivid colors and shades of grey. On the deck of a small fishing boat the vast horizon presents nature on a grand scale and one can't help but feel the majesty of this place. As the season draws closer I look forward to seeing, once again, smiles on the wind chapped faces of my friends after a long day of fishing and the strong salmon returning to the wild pristine beauty of Bristol Bay.”
“Bristol Bay, in many ways, spawned me. It became my birth place, the place where I truly came to appreciate the wonders of nature and yearned to share them with others. I arrived in 1985 and fell in love. I am still in love, but a much deeper love now. I know that the love is mutual as Bristol Bay supports myself, my family, my employees, my business, I depend upon her and she depends upon me. I started in Bristol Bay as a sports fishing guide, she raised me strong, taught me a lot along the way and she raised me right. She created a name for myself and my business, one that I am still proud of today. The lessons I have learned I have been sharing with the younger generations, both through my lodge and through the Bristol Bay Guide Academy, an awesome project that has now weathered 10 years of struggle and determination, blossoming into a future for the coming generations. Bristol Bay is home and I will give my life, if necessary, to protect her. She is not just a place, she is a living, breathing, self sustaining organism that deserves respect and protection and she will continue to love all her occupants for generations to come.”
“My parents say I was baptized in the Ugashik river, and though I often doubt they dipped my bald head in the cold muddy currents, I know I have spent every summer there since I was born. I was raised in a small set net cabin between the mud flats and the tundra on a quickly eroding patch of grass. As soon as my sister and I could fit into extra small waders we were out in the skiffs helping. The abundant salmon runs employed both my parents and put salmon with all the fixings on the table well into the winter.
I was drawn to the work and started saving in my early years of high school to one day own my own skiff and permit. Five years ago I bought the fishing vessel Georgette Rose and have run the boat and crew each season since. Bristol Bay has given me the unique and precious opportunity to start and run my own business as a young woman. Every day I learn something new from the tireless tides, endless rivers, and crazy salmon that make up Bristol Bay.”
Early in the long days of summer here in Bristol Bay, I constantly feel as if I am holding my breath. Our family’s 32-foot drift boat has sat on blocks all winter, and the anxiety for the moment when my husband will turn the engine over for the first time each spring is incomparable. Commercial vessels here log a full year’s worth of hours in 4-6 short weeks only to sit dormant for months in the freezing cracks and thaws of winter.
Invariably in early summer, at least one cussing injury will occur, some type of frustration will spring up, grease will permeate every load of laundry we run, and in every conversation will be the silent, lingering question, “When will the boat be ready?” The batteries will need to be charged, wiring harnesses on engines checked, terminals cleaned, and oil changed; then, the moment of truth will arrive.
The key hits the ignition and every deckhand holds their breath. The diesel engine turns over and the crew’s whoops of celebration ring quick through the scent of exhaust across the boat yard. We are one step closer to going fishing.
Bristol Bay is salmon centric; the year here begins anew with each salmon season. This remote southwest Alaska region spans 47,000 square miles and is home to the world’s largest wild and sustainable Sockeye salmon fishery. With over 56 million Sockeye returning to the Bay in the 2017 season, the numbers were staggering. Salmon have an immense impact on the culture, economics, and vast ecosystem of Bristol Bay.
For centuries, Yupik, Aleut, and Athabascan peoples have called Bristol Bay home, and salmon are intrinsic to their way of life. Their traditional techniques are evidenced in the first wind-dried and wood-smoked King Salmon strips that come out of the smokehouses each spring; these morsels are eaten and shared as treasure. Salmon is a culture unto itself, and many rely on it to feed their families year-round, including us. We salt buckets of Silvers for pickling months later. Sockeye and Chum are split and filleted, frozen or jarred, and Kings are prepared just as their name would imply—as fish royalty—with all their parts utilized.
My own love affair with commercial fishing began a few short years before the one my husband Bronson and I share. Both endure, renewed each season with the tide. Bristol Bay’s commercial fishing endeavors are hard to beat when is comes to the history of a fishery.
Late in the 1800’s, on the shores of what is now the Nushagak District (the site of our home), salteries and canneries brought floods of foreign fishermen and workers to harvest the bounty in the waters here. From near conception of the fishery into the 1950’s, all commercial fishing was undertaken with only sail power. Not only did you have to be a good fisherman to succeed, but you also had to be an experienced sailor.
The iconic imagery of the period is that of sleek double-enders with their square sails and two- man crews. Men outfitted in oilskins, subsisting on mainly hardtack biscuits during the peak of the run, were often found wet, chafed, and hungry. Boat fires were a common occurrence. Fierce rivalries between canneries encouraged risk-taking among the crew; injuries and cold-weather conditions wore on all in the fleet. Storms and rapid riptides combined with large catches led to precarious situations as sailboats offloaded their scaly cargo at the scow. Often boats would swamp, washing away catch and crew. The promise of a good season’s pay outweighed the danger each hand on deck knew to be inherent. It was a time when fishing truly relied solely upon the grit of fishermen, the wind, and the tide.
In 1951, fuel power entered the Bay and began modernizing the fleet. The mechanics changed, but the integrity of the fisherman did not. Every season, captains and crew continued to face the dangers of rough seas snapping lines, large catches swamping back decks, grueling hours without sleep, competitive fishing, engines and stoves sparking boat fires, tie-ups going awry, and even lost limbs or lost lives.
My husband’s grandfather first came to Bristol Bay in 1952 to drift the wooden sailboats amidst some of the newly powered vessels. Currently he is a spry 80 years old, and one of the most hardworking men I have ever met, drifting the entire season last summer putting younger men and women to shame. He is often found alone on his deck in late season running the net and gear, something most fishers wouldn’t do, as an errant anchor chain, a miscalculated lay-out of the net, or a rough tie-up easily could lead to disaster. Yet there is no dissuading the man once on his course. I’ve often seen this sentiment in my husband, his father, and his brothers, who all captain their own boats in the salmon fishery.
Unfailingly, they persevere through breakdowns and rough seas to make our livelihoods. Bronson and his brothers are third-generation commercial fishermen who are now teaching our children the value of a hard tide’s work, the joy in salmon coming over the back deck, and that smidgen of stubbornness that is hard-earned. There is an innate sense of pride in late season when we fish as a family for Silvers and Pinks, wrangling our twelve-, five-, and two-year-olds on the back deck, my two young daughters clamoring to pick the fish from the net while our nephew runs the reel.
This time of year, we begin to look ahead. As I write this, we are still in the throes of winter, but with long days of light quickly approaching, salmon fishing will soon be here again. Every spring we feel excitement as seasonal fisher-folk arrive among our year-round ranks.
Eagerly, I will trudge out onto the mud flats to pound pegs for our subsistence set net site, run my lines, and set my net. I’ll wake at the ebb tide to pull my gear and hope for fresh salmon, as our freezers have been emptied of the harvest from the season before. I’ll greet friends on the beach, coffee in hand, and compare catches. I will split fish, share the first fillets, and light the smokehouse anew. Our crew will arrive, and the yard will begin bustling with net work. I will hang and mend gear while Bronson and the crew commence boat cleaning along with maintenance of the deck gear, engine, and water-chilling system. That moment when the key hits the ignition will occur once more, and soon we will all go fishing.
As the fleet strives to maximize the quality of the catch, it is the quality of the fishermen in Bristol Bay who are the salt of the earth and sea that make my life richer. At the heart of our family, we are salmon people who know no better way to live, and in this life we are fulfilled.
“We first went to Bristol Bay as two young people who received an intriguing offer we couldn't pass up. After that first summer setnetting in Naknek with a friend of one of Steve’s forestry colleagues, we started this new version of our life where we carve time out of each summer to return to the home of the salmon. We first went in 2001, and in 2004 we officially launched our direct marketing business, Wild for Salmon, in our hometown of Bloomsburg, PA.
After our first summer we brought catch home to share and sell, and we’re now year-round salmon and seafood people. Our business distributes salmon and other wild and sustainably-caught seafood across the country via wholesale, farm markets, buying clubs, and online ordering. We have two young kids who will visit the bay for the first time this summer, and Jenn will return for the first time in a few years.
We look forward to sharing Bristol Bay with our family and are always trying to do the same with our customers, whether that be through recipe suggestions, fishing stories at the checkout counter, or teaming up with Mark Titus and the forthcoming film The Wild to tell our story a bit more. As we prepare for our kids to get to know this place as we do, it feels more and more dire and important to involve ourselves, our crew, the F/V Ava Jane, and Wild for Salmon in the fight to Save Bristol Bay.”
“Our family and a born-tough crew of fish cutters come up to Bristol Bay where we can't wait to get our hands on the Sockeye! Right off of the boat and into our tote...we take fish that have been handled with care from the Bristol Bay fleet and get to work at Kvichak Fish. From the slush to the freezer, we work until the last fish is cut and packed. There is no low-tide for us as we go around the clock, all the while knowing that we are in the company of thousands of others on the boats, beach, docks and cannery lines in the Bay. The salmon drive our work, strengthen our spirits and feed us - not just for those few explosive weeks but each day, year after year as we share the product of our labor with people in the lower-48, helping them connect with the source and labor of the food they eat. What we have learned from salmon, is that just as food is a common need to us all, so too is community and culture. By giving us the gift of working together, salmon show us to ourselves and to each other. Let's protect that.”