The end of the greatest American fishery?

Threatened by mines, Bristol Bay, Alaska, is a place of beauty and heart, dependent on salmon. Plus: A slide show

Published September 17, 2010 5:45PM (EDT)


If fish can be heroes, salmon have a heroic story -- returning after years out in the world, they fight their way upriver back to where they were born, slipping past eagles and dodging bears to find a place for their children. But the natural order is both grislier and more beautiful than that. Those eagles and bears will stave off their hunger and snatch their fill of fish from the water. And the salmon that survive will spawn, wither and then die, their bodies nourishing the ecology with nutrients collected from the ocean.

Bristol Bay, Alaska, is home to the largest wild salmon run in the world. Every summer, up to 50 million sockeye come pounding through the bay, turning it silver. The salmon run is what brings life back to this place. It defines it. "It's incredibly moving to see the first fish surge," Kate Taylor, a wilderness guide, said to me. "That's when everything starts. You see the bald eagles come out, the osprey, the wolves, the bears. Soon, you see trout up the river feeding on the salmon eggs. All this life starts to come out of this barren landscape." And then there are the people: the fishermen gearing up for the season. The natives who have subsisted on this fish for nearly 10,000 years. The thousands of workers who come here, swelling these villages to 20 times their off-season size.

But what if the salmon don't come? The future is unclear, as Bristol Bay also happens to be an enormous copper deposit, and Canadian and British energy corporations are planning a massive mine at the headwaters of the bay. Considering that the Pebble Mine is in a seismic zone and will require what is essentially the world's largest earthen dam to hold back the lake of sulfuric acid it will produce, many are fearful that, whether catastrophically or just through seepage, the mine will destroy this nearly untouched wild habitat, where the air smells all the time of tundra, a perfume of herbs and flowers and moss. But for now, as I looked out to the water, waiting for a tug on my fishing line, I thought what an incredible privilege it was to be here, at the very cusp of watching a whole world come awake, and to meet some of the people who live among the salmon.

The fisherman

David McRae has fished for sockeye salmon in these waters, under this enormous sky, for 30 years. A handsome man in the Eastwood vein, his face is strong, rectangular. His hair is short and gray, his skin weathered to a toughness, and yet he smiles easily, almost beatifically, which was a relief when I hopped clumsily into his boat, nearly tripping on the nets piled on the floor. I tried to find a spot to stand, suddenly conscious of how goofy I am in my too-big borrowed rubber jacket.

His nephew Jay was also on the boat, solidly built and quiet in that way that may mean that he's shy, or that may mean that he's there to fish, not make friends with people with cameras and notepads. As David motored us toward their site, I could see in the distance the decaying remains of an old cannery, a reminder of how long people have been fishing here. The permit for this site has been in their family for generations. When his watch ticked to the official opening of the day, David and Jay launched into a flurry, unfurling their net into the bay.

Later we worked the gear, which means we took the skiff to one end of the net and, with our arms and backs as the motors, tug our way to the other side, picking salmon out of the webbing. The boat felt light and I pulled with excitement, but 15 minutes into it, my back announced some displeasure. I imagined what it would be like to pull a boat sagging with 1,200 pounds of fish back and forth across the gear, all day long, for the entire season.

We pulled up an occasional salmon. The easy ones fall out of the net with a gentle tip. But others come up tangled, the fish suspended in a thin, wiry web that would have M.C. Escher gnashing his teeth. Fish after fish, Jay directed me: "Give that one a good hard shake. Flip the net around. Pull that one up and over." I had no idea what he was looking at, how he could see a path for the fish out of the gear, and he took over. Plunk, plunk -- the salmon fell to the deck. At peak season, they catch a dozen fish for every couple feet of net. "Throw in a 30-knot wind at night in the rain with headlamps and the boat rolling," David laughed. "Like trying to figure out puzzles in a washing machine." While playing a 12-hour game of tug of war, my back reminded me.

He mentioned proudly that despite its small size, his boat consistently comes in over the catch average -- even against the big boats drifting out on the horizon, their bows a dozen feet off the water, mechanical winch nets hauling fish up through the air like they were climbing Jacob's Ladder.

"How'd you get into this?" I asked him, and he talked about family and heritage -- fishing with grandparents; an aunt and uncle who took him onto their boat when he was in high school. He spoke in years by the dozens, but then said something that surprised me: "I've never really identified with being a fisherman."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"It's something I really enjoy, but you can go to school, be creative, do art, do architecture, or fly airplanes: all these other things I love to do. But my roots here are very tangible. I've seen the same family names on those set net sites for decades. It's a community."

He'd retired from fishing entirely to fly planes, but he decided to come back when Jay asked him to. "Jay's mom and I used to work that site, just the two of us. He started helping us out when he was 14. I don't want to make it too flowery and romanticized, but there's a feeling of wanting to pass on the ways," David said.

The home pack

"Welcome to our crazy little fish plant," Izetta Chambers said when we arrived at Naknek Family Fisheries. It's a new-looking facility of gleaming stainless steel ... in what is not much larger than a shack. She giggled when she picked up a broom to bang a light on and then introduced us to her grandmother, Violet.

A bright-eyed woman with a round face and rounder curls, maybe 5 feet tall if you give her a shoebox to stand on, Violet is the kind of person you want to hug immediately. Her hands were covered in blood and wielding 12 inches of sharpened steel. I didn't want to hug her that badly.

She was cutting fish for smoking, part of the family's "home pack" -- the catch you keep for yourselves.

Bristol Bay has an unemployment rate at times nearly double statewide figures. It's a real problem -- one Pebble Mine proponents point to constantly -- but the numbers may be misleading, because they count off-season fishermen among the unemployed, and because out here, there is a real subsistence economy, which is a planner's dead-dull way of saying that most people here hunt and fish for a lot of their food. For many native families, nearly 80 percent of their calories can come from the land, starting with the salmon they catch and preserve for the rest of the year.

"Do you sell your smoked salmon?" I asked Violet.

"No," she said with great seriousness. "We take care of ourselves first."

"Do you trade it for anything?" Subsistence fishing permits don't allow you to sell your catch, but do allow for barter.

"Yeah, cash!" she laughed.

Violet laid her fillets on a board her husband made for her, with slits in it to guide her knife, cutting it into even strips like she learned to do 70 years ago. I asked for her brine recipe. "Oh, the brine," she said. "I put a potato in the brine to see if it's right -- it floats when there's enough salt." I nodded excitedly, getting ready to write down a recipe. "But I didn't have a potato today, so I'm just guessin'," she laughed. I put my notebook away.

We chatted lightly as she kept cutting. When I mentioned the Pebble Mine, though, her head jerked up. "Ah!" she exclaimed, putting down the salmon in her hands. "We cannot have Pebble come. We cannot have Pebble come," she said. She looked down at her brine. "Sometimes I try to imagine what life would be without fish," she continued, saying that last word as the locals do, with a long, soft tailing off: fisssssshh. "And I can't imagine it."

Once Violet hung the strips of salmon like red icicles on rods to go into the smokehouse, Izetta led us to the smokehouse out back.

In her 30s, Izetta started fishing at 9. She moved away, to Arizona, where she went to college and eventually law school before coming back home to open this little plant, where she cleans, cuts and markets fish caught by the fishermen in her family.

"You have to really love it," she said. "It wrecks your clothes, you get fish blood all over you."

"So do you love it?" I asked.

"Sometimes, I have to get torn out of that plant. I work in education, where you're trying to change attitudes and beliefs, but it's so ethereal. But in the plant, I can count what I’m doing, how many meals I'm going to provide."

We got to the smokehouse, which really is a shed. She lit a fire and started chuckling. "My daddy came up from North Dakota, wanted to find a native lady, have her put up a bunch of salmon and treat her like a 'squaw.' My mom was like, 'You'll have to go farther away for that!'" And Izetta began putting up the salmon.

The processor

Leader Creek Fisheries is hundreds of times the size of Izetta's little fish plant, but it might be just as crazy. For years, its strategy has been to actively decrease the number of fish it handles and sells. Izetta told me about treating the fish as other than a commodity -- not in a touchy-feely spiritual sense, but in the "canned goods commodity food" sense. Better handling, higher quality is what distinguishes her product, and Norm Van Vactor, Leader Creek's manager and three decades removed from when he was on the cutting floor himself, was showing how that idea plays out at scale.

As we toured, Norm explained how each step in his process preserved the quality of the fish. Standing at a conveyor where the salmon are pumped out of the boats was like a "Daily Show" "Moment of Zen," watching fish fall through the air into a pool frothy with other fish. "The water keeps them from getting bruised; they're not all banging into one another," Norm said.

We walked through the line, past all the heading, the gutting, the trimming, and, well, in an objective sense, it wasn't pretty. But for an operation of this scale, it was strikingly clean, orderly, panic-free and efficient.

"Too little time, too much volume is all you used to hear people say when they talked about Bristol Bay salmon," he said to me. But Leader Creek is happy to buy fewer fish for more money -- offering fishermen nearly a quarter more per pound, for fish that's harvested slowly and treated with more care.

The remaking of this commodity into a high-quality product is, to Norm, a form of activism. Higher quality can command higher prices and a higher profile ... and more of an economic argument to protect this place.

"I only live here during the season," he said, calling himself a "Gussick," a native term for an outsider. "But in many ways, this is really my home. Up here, everybody is so interconnected, and all my best friends live in these villages. I could become destitute tomorrow and know that I would never go hungry. Someone would offer a roof over my head. It's just the way these folks are."

He grew up the child of travelers, and he first came to Alaska in college to make money during summer. As he spoke, I thought of how growing up constantly on the move might compel you to fall in love with a place where people live where their ancestors did.

Norm is a fierce anti-Pebble Mine activist, but not when he first heard about it eight years ago. "Back then, the seafood industry wasn't doing well. If there was a better place for my employees to be, I wanted to help them get there. I come from South Dakota gold miners; I'm not anti-mining." He invited the Pebble Partnership to come by. It was early then, before lines were drawn, and the discussion was candid: A marine biologist the miners hired said he doubted the mine could keep its toxins out of the water. "I couldn't sleep after hearing that," he said, so the next day he flew his plane over the Pebble site, looking down at the mesh of land and water, and said, "That's the heart of Bristol Bay. It's where it all comes together."

"Still, who was I, a Gussick, to come and tell people, 'You gotta keep this industry outta here'?" he said. "But I heard villagers say, 'What we have is more important. This is short-term pay for some, and we have a way of life that's been here for 10,000 years.'" And so he's been fighting the mine since. He told me about a package he happened to receive the day before, trinkets from an airport gift shop. They were from an elderly native woman, with a note: "I want you to have souvenirs of Alaska always, because of what you've done for my community."

We walked out of the plant through the roe room, where workers separated sacs of fish eggs according to size. There was bright orange oil and slime coating their hands, but the eggs sat, bright and bubbly, like jewels. "Isn't that beautiful?" Norm asked.

We piled into our van and shut the door, but Norm trotted out and stuck his head in. "Hey, I'm sorry, I should've said this at the beginning," he started. "But … thank you. Thanks so much for coming this far away to see what we're all about up here." He paused. "Thank you for coming to see this place." He closed the door and turned to go back to the fish. He was crying.

View the slide show 


By Francis Lam

Francis Lam is Features Editor at Gilt Taste, provides color commentary for the Cooking Channel show Food(ography), and tweets at @francis_lam.

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