Editor’s Note: Dustin Solberg, staffer for The Nature Conservancy in Alaska, is working for a month this summer on a commercial salmon fishing crew in Bristol Bay. The Conservancy began protecting wild salmon habitat in Bristol Bay more than 10 years ago and this work continues today in the face of looming development threats. Read all his “Pulling the Nets” posts over the next month and follow his progress aboard a fisherman’s skiff in remote Alaska.
This summer, people await tens of millions of wild salmon to return to the great wild salmon rivers of Alaska’s Bristol Bay: Nushagak, Kvichak, and Naknek. Togiak, Egegik, and Ugashik.
The return of the wild salmon kicks off a high drama starring a charismatic cast of characters: bears and wolves, eagles and seals, and a crowd of men and women who love working on the sea.
Almost magically, this entire cast appears somewhere on the water when the salmon come. Some show up at the rivers with fishing rods for a chance to test their luck with the 10-pound-plus. Many Native people will gather at the river to harvest wild salmon in a tradition dating back thousands of years. And the robust salmon runs continue to support the commercial fishermen of Alaska’s Bristol Bay — as they have for 125 years.
This is where I come into the picture. This summer, I’ll be among those fishing for wild salmon from small boats on the waters of Bristol Bay: home to the largest remaining runs of wild salmon on Earth.
It’s also home to a “small-is-beautiful” commercial salmon fishing industry in which fishermen work for themselves in some of the best wild salmon habitat on Earth. As the fishing season progresses, check here for reports on my rookie season in a fisherman’s skiff.
Before we even put our nets in the water, signs are good — if forecasts are correct. Many were pleased to learn that state biologists forecast a return of more than 39 million sockeye salmon.
That’s a big number, but it is not untypical: The 10-year average for Bristol Bay wild salmon returns is 35 million sockeye. Prices were in a slump for years, but they appear to be on the upswing — sockeye salmon prices averaged about 70 cents a pound last year. (With an “average” sockeye at about 6 pounds, that adds up to just over $4 a fish.) In this way, the commercial wild salmon catch has helped people pay for groceries, homes, and their kids’ college tuition.
The immensity of the Bristol Bay salmon runs — and the size of the catch each year — is staggering to many. How can nature support a fishery that puts salmon on the plates of millions? they ask.
In a single word, it’s habitat. Habitat that looks like this: hundreds of square miles of forest and tundra, streams and lakes. This Kansas-sized watershed — without roads, mines, dams and all of the other developments that gradually wipe out habitat — is the center of North America’s wild salmon universe.
Keeping Alaska’s Bristol Bay as it is won’t happen on its own. We live in a changing world, and competing pressures on wild salmon habitat — most notably from large-scale copper and gold mining — are on the rise. It’s also on the minds of everyone who fishes Bristol Bay.
Nature has always provided for Bristol Bay, and biologists’ forecasts suggest it’s about to happen again. For this, we can thank thousands of square miles of healthy habitat.
(Image: Salmon caught from the Nushagak River, which has the third largest Chinook run in the country and contributes to the world’s largest sockeye run in Bristol Bay, Alaska. Image credit: Ami Vitale.)