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.

Sunday, July 4: The Fourth of July holiday began early for our crew – though we haven’t taken a break.

We fished a late tide on Saturday night, and then as we steered our skiff back to shore this morning in the near-dark of 1 a.m., we watched revelers launch fireworks into the sky from the beach.

Yesterday afternoon, the sun broke through the low gray clouds and we raced to hang our layers of long johns and sweaters, raingear and waders in the 60 degree heat of the afternoon. The sunlight – and the good fishing – made for a beautiful evening.

The fishing is quite good now. We first measured our daily catch in the hundreds of pounds, and now, as the peak of the sockeye run nears, we measure our daily catch in the thousands of pounds. We know this weight in our arms and legs and minds: we pull each and every fish into the skiff by hand.

We sleep at every opportunity – a few hours a night, and 10 minute naps when we can. We salmon fishermen are not alone when it comes to sleep, as I found out when we stopped by for the afternoon mug up at the cannery in Dillingham – a chance for cannery workers to grab a cup of coffee and a cookie in a cavernous warehouse built of heavy wooden timbers.

Canneries have a 125-year history here in Bristol Bay, and even in 2010, walking through the cannery yard is like a trip back in time. In the warehouse, amid pallets stacked with canned salmon ready for shipment to your grocery store and ikura bound for your sushi bar, we stood elbow to elbow with the cannery workers who bring these old buildings to life for a few months each summer.

I spoke with one twenty-something who worked a line in the cannery’s egg house. “I sleep two-and-a-half hours a night,” he told me. “I drink lots of coffee.”

We’re all trying to keep up with the salmon – and the funny thing is the run hasn’t yet reached its peak. I’m still wondering what a run of 40 million sockeye looks like at the high end of the run…some call it the “wall of fish.” We’ll see!

(Image: Salmon boats in Alaska. Source: Ami Vitale)

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