Tag: Dustin Solberg Pulling the Nets

Pulling the Nets: Notes From a Summer of Salmon

Written by | August 30th, 2010

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Editor’s Note: Dustin Solberg, staffer for The Nature Conservancy in Alaska, worked 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 and enjoy his final scribbles-from-the-shoreline in these selected excerpts from his now-dry summer journal.

Saturday, June 26: The Cash Register Begins to Ring
Nearly 5 a.m. now and we’re just in from the boat. Though I’m sitting on dry land again back in fish camp, my senses send mixed messages – my head can still feel a slightly disorienting but still gentle bobbing of the calm morning on the water.

Here’s a scene from the morning’s wee hour set at our fishing site:

[Three fishermen in a skiff have just set a 50 fathom net in Nushagak Bay’s quiet moonlit waters. They’re tied off on a buoy next to the net, its white floating corks reaching off into the bay. A slow-flashing strobe marks an outer buoy in the dark.  Each of the fishermen – Mike, Jan, and Dustin – recline in the skiff, teetering on the edge of sleep.]

[A salmon hits the net in a splash, breaking the silence.]

Dustin: Our first fish!
Mike: [sleepily] I hear the cash register ringing. [pause] Let’s see if he invites his friends.

[Jan reaches into the water and pulls the Nushagak River sockeye salmon from the net. As the season progresses, the sheer volume of the sockeye run will fill this and many other nets. It’s the “money fish” in Bristol Bay -- and the cash register is beginning to ring.]

Saturday, July 10: Hot Chocolate, and the Nushagak, In Your Cup
In Bristol Bay right now, the great salmon migration continues. A lot of people – and animals – are keen to take part. This morning on the beach where we fish, I discovered the tracks of a meandering brown bear leading to the big orange buoy that marks our net.

On the water, time seems to stand still. We launch our open skiff and the salmon keep coming. One by one, we pull salmon from the net and add them to an icy water bath in our boat. The salmon migration is on and it’s only on shore that I’m able to sense the Alaska summer is inching along: the blossoms of the highbush cranberry bushes are gone, turning now to fruit. The scouring rush plants are losing their green for a new shade of brown. Even as the seasons change, the weather is trademark Bristol Bay fishing season.

Yesterday, getting to the fishing grounds led us into stiff winds. The spray from the crashing waves on Nushagak Bay dripped from our grimy rain slickers and down our noses. It soaked the inside of my rubber gloves.

We delivered our catch to the  larger tender vessel anchored offshore. Each big wave rocked the skiff to and fro, and we steadied ourselves with every new crest and trough as a crane lifted 500 pound bags of iced sockeye salmon from our deck into the belly of the tender boat. Once our fish were all aboard, Shawn, the deckhand, asked us, “Hot chocolate?

We all nodded. The boat rocked. He disappeared into the galley and returned twice, each time with two steaming cups.

“Careful,” he shouted over the din of the waves. “It’s hot.”

We waited in our boat for a moment, sipping our cocoa, then untied and pointed our bow to our home beach. The cold spray from the crashing waves topped off my cup again, and again, and again, like that, in perfect time as we rattled across the bay towards home.

Thursday, July 22: Wild Salmon Forever and Ever
We began fishing a month ago. The salmon are still coming but I’m done. The fish have outlasted us.

I’ll return home with a hundred pounds of salmon, a debt of sleep, and different hands. My neighbor, a Bristol Bay fisherman, warned me. “First year fishing?” he said to me one day. “The hands take a beating.”

He was right. My wife doesn’t recognize my hands, the calluses, my fingers now grown stubby. The cracks and wrinkles and reptilian skin. You’d never know I followed the fisherman’s daily practice of massaging my hands with a balm meant for cow udders – the best chance at keeping hands intact.

It’s the normal toll on a fisherman’s body – the fleshy engine that pulls the nets day and night. We pull our nets into the boat and pick fish from the mesh, over and over again. There’s no stopping because to miss a tide is to miss out on what could be the best catch of the season.

The strain transforms bodies and minds. Even dreams go adrift: at night, I once found myself pulling nets… but woke to find I was tugging at my blankets.

Final Thoughts: Early numbers show a 2010 Bristol Bay sockeye – sometimes known as “red salmon” in the grocery store – catch of more than 28 million fish. It’s a staggering number. Sustaining such a catch for the long term requires excellent fisheries management and the protection of healthy habitat.

Wild Pacific salmon once spawned in rivers and lakes all along the west coast, as far south as Baja California and as far inland as the northern Rocky Mountains. Times have changed. We all know the roads and cities and farms and clearcuts of our peopled world today, and while inspiring recovery efforts are underway, salmon haven’t fared so well amid these changes.

Much of Alaska is different, and Bristol Bay remains one of the wildest places on earth. With hardly a road. It’s a region the size of Idaho, and its slender phone book, printed in large type, looks like a chapbook of poetry. Yet it is not a place lost to time. Threats to the region’s salmon include a proposed copper and gold mine known as Pebble. With development proposals such as mining on the table, the Conservancy is laying important scientific groundwork to help provide the best available baseline data for the region – with a goal of protecting this incredible wild salmon resource forever and ever.

(Images by Clark James Mishler.)

Pulling the Nets: More Salmon, Less Sleep in Bristol Bay

Written by | July 13th, 2010

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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)

Pulling the Nets: Salmon Fishing Season Begins

Written by | July 9th, 2010

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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.

Friday, June 25: The commercial sockeye salmon fishing season has begun!

We set our nets today at 12 noon and fished for a few hours. We found that though the fishing season was open, the sockeye salmon run is still not here in the numbers that make Bristol Bay famous. Yet we did find some fish in our nets.

Alaska’s Bristol Bay is home to the largest remaining runs of wild salmon anywhere on Earth. Healthy habitat – vast reaches of tundra flowing with rivers and lakes – helps ensure salmon populations remain abundant.

In 2010, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game forecast a sockeye salmon return of nearly 40 million fish. We’ll see if that prediction proves to be true…

Since today is the day that brings all the fishermen out, and the fishing was slow, we tied up to the skiffs of our neighboring fishermen to swap lunches – last year’s dried salmon for a batch of fresh trail mix – and trade the kinds of stories people tell in those moments when distractions are few.

The possibility of more lucrative returns has us rising early to fish Saturday’s high tide. How early? My alarm is set for 2 a.m.

This is the true advent of the fishing season for me, a rookie fisherman. We no longer live by the circadian rhythms to which we’re accustomed. We don’t follow the sun. For the weeks we work these waters to catch salmon for the cannery – and your table – we follow the tides.

The tidebook I carry shows tide will come at 4:30 am, and we’ll be on the water well ahead of that. Dressed in layers of wool and waders and thick rubber fisherman’s gloves, we’ll be warm for the 40 degree cool of the Alaska maritime dawn.

Image: Setting salmon nets in Bristol Bay. Source: Dustin Solberg)

Pulling the Nets: Late-Night Fishing on Bristol Bay

Written by | July 7th, 2010

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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.

Wednesday, June 23: It’s nearing midnight. We’re out in the skiff, having set our pair of 25 fathom salmon nets for the first time. The rain has mostly let up, and, for a while, a gap in the clouds let through the first sunlight we’d seen since I arrived in this fishing village a week ago.

After the hustle of preparing a skiff and nets and a truck (a tie-rod assembly broke in two at the last minute) we set the nets and then, for a few moments, simply waited for the first time in what seemed like days.

Looking north toward the heart of Alaska, clouds covered the peaks of the rugged Wood-Tikchik Range. Out to the Bering Sea stretched a sea and sky that could have been the same.

Because it’s so early in the season, and the salmon run is still barely a trickle, few fishermen are out this night. We cut the outboard engine and in the still air we hear only the water dappling on the hull – and a few quick bursts of air just down the bay.

What was that noise? A few beluga whales feeding a hundred yards up the shoreline, diving, rising and blowing an exhalation of air visible in the low light of evening.

The belugas and we fishermen have come for the same reason: we’re here for the salmon. Were the belugas feeding on migrating salmon? Quite possibly – it’s what they do. Just another example of how nature runs on salmon in Alaska’s Bristol Bay.

Pulling the Nets: Fishing for Wild Salmon in Alaska’s Bristol Bay

Written by | June 15th, 2010

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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.)

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