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: 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: 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: 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.
— Text by Dustin Solberg, Cool Green Science Blog
Photos by Clark James Mishler