Katrina's Summer Adventure

Photo credits Elizabeth J. Moore and Katrina Adams

Katrina hiding from the weather

Many of you know that I was born and grew up in Alaska. "My" part of Alaska is a land of tundra, ocean, and few trees, with an incredible and unearthly beauty.
My family fished for salmon commercially and for subsistence. My sister, Liz, has kept up the family fishing tradition and when she asked if I’d like to fish with her this summer, I decided that it was time to visit my “roots”.

It has been about 25 years since I was in Naknek, the main village and salmon central in Bristol Bay. Bristol Bay is the home of the largest commercial salmon fishery in the world.

Bristol Bay Region
Map courtesy of BBNC
For a larger version follow this link.
Of course I would pick the coldest, most miserable summer that anyone can remember to go home. Most days it was cold enough to see your breath, with nasty cold fog and wind (don't forget that this was midsummer in July).

Did I mention that it was COLD?

Checking Nets
And we fished, every single day.
During the season, Alaska Fish and Game tell us exactly when we can fish and this year they let us fish every tide. BUT each tide was a separate opening. So, to make sure that our deeper nets were not in the water during a closed period, we had to remove or "pull" them at the end of each tide and put them back out again on the next flood.

No walking on the beach looking for agates and very little time for photography this year. We sleep when we could, usually 1 or 2 hours at a time and usually in our clothes. This far north there is incredibly long twilight and it is only truly dark from about 2am to 4am in the summer. With the continual fog and gray sky we often didn't know if it was day or night.

2010 Crew
Liz and Jake
Liz is such a fashionista.

Liz has an incredible crew, even under the worst conditions people took care of each other and kept everything as safe as possible. She wrote a blog during the season with an (almost) daily peek into the fishing, including a lot of photos.

Bald Eagle
An eagle getting fish scraps.

Salmon are the life blood for this entire region of Alaska and have been for thousands of years. Everything from the tiny animals living in the mud and gravel to birds, bears, and humans depend on the great annual spawning migration. Salmon spawn in fresh water streams and rivers. After the eggs hatch the fry make their way to the open ocean. The salmon live in the open ocean about 4 or 5 years, then they return from the sea to spawn and die in the lakes and rivers where they were hatched.

Many of my environmental friends may think that by joining in the fishery I have gone over to the dark side. *BUT* the Bristol Bay salmon fishery is one of the best examples of managed sustainable resource use in the world.

Of course it wasn't always this way.

136 million fish were caught during the 1936 season, but by the 1950s a tiny fraction of that number of salmon were returning to spawn. Few regulations, lax enforcement and an industry controlled by large outside forces (the salmon packers) all contributed to the crash of the salmon fishery. I remember the shipments of relief food and clothing that were sent to the Bristol Bay villages during this disaster.

When statehood was achieved in 1959, one of Alaska’s primary goals was the restoration of the essential salmon fishery. Management was turned over to the Alaska Fish and Game biologists. Their scientific management of the salmon fishery has slowly restored the annual salmon return to where it is today. The Alaska Fish and Game forecast for the 2010 Bristol Bay season was a return of 39.77 million red or sockeye salmon. This is still considerably less than what it was in the 1930s, but this is still the largest wild run in the world.

In Bristol Bay the salmon fishing is done with gill nets, the mesh size is regulated and targets a specific fish size. There are two methods of fishing; "Drifting" is from large to medium boats using unanchored nets, the boat and the net drift together in the current. "Setnetting" (which is what we were doing) uses nets that are anchored in the tidal area of the mud flat. Everything about the fishery is highly regulated, with severe fines and other punishment if you fail to follow the rules. We use fairly small boats called skiffs to work through the nets, picking the fish, as long as the water is deep enough. If we time it wrong, the tide will go out leaving fish in the nets and then we have to pick in the mud, a fate worse than death!

Seiner taking delivery
Seiner taking delivery.
A brailer with fish.
Beach Truck
The beach truck, each tote holds 1000 pounds of fish.

After the fish are taken out of the nets or "picked" they are delivered. Either to a tender, a seiner that collects fish from the setnetters for the cannery, or to the beach gang, who use huge trucks and cranes to lift the fish brailers. The brailers are enormous sacks that the fish are kept in until delivery. Fish have to be clean, so if we wind up picking in the mud, we also have to wash the fish before delivering them.

Clearing the round haul
Picking the fish out of a round haul.
Round Haul
Round haul.
If we can see that the tide is leaving faster than expected or if we are catching more fish than we can handle, we will pull the nets out the water into the boats with the fish still in them, this is called round hauling. Picking the fish out of a round haul isn't easy, but it's a lot better than picking in the mud!

I think that that this is one of the cleanest fisheries around. There is no by-catch, nets are not left unattended and the salmon are picked by hand, in fact my hands are still a little swollen. The salmon are stored in chilled salt water while in transit to the cannery. The Bristol Bay salmon fishery was certified by the Marine Stewardship Council as a sustainable fishery in 2000 and re-certified in 2007.

Although the salmon resource is being managed in a sustainable manner it is still under threat. London based Anglo American, one of the largest mining companies in the world wants to open a huge cooper and gold mine called Pebble Mine in the heart of the salmon spawning grounds. I am quoting here an article published in the Anchorage Daily News by Jack A. Stanford, a professor of ecology at the University of Montana.

Pebble could pollute perfect, porous habitat

COMPASS: Other points of view
Published: July 25th, 2010 06:19 PM

Executives with Pebble Limited Partnership and some of their high-profile supporters, like former House Speaker Gail Phillips, have recently made misleading statements about the location and potential impacts of the proposed Pebble Mine.

They stated in public forums that Pebble is not located in the headwaters of Bristol Bay and that it would only affect about two streams out of some 42 similarly-sized streams in the project area, thus creating the false impression that this enormous copper and gold mine would cause minimal harm to the habitat of Bristol Bay's great salmon fishery. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

The argument that this giant mineral deposit is not in the headwaters of the Nushagak and the Kvichak Rivers relies on a dim notion that the headwaters is only the single stream in a watershed that is farthest from the ocean. Any thinking person knows that surface and ground waters flow downhill anywhere in a watershed, not just from the stream that's farthest from the ocean. As someone who has taught river ecology for 40 years, I know that the headwaters are where small streams first start to flow throughout a watershed.

I began my career in 1967 on the shoreline of Alaska's largest king salmon producing river, the Nushagak, near Ekwok. My job was to sit on a tower above the river and count the number and species of salmon swimming underneath to reach spawning grounds in the headwaters of the Nushagak. Sockeye, chum, chinook, pink and coho streamed by, sometimes faster than I could count them. Since then, I have worked in rivers around the world exploring how they create habitat for salmon and trout.

Bristol Bay is home to the world's largest sockeye salmon run, and it's a testament to the thoughtful management policies of the State of Alaska that it has remained so. The key to the high productivity of sockeye in Bristol Bay is the habitat, especially the abundance of clean lakes and the intimate connection between water flowing underground and at the surface. Bristol Bay is an inherently wet, porous place, where water moving between the ground and the surface provides the perfect place for salmon eggs to develop.

It is simply wishful thinking to assume that the Pebble prospect can be developed without long-term impacts on Bristol Bay salmon. Pebble would necessarily destroy salmon-bearing headwater streams outright and would very likely pollute many more. This has happened time and again with sulfide mines around the globe, and Pebble would be one of the largest and likely the most destructive headwaters removal mine ever conceived.

Any pollution from Pebble wouldn't just affect salmon near the mine site; it would travel easily downstream, through surface and groundwater. In fact, the porous nature of the Bristol Bay watershed that makes it such a great producer of salmon also makes it especially vulnerable to the kind of pollution that is caused by copper sulfide mining.

In the end, a project like Pebble would put all of the salmon downstream from the site at risk; this means no less than all of the fish that return to and rear in the Nushugak, the Kvichak, Lake Iliamna and the vast majority of their tributaries. A mine of this magnitude is not just about the mine site and the pollution that could emanate from it, it's also about the broader cumulative effects, whether it's the haul roads that cross stream after stream and open up the entire area, leaks from the slurry pipelines or the multitude of mining claims whose owners stand ready to develop more mines if Pebble becomes a reality.

As an expert on rivers, I can say with authority that Bristol Bay is in nearly the same situation that faced the great salmon rivers in the Lower 48 before their salmon were lost to development, dams, pollution and other factors. The only real difference for Bristol Bay is that the decision can be informed by history.

On the other hand, wishfully thinking that you can have it all -- a mining district and a thriving fishery -- will take Bristol Bay down the same road as so many once-great salmon rivers.
no pebble mine
Needless to say this is a highly volatile topic, but almost everyone I spoke with agreed that the Pebble Mine risk was not worth the potential reward. And, almost everyone in Naknek has a "No Pebble Mine" bumper sticker, flag or other device flying high.

For more information about:

Bristol Bay Commercial Fishing in Alaska Pebble Mine Salmon If you would like to see more photos, follow this link to more photos from Katrina's Summer Adventure.

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