by Alan Hummel, Meat and Seafood Director
Thanks to Trout Unlimited, I was part of an exchange between New Seasons Market and wild salmon fishermen from Bristol Bay, Alaska. The fishermen from West Coast Wild Salmon, out of Dillingham, Alaska, spent a weekend in Portland in Summer 2009 talking to our customers and handing out samples of delicious wild salmon. In turn, I got to spend a week on a fishing boat with those same fishermen learning not only how to catch wild salmon on a commercial boat, but also what it’s like to live and work in Alaska, what matters to the people there, and why it’s so important to protect the natural resources that our largest state holds.
Bristol Bay has the largest salmon run in the entire world, with the sockeye season lasting about four weeks during the summer — 40% of the world’s wild salmon come straight out of Bristol Bay, supplying all corners of the globe with this nutrient-rich, renewable food source—that’s about 70 million salmon each year.
In Bristol Bay, salmon is life — 75% of local jobs are related to the fishing industry, so it’s critical to the livelihood of the community. To many of the natives and locals, salmon is a subsistence harvest, and they depend on their annual haul of fish to feed their families.
Life is unpredictable for these hard-working fishermen. Until the season ends, they don’t know how much money their catch will bring in, or whether it will be enough to pay the costs of their business. They work about five days at a time and get around four hours of sleep each night. It’s a pace that was challenging for this city boy to keep up with, and I have a great deal of respect for the people who do this work long-term.
There are basically two methods used for catching wild sockeye. “Volume fishing” uses large nets, spread out under the water until they get full. The nets are then hauled up with the fish ensnared in them. “Quality fishing,” the type West Coast Wild Salmon does, uses smaller nets, pulled up more frequently and handled with more care. The fish also tend to make it to market faster under this method. As a result, quality fished salmon cost a little more, but they’re the freshest you can find. I like to tell our customers when the fish in our stores was caught, not just when it arrived in the store; in this case, the sockeye salmon we get from West Coast Wild Salmon arrive in our stores within two days of being in Bristol Bay’s chilly waters.
The weather up there was unseasonably warm during my visit—pushing 80 degrees every day—which had a visible impact on the fishery. Salmon like cold water (that’s why they hang out off the coast of Alaska), and the water temperature at fishing depth was higher than they prefer. So the salmon were swimming low, and the catch was noticeably smaller. Close to shore, set-netters were catching less as well. But I also learned that on just one day, fishermen pulled 22.5 million pounds of salmon out of Bristol Bay. What a difference a few degrees can make!
There’s definitely a place for both volume and quality fishing. Between 12–17 million salmon spawn upstream into the rivers that feed Bristol Bay, and without the fishing industry, the millions of additional salmon spawning would overwhelm the rivers, deplete vital nutrients and cause damage to the watershed that could take decades to repair. The best thing you can do to help preserve the salmon run in Bristol Bay is to eat the wild salmon that’s caught there. That, and support the efforts to protect the environment surrounding the bay.
It’s difficult to imagine how the country’s largest open pit mine wouldn’t have a devastating effect on the Bristol Bay ecosystem, but that’s what the folks who have proposed the Pebble Mine seem to believe. The mine, to be located on a lake near Bristol Bay, would require huge amounts of fresh water to extract the copper and gold from the ore. That fresh water would have to come from local rivers, and even small amounts of toxic contamination from the mine’s operations could devastate the salmon population—not to mention the area’s drinking water supply. The toxic byproducts would be contained in two permanent lakes near the mine. I’m no mining engineer, and I don’t think anyone can know what the real impact of the mine would be. All I know is that it’s tough to imagine that digging a giant hole in the tundra would have no effect on the environment, the animals or the people in the area. This is one of the few relatively unspoiled areas left on Earth where humans are living with the land, instead of just on it, and it would be heartbreaking to see that destroyed.
Learn more about the efforts to protect Bristol Bay here, or feel free to contact me to learn about how you can get involved.