I stood on the deck of a fishing boat this past summer, soaked from sweating inside my rain gear after an hour of picking sockeye salmon from our gill net at the mouth of the Nushagak River on Alaska’s Bristol Bay. Fishing is hard enough work, but an early July heatwave sizzled the region, making for grueling conditions on deck. The temperature in southwest Alaska pushed 32 °C. Smoke blowing in from wildfires burning hundreds of kilometers east blotted out the mountains on the northern horizon. Nothing about the conditions was normal.
I’ve worked as both a journalist and a commercial fisherman for over a decade, participating in more than a dozen fisheries from Southern California to the western Gulf of Alaska. I’ve seen booms and busts over the years, and this summer the fishing in Bristol Bay was booming. Estimates say 56.3 million salmon returned to the bay’s rivers. While down from 2018’s record-breaking runs, with 62.3 million fish, Bristol Bay has so far bucked the trend of declining salmon runs seen in other regions. But all is not well. As I was sweating on deck, the water was 18.9 °C—just a few degrees shy of 21 °C, when the temperature starts being lethal to salmon.
Twenty-five kilometers northwest, in the nearby Igushik River, the water was even warmer. One hundred thousand sockeye salmon waited for cooler conditions so they could move upstream to spawn. But, unwilling to pass through the hot, shallow water, the fish used up the available oxygen and suffocated—it was the largest sockeye salmon die-off seen in Bristol Bay, says Timothy Sands, a biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Elsewhere in the watershed, temperatures also soared. Read more…
While serving as a deckhand on a longliner in the western Gulf of Alaska in 2013, my boat couldn’t shake a pod of sperm whales who gobbled up most of our catch. After working 20 hours a day for a week in a blustery March, I owed the boat money. As we moved east toward West Yakutat over the course of the spring, sperm whales were an on-again, off-again problem. We worked longer and harder to catch the same amount of fish. But the main casualty in the game of cat and mouse between our boat and the agile behemoths was our shared target—blackcod.
A move to allow pots in the Gulf of Alaska fishery is in response to sperm whales, as well as orcas, increasingly eating fish from longlines. Negative interactions between longliners and whales in the Gulf of Alaska have steadily increased for decades. Depredation—the act of whales eating from fishermen’s hooks—has caused fishermen much frustration and has cost them a lot of time and money. The phenomenon isn’t exclusive to the Gulf of Alaska. From Norway to the South Pacific, the Falkland Islands to Chile, fishermen increasingly find themselves competing with whales in hook and line fisheries.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council moved in April to allow the use of pots in the Gulf of Alaska to harvest blackcod. The decision comes after years of review and strong support from various fishermen and industry associations. The motion was not without contention, however, with the Sitka-based Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association opposing the change in gear type, asserting that it would hurt fishermen with small boats that couldn’t carry the large pots, thereby creating a new gear conflict.
Four bald eagles flew playfully with each other in the sun’s last rays before the 11 p.m. dusk. Their wings flapped quickly as they chirped in a high-pitched juvenile manner. It struck me as odd that the powerful predator emblemized as the national bird had such a disarming tweet, and not the fierce screech normally associated with birds of prey. In many places in Alaska bald eagles are more common than seagulls. Yet for most in the United States, the sighting of a bald eagle is an once-in-a-lifetime experience, if at all. Protecting these stunning, mostly unseen, creatures makes sense to most because they taken on an unreal—unicorn-esque—status.
“Goddamn glorified vultures,” said my former captain as he saw me admiring the birds. One swooped down and snatched a small pink salmon out of the water with its talons. “Thief! It’s a goddamn thief! Stealing dollars out of my pocket!” he hollered in a husky tenor.
A teenaged crewmate laughed and told me they’re the best trap bait for minks and martins. I gave a look of disgust, that egged him on and he delved into stories of blasting raptors with shotguns. Nonetheless fur—wild fur—subsidizes more than a few incomes in Alaska—not to mention generous government programs that many who perceive our northern most state as a libertarian bastion conveniently overlook.
Continue reading “Authoritarian environmentalists and democratic pillagers?”
Somewhere off the Alaskan Peninsula, in the barren 525-mile expanse that separates Kodiak from Dutch Harbor, I realized that we would soon run out of milk and bread. Being in such a remote location we would not soon be able to resupply on these basic provisions. As the boat cook, it was my job to plan and keep track of our food supplies, I hadn’t realized when I stocked up in the tiny village of Sand Point just how long we would be out and just how much milk and bread the crew would consume.
I alerted the captain and the crew that we had about two days of milk left and four days of bread if we continued consuming as we had been. I suggested that we should slow down eating and drinking these staples to make them last longer, but this turned out not to be the case.
In the face of scarcity the crew started drinking more milk and eating more bread than before. It was as if, and likely was, that the realization this “resource” would soon be wiped out, pushed the crew to “get theirs” or risk being left with nothing. I too found myself eating more peanut butter and honey sandwiches than before, with the thought, these guys are eating so much if I don’t snag an extra sandwich here and there I might not get anything.
Continue reading “Bread, fish and scarcity”
Thousands of people mobbed the streets when I arrived in Skagway, Alaska in mid-September. Nearly all were nicely-dressed older folks taking pictures of the historic false-front buildings and the powerful snow-capped mountains that lined the horizon. I wanted to hike the 33-mile Chilkoot Trail then head up to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory for a night or two and back to catch a ferry out. I had less than five days, and to my dismay public transit ended service a week prior. I weighed my options as I sat observing scores of gray-haired cruise ship tourists wondering the streets of the historic gold-rush boomtown—most of whom would only walk the main street of town in search for a souvenir to take back to their luxurious ship.
A little more than a hundred years prior, tens of thousands of men and women came through this tiny outpost in Tlingit country attempting to escape high unemployment—as high as 14.5 percent—and a depressed economy brought on by a heavily indebted public, erratic monetary policy, foreclosures and the bursting of market bubbles unleashed by the wild animal spirits of Wall Street during the Panics of 1893 and 1896. No other time since then had the gap dividing the nations richest and everyone else been as large—that is until today.
I was like most stampeders, adventurous, highly indebted, educated and yet without great job prospects. I could have easily been one of those who struck mad with the prospects of quick riches outside of Dawson City, in the Canadian north. Like them I did go to the north to settle my financial problems, but instead of chasing gold I was chasing fish.
Continue reading “The Chilkoot Trail: A walk through history illuminates the present”