The sun sets above gillnetters on anchor in the mouth of the Egegik River in between fishing openers in Bristol Bay. Bristol Bay is home to the largest sockeye salmon fishery on the planet; fishermen here harvest almost half of the world’s sockeye every season. Each summer, thousands of fishermen congregate in drift gillnet boats and at shore-based setnet sites to catch the tens of millions of salmon that return to Bristol Bay. Photo by Chris Miller.
The act of fishing, regardless of the advantages of modern technologies, still remains a test of humans against the sea. Until the day comes when the entirety of fishing is automated, fishermen will have to brave the elements and work the long hours necessary to find, harvest, and process the ocean’s bounty. This is true of small one-person fishing operations all the way to large factory trawlers with crews of a hundred people. The state of Alaska is emblematic of pristine waters, well-managed fisheries, and the evolution of modern fisheries, large and small, as well as fishermen’s struggle to eke out an existence in one of the world’s most challenging maritime environments.
Regardless of the fishery, hard work defines the men and women who take part in myriad fisheries around Alaska. They endure months at sea catching and processing the millions of pollock caught in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska or pulling crab pots with snowmachines through winter-pack ice in sub-zero temperatures for red king crab near Nome. The work is perilous and can be injurious—fingers are lost and boats sink—or even deadly due to extreme conditions for 20-plus-hour days for weeks on end. Many wonder why anyone would take such risks, but the lifestyle has many rewards. During a good season, workers can make large sums of money in short periods of time that will last them the rest of the year.
It takes years of toiling, failing, bouts of sea sickness, and learning from one’s mistakes to succeed as a fisherman; as terrestrial animals, it takes a special breed of person to understand the vagaries of their aquatic quarry. Those who succeed are the highliners who enjoy the respect and envy of the fleet. Despite Alaska’s pure environment, fish stocks have become more sporadic due to climate change, and communities like that of Chignik are on the brink of disappearing.
What does society lose if communities supported by fisheries in Alaska (like Chignik, Sand Point, and Elfin Cove) disappear? These places may be on the geographic fringes, but they provide a connection to the earliest roots of our society’s bonds to the land and sea. They also provide inland communities access to the increasingly rare commodity of healthy, wild, and fresh seafood. Consumers who consciously buy sustainably harvested and wild seafood from stores and local markets are not only supporting fishermen, their families, and fishing communities, they are sustaining a way of life and a cultural tradition stretching back to the beginning of human history.
So much of what we consume is processed food. Fishermen provide the world with natural food that has sustained humanity through time immemorial. Regardless of the season, this very moment, there is a fishing boat and its crew somewhere in Alaskan waters, braving the elements and sleepless nights to harvest the finest wild protein and sustenance to feed the world.