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.
A crewmember aboard the C/P Frontier Mariner aligns circle hooks on a rack that feeds into an autobaiter. Larger longline vessels use autobaiters to speed the process of setting gear; baiting hooks and restacking or overhauling line are some of the most tedious jobs aboard the boat. The autobaiter speeds the boat’s ability to turn over more gear and catch more fish. Longline sets in the Bering Sea can run eight miles across the bottom of the ocean. The crew of the C/P Starbound empties a full pollock trawl into the chute that feeds the processing plant below decks. Pollock vessels fish in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska; the Starbound will fish around the clock with multiple crews to keep the trawl in the water and the plant constantly processing the catch. Hands of processing workers sort through pollock fillets on a light table, to look for sub-standard fillets and trim any pieces missed by the processing machines. Processors aboard the vessels work up to 16-hour shifts to fill the hold. Amazingly, nearly 100 percent of each pollock is used to make fillets, surimi (imitation crab), and fish oil, with some of the larger boats using the fish oil to run boilers on the boat.
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.
The fishing vessel Imperial starts its day off in front of the Fairweather mountain range, in Cross Sound. The commercial troll fishery is considered to be a prosaic fishery as it still uses hooks and lines to harvest salmon one at a time, rather than the large nets gillnetters and purse seiners use. Some trollers choose to fish alone, preferring the solitude and challenge of combating the fish and seas by themselves. The commercial troll fishing season is one of the longest in Alaska only closing for a few months a year. Fishermen can fish into the winter for king salmon; not many do, as the Gulf of Alaska can produce some of the world’s most violent storms during the winter months. Holly Enderle carries four cleaned ocean-bright cohos to be placed in slush ice in the hold. Enderle, a second generation troller, runs her boat, the F/V Pacific Dream, based out of the fishing community of Elfin Cove. Herring school up in a purse seine in Togiak. Herring fisheries are notoriously fast and short affairs. Some, like the Sitka herring fishery, are so quick that fishermen may only get to make one or two sets before the harvest limit has been reached for the year. Herring fishermen in the heyday of the fishery had the ability to make a million dollars in one set. Loyd Ashouwak stacks the leadline while purse seining for herring in Togiak aboard the F/V Sitkadak. Togiak herring are some of the largest herring in the state, but due to market declines, herring fisheries around the state have declined. Fishermen run a circuit along the Alaskan coastline to harvest herring in southeast, southcentral, southwest, and western Alaska every spring. Freshly caught Copper River sockeye and a fillet lay on a bed of ice. Copper River salmon are known for their rich flavor and are the first salmon to be commercially harvested with gillnets in the state. The majority of Copper River salmon are processed into high value fresh frozen fillets, and the best fish end up selling in fish markets like Pike’s Place at $74.98/lb. for king salmon fillets and $49.99/lb. for sockeye fillets.
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.