An eagle glides on sea breezes over the meandering estuaries of Bristol Bay. Far below, shore waters roil as masses of dorsal fins split the waters as far as the eagle’s eye can see. It’s the end of June, and the world’s most spectacular salmon migration has begun again.
It’s Bristol Bay, Alaska, off the Bering Sea, and sockeye salmon by the millions are returning to their home rivers, using their internal compasses and sense of smell to navigate the daunting distances to their natal streams.
Since a time beyond memory, migrating salmon have meant life itself to the First People of North America. In the Bristol Bay area, archeological evidence reveals homesites over 6,000 years old. Salmon bones were recently identified in 11,000-year-old homesites a bit farther north. DNA studies suggest that salmon fishing played a major role in early human migrations around North America, perhaps as far back as the Ice Age. The salmon we fish today may well be directly related to those same runs that nourished the earliest people who lived in the area.
Camping along fertile shores and banks exploding with life, indigenous families timed their own migrations to coincide with those of the salmon. Traveling also for berries, moose and other game, they found abundance when times were good, but always, the returning sockeye provided their primary, dependable food source. Their lives, their rhythms, their culture itself was intimately connected to salmon.
Ever since humans mastered the art of twisting sinew or reeds into knots, salmon have been caught in traps and nets the world over. Most likely, it was women who perfected that art, since women in many cultures sewed and mended clothing using bone knives and gut filament.
We know from stories passed down over the generations that willow bark and rawhide nets were widely used in western Alaska, and that women and children often fished with setnets. These long nets, meticulously constructed, were dragged out perpendicular to the shore, like walls. They were anchored in the mud by weights, and floated by whatever buoyancy device could be devised (sticks, kelp bulbs, animal bladders).
As the enormous migrations of salmon instinctively headed for the rivers emptying into the Bay, thousands of mature sockeye would swim into those intricate nets and get caught by their gills. As each tide receded, families would wade into the waters, picking fish from the nets and tossing them into small rafts or baskets.
Their work had just begun. To preserve this essential protein and fat for the long winter ahead, families cut and cured their fish in smokehouses, hanging the gutted salmon above the fires by their tails in two long connected strips. All along the shores of western Alaska today, you’ll see fish being dried and smoked by the hundreds, continuing the tradition of families and small communities working together, sharing, laughing and giving thanks for the life-giving salmon.
Fishing was a community affair until the late 1880’s, when Alaska became a U.S. territory. Then the canning industry up North began, with great infusions of money from entrepreneurs in San Francisco involved in similar ventures in the Pacific Northwest. These investors shipped tons of supplies, and transported hundreds of laborers, to build those first canneries in Alaska. By the early 1900s, dozens of them were catching and processing millions of pounds annually of salmon in Bristol Bay, using double-ender sailboats shipped from Columbia River fisheries. These iconic, sturdy boats required rugged fishermen who dealt with inclement weather and demanding bosses.
We may tend to romanticize that fifty-year-long era, but fishing in those open sailboats for six days at a time was cold and dangerous work. Fighting enormous tides, huge waves, wild winds and ever-shifting sand bars, fishermen needed excellent sailing skills, strong backs and a thirst for a living wage. On sunny days though, with only a light wind rippling their sails, those sleek boats brimming with glistening salmon were a beautiful sight and a delight to sail.
For years, motor boats were illegal in Bristol Bay for convoluted commercial reasons (a story in itself), and consequently, the era of picturesque sailboats lasted far longer than practical. But sailboats were hazardous, inefficient and increasingly outdated after World War II. Thus, in 1951, Congress passed a law allowing motorized fishing vessels in the Bay. Motors quickly replaced sails, and those sleek silent days soon slipped into the past.
But still, they are remembered as one more chapter in Bristol Bay’s evolution. To commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of the sailboat era in commercial fisheries, a fully restored Bristol Bay double-ender, with a crew of five, sailed 300 blustery miles from Homer to Naknek (including an overland portage), leaving on July 5, 2022. That historic journey coincided with the most massive salmon run in Bristol Bay’s recorded history.
Because of excellent science-based salmon management by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, strong support by fishers and residents, and perhaps also because of ocean warming trends, numbers for the total catch and escapement (the number of fish completing their life cycle) in Bristol Bay in 2022 are the highest ever: an estimated seventy-five million fish.
Blessed by nature’s resiliency and by cooperation among scientists, government and citizens, Bristol Bay enjoys a wildly sustainable fishery. After disastrous returns in the 70’s, state and federal agencies, along with individuals and corporations, cooperatively turned the tide and participated in the epic renewal of this vital keystone species.
The great, fractal estuaries would not be teeming with life without the migration, spawning and death of the sockeye salmon in this protected, intact environment. As tiny eggs and baby fry, the salmon hatchlings provide food for a myriad of predators. But those that survive all the perils, growing strong in the ocean, eventually return to the streams in which they hatched to reproduce so the cycle can continue. Their decaying bodies are their final gift to the environment, providing nutrients that fertilize the rivers, lakes and forest, enriching the entire watershed.
Rarely in today’s world does an ecosystem produce such bounty and maintain such a precious balance. Alaska’s salmon fishery is the pinnacle of sustainability, and the pride of the state and the nation.
This treasure of Bristol Bay, with its direct line to the past, needs continued respect and protection. Though challenges are inevitable - warming waters and resource extraction-for-profit efforts are constant looming threats - for now we can be grateful for this abundant, well-managed fishery. It allows valuable traditions to continue: wild salmon thriving in pristine environments, fisher folks harvesting this precious resource, and healthy families enjoying nutritious, wild sockeye salmon.