Bristol Bay fishing woes
How to help: Buy salmon responsibly! How to identify fresh-caught salmon from sustainable fishing communities in rural Alaska!
Village of Pilot Point
The tale of two villages and one common struggle
Ugashik and Pilot Point are located on the Alaska Peninsula – that skinny piece of land that comes down out of the main part of the state for over 600 miles before it turns into the Aleutian Islands that reach almost to Russia (OK no jokes about Russia here:-)
Pilot Point is at the mouth of the Ugashik River with the village of Ugashik 20 miles up river. Ugashik River ends at the base of two lakes – the Upper and Lower Ugashik.
There is a documented living site (humans known to have lived there) at the lakes that dates back over 9000 years, about 6 miles away traveling overland.
The village of Ugashik has a long and important history in the Aleut culture here in Bristol Bay. Almost any village can show that their residents have roots back to Ugashik. It was the largest Native village in the area, if the facts are remembered right of over 900 people, until the flu pandemic of the early 1900’s. All but three people perished, all children. Part of our village has at least two areas of mass graves that mark this event.
The village has never died and is determined to be a presence in the coming years. Knowing this, after the most recent events, makes it all the more important that we survive.
Bristol Bay salmon fishing
Many in our area, Bristol Bay, have questioned how we, Pilot Point and Ugashik, could be struggling when the Bay overall had a good salmon return last year.
Our story goes back at least four years before the salmon run failure of our river system of this past year and requires a little explanation of salmon fishing.
In Bristol Bay there are two main types of salmon fishing; drift and set net. Drift fishing is usually done on a boat that is no longer than 32 feet in length and involves setting out up to 900 feet of net, usually either in the mouth of a river or just outside of it.
Set net salmon fishing involves a net up to 300 feet that are anchored with one end to the beach and a second out in the river.
Traditionally the men of a family, usually with a few crew members fish via the drift method and the women, kids and elders fished with a skiff at the set net sites on the beach.
This still pretty much held true until about 20 years ago. Now more men and families have entered the set net fishery and work a couple of different sites as the investment is less than trying to enter the drift market.
Even with more men involved it is still VERY much a family operation for most set net operators.
Most set net permits are passed from generation to generation and thus have a long family history connected to them and the sites they fish.
In Bristol Bay there are five different rivers that make up the fishery with the Ugashik River being the southern most of the rivers. We are the farthest from the major shipping ports for sending out finished product making transportation a big issue. We are also the only major fishing district that is without a large processing plant located in the river water shed.
Getting the fish to market
Four summers ago the major processing company that buys fish from set net fishermen stopped sending a large boat up river to the village of Ugashik, to buy fish from the smaller boats of the fishermen. This is after a history of having a buyer for over 50 years, doing just that. (A larger boat that buys from the fishermen and then hauls it to the cannery is called a tender). This was despite a letter promising they would do so. This left these fishermen without the ability to get their fish to a market.
The tiny village of Ugashik, 11 set net sites and about 5 extended families banded together with one fisherman who had a somewhat larger boat and worked a system to get their fish down river over 20 miles to a market. (I can personally tell you that trip can take as little as 6 hours and as much as 10 hours, if the wait in line is long and the tides are not ‘going with you’.) Two trips a day had to happen to allow the fishermen to keep fishing and the fish being delivered in good quality. The company not only did not send up the tender but without notice also did not buy from the fishermen once they got their fish to the tenders down river.
Despite the idea of a free market there is not the ability to sell your fish to just any processor. They must agree to buy your fish and ALL maintain a mysterious A list of preferred fishermen. The ‘rules’ are not published or known for certain and you can be ‘downgraded’ or dropped at any time for any reason. That part of the market is ‘free’! You then have to find someone new to sell fish to and if they want to freeze you out for any reason, it is a done deal.
We were lucky enough that we were able to skip around to various buyers and get our fish sold over the course of the next few weeks. Fish were in short supply that year and the quality of fish we were bringing to the processors was very good.
The following year this same processor sent a letter to all the set net permit holders (fishermen) in the Ugashik fishing district to tell them they would not be buying their fish the coming year. This was done in January and sent such a shock wave through the villages we are still trying to recover.
It can take years to secure a good steady market for your fish and this has left the fishermen floundering just months before fishing preparations were ready to start.
Through some heroic efforts of a few people a market was found for about 60% of the fishermen in Pilot Point but only one fisherman in Ugashik.
The remaining fishermen entered the market having to check each day with all the buyers with tenders, sometimes only the one or a few times up to three, to see if they could fish that day. To fish without a secured market is against the law and can net you a stiff fine or even eventually get your permit taken away.
One small processor located in Ugashik started a multi-year effort to expand and be able to process not only more of their own fish, as they are fishermen owned, but also those of their neighbors. This is not a small under taking or something to be accomplished quickly.
Over the course of the last few years the fishermen have seen their markets dry up and then this past year having up to 2/3 of the fish predicted for the run not show up for some reason.
ALL fish runs are cyclical and somewhat hard to predict. Many factors can affect the return of the fish, like ocean conditions, and being intercepted.
Last year’s salmon run
Normally families spent the first of the season, when fish first come in, doing subsistent fishing for their families to get the season started. Very quickly in Bristol Bay the fish are coming in strong and ALL efforts go to getting fish harvested and sold.
After a few weeks, yes just that short of a season, the fish will slow down and winter preparation start for most families.
This past year just a few days into heavy fishing the fish just stopped for all practical purposes. The panic started. Was the fishing season over, only 1/3 of the way into it? Was a second run coming, which use to happen years ago? Do you pack up and stop your expenses of keeping the crew, feeding everyone, etc or hold on for a bit? Do you put up fish for your ‘home pack’ or sell everything you can to pay the bills?
You can imagine the discussions and fear.
Well, as things turned out the fish did pretty much end those few days into the heavy run and most fishermen had what they all agreed was the worst year, in at least 25 years. This on top of the last at least three years of a marginal market for their fish. Reserves have been stretched to the absolute limit for most families.
Working toward a solution
These two villages, only 7 miles apart overland and 20 miles via the river, have banned together two years ago to start to find a solution to this entire issue.
The fishermen have formed a co-op and they are working with the various villagers and others to start to find ways to secure markets for their fishermen.
This entire process will take years of work and is facing huge threats from the large processors as the last thing they want to see is a fisherman owned operation taking some control of their future.
We have not given up, as neither did those who kept this village going in the tough years in between. We are hoping through our hard work, determination, and forward thinking we can change the control fishermen have over their futures and that of their families.