We pulla da nets, to maka da mon, to buya da bread, to getta da stren’, to pulla da nets
--Lament of a Bristol Bay fisherman
As Alaskans mark the 50th anniversary of statehood this year, the commercial fishermen of Bristol Bay set sail on their 125th season on June 7th. They do so in much more comfort and with better gear than the pioneering fishermen of the Bay. Fishing today is very different from the time up until 1951 when salmon were netted from sailboats. Despite the differences, however, the essential activity remains the same – it still takes two hands to pick a salmon out of the net. In the last century and a quarter tens of thousands of pairs of hands have picked hundreds of millions of salmon from the nets of Bristol Bay.
The fishery began in 1884 when San Francisco businessman Carl Rohlffs organized the Arctic Packing Company and built the first cannery on the Bay at the Native village of Kanulik across the Nushagak River from present day Dillingham. The first commercial pack of canned salmon was only about 400 cases or 6000 fish. A meager beginning for what would become the most productive wild salmon fishery on earth. Over time more than 50 canneries would be built in Bristol Bay. Most have since succumbed to fire or neglect.
The Bristol Bay fishery embodies the enduring struggle in Alaska’s history to determine who will manage our resources and who will benefit from their exploitation. With statehood Alaskans wrestled the management of fisheries away from the canneries and the federal government. Enlightened state management is often credited with saving the Bristol Bay fishery. The last two decades have experienced some of the greatest sockeye returns in history. Statehood, however, has not made the distribution of benefits from the fishery any easier. Differences in expectations and need between local and non-resident fishermen, drifters and setnetters, and differences among all users of fish in Bristol Bay continue to foment controversy over gear restrictions and allocation.
Despite all of the wrangling, however, Bristol Bay’s fishermen are blessed - after 125 years they still have a fishery to squabble about. In the same period most of the other great salmon fisheries have risen and disappeared or barely limp along as shadows of former abundance. The reason is no mystery – the Bay’s freshwater salmon habitat remains intact. In 1950 the newly formed Alaska Territorial Board of Fisheries observed in its Annual Report that while commercial fishing is often blamed for fish declines:
. . . there is evidence to show that in numerous cases it is of minor or no consequence. The actual reasons are often found to be changes in the environment of the salmon due to natural and unnatural (man-made) conditions. Luckily the advance of civilization has, as yet, had but very minor adverse effects on our fisheries. …. However, a new era of progress and industrialization for Alaska is at hand. With it will come the attendant evils to our fish and game resources, just as it came to every other frontier territory. It behooves us to profit by the mistakes of others before it is too late.
This warning has come to roost in Bristol Bay. The world’s greatest wild salmon fishery will not likely be compromised by management or allocation decisions. Rather, man-made changes to habitat may pose the greater threat. In the debate over fish and development we are often wooed to the latter by claims that science and technology make it possible for us to have both. Many fisheries have fallen victim to this claim. So as we celebrate our history in this anniversary year of both Statehood and the Bristol Bay Fishery we should also heed the lessons of our history. Whether we do so may well determine whether Bristol Bay fishermen will be pullin’ da nets 125 years from now.