Opinion: On Wild Salmon Day, remember the fishermen too

Aug 11, 2016

Alaska has done a great job protecting it's abundant wild salmon. Now let's make sure the fishermen are around for generations, too.

Everybody thinks they can skipper better than the skipper. Everett Thompson of Naknek shows one of the next generation how to run boat.

Wild Alaskan salmon have been the backbone of my community, my culture and my family for too many generations to count. As Alaska has its first Wild Alaskan Salmon Day, it makes me proud that our state is finally honoring what has been sustaining the people in Alaska for so many years.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Bristol Bay. This summer subsistence fishermen are filling freezers with fillets and smoked fish, stuffing cans of salmon into pantry shelves, and putting buckets of salt fish aside to be pickled.

Campers on Lake Aleknagik mark the occasion.
Credit Todd Radenbaugh

We commercial fishermen are wrapping up our season by putting in as many pounds as possible to make our boat payments, permit payments, a salary for our crew and feed the world. Both the efforts of the subsistence fisher and the commercial fishers are remarkable. Great job for making it happen and getting out to do it!

Fishermen are an interesting breed and extremely hard workers. I suspect Alaskan summers, with all their daylight, were designed with us in mind. There’s so much to do in so little time. We’re relentlessly trying to make it happen so our winter goes by smoother, much like we have done for thousands of years for subsistence and for more than a hundred years commercially. Alaska’s fisheries are a great example to follow on sustainable fisheries and I commend all that take part in ensuring its abundance. Thank you.

Now should be the time of year that we celebrate our abundance, go to Salmonfest, attend parties for the first annual Alaskan Salmon Day, or maybe even take a vacation. For some of us it doesn’t happen though. We are either still fishing, still putting the boats and fish away, paying crew or didn’t make enough to celebrate.

Who says you can't make it in this business on an old wooden boat? Everybody has to start somewhere.
Credit Everett Thompson

Subsistence and commercial fishing are both a part of my family’s life in Bristol Bay. I am so thankful that my family has been able to subsist, literally 'live off', the abundant harvest of the fish and no matter what, I want to protect that. Commercial fishermen used to be owned by the cannery. The employer supplied the boats, the nets, and the grub, and as employees we were able to form a union to ensure we were treated fairly. In the early 1970's limited entry went into effect and we became owners in this business, and it’s been feast or famine ever since.

Today’s skipper has more and more burden on him every year. With prices like last year's $0.50 per pound, and $0.75 this year, even if we have a great year on the water we don’t make much money. If we want to upgrade boats or engines we have to save up for years. The canneries used to handle the books, grub, parts, and most everything else, but now we're our own accountants, mechanics, hydraulic specialists and sometimes physiologists for our crew.

When I was 13 our salmon was selling for $2.75 per pound. That was for dry fish; just catch them and sell them. Now we are lucky to see a dollar by catching the fish, then bleeding, chilling, and floating them in the fish holds. Meanwhile the price of everything else has gone up.

We also promote our fish and communities throughout local, state and regional seafood development tax. We pay astronomical permit fees, licenses, insurance and spend a lot of time and money ensuring this fish habitat stays pristine. Yet canneries seem to give us the short end of the stick and retailers hardly give us any part of the stick at all. And it seems state authorities are getting more aggressive with enforcement, breathing down our necks on the fishing grounds, so eager to bust struggling fishermen they run over nets and ruin gear.

Some fishermen are buying into fish companies to feel like they are being treated fairly. Others are too scared to leave their fish company or sell outside of them for fear of losing their market or bonuses. These are some of the struggles some of us fishermen face if we are “lucky” to fish at all.

For my whole life I felt like I was born to fish, and I love the job. Now I just want a fair market price so my children can fish when they grow up. As we gather to celebrate our state’s healthy runs of abundant wild salmon, keep in mind another threatened species we can do better to protect: the fishermen.

Everett Thompson is an artist, fisherman, and lifelong resident of Naknek. If you'd like to submit opinion or commentary pieces, email them to news@kdlg.org.

When you've been fishing for weeks, and your wife takes a tender ride out to say hello ....
Credit KDLG