Culture Shock

Posted on July 27, 2012


Bristol Bay Sockeye Salmon returned home to spawn by Ben Knight

It is always jarring to return to the world outside of Bristol Bay after a season of commercial salmon fishing. The summer is full of intensity, but at the same time there is a sense of being away from it all. This year I will be making a further departure from Naknek, the town and river system where my family has commercial fished for five generations, than my usual return to more populated parts of Alaska to visit the Willamette Valley wine country of Oregon. Linfield College in McMinnville will house the participants I will be joining, along with my sister, in the annual International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC). Attending the conference is my end of season splurge. In some ways I feel that the juxtaposition couldn’t be any farther from my summer of fishing and in other ways, I believe I will be celebrating some interesting similarities.

To participate in the commercial fishery in Bristol Bay one has to be prepared to get dirty and work through bodily exhaustion and lack of sleep. The axiom “make hay while the sun shines” applies mightily in our situation and when we have a regulated opening every advantage must be taken to capture the salmon in our nets as they move through the river districts in force. There is refinement in the skill that is acquired after years of being a part of the endeavor, but being part of the harvest of fish is a far cry from sipping fine wines of the world. However, the wine begins as a raw product and I love the thought of fish and grapes, destined to become wine, being thought of as parallel fruits of the sea and land.

The Eyrie Vineyards’ iconic wines of the Willamette Valley featured at IPNC (photo drawn from

Both salmon and grapes have been harvested since time immemorial. It is not certain how long the people of Bristol Bay have been sustained by the salmon, but I think it is safe to assume that the area was peopled because of the salmon resource and the other forms of life that the salmon support. I recently read that there is new evidence of the oldest known winery is in Armenia where it is believed that wine making began, but the evidence points to so long ago that it is difficult to ascertain the time that man began making wine out of grapes. The site indicates that the winery was established around 4000 B.C. My ancestors have been a part of gathering salmon in Bristol Bay since they migrated into the area thousands of years ago. My great-grandfather was born about a decade after the commercial fishery was established in Bristol Bay over 125 years ago and was the first generation of our family that we know to have been a part of the fishery. My family still fishes the site that he established to this day. Set-net fishing is especially conducive to being a family affair and what I have read and observed of wine heritage reminds me of our multi-generational enterprise. Estates, wineries, and techniques have been passed down and kept in the family for centuries in some cases and even in New World wineries and estates this pride of place is recognized and passed from one generation to the next.

I imagine that the harvest of wine is similar to the burst of effort that is felt in harvesting salmon. A tight window of opportunity must be observed to achieve maximum benefit and yield.

After the season is done I return to the world outside of Bristol Bay feeling a bit wild and rough, yet strong. One of the things that I felt a bit self conscious about coming into this trip were my hands, their rough callouses and the thought of shaking hands with wine connoisseurs. I had planned on sanding the rough spots on my hands down with an emery board and then it occurred to me, “Maybe I will be mistaken for somebody who has been working the vineyards.” Not that I plan on trying to fool anybody, but I would be flattered if the thought came to anyone’s mind and also hope to have the opportunity to participate in a vineyard harvest someday. My pursuit of fishing and skiing cover opposing seasons, but leave a gap of time where another seasonal pursuit might fit someday.

Salmon cooking over the firepit at IPNC Salmon Bake

The IPNC salmon bake is yet another event that pulls two seemingly disparate worlds together. On Saturday night a giant fire-pit will be set ablaze and when the embers are good and hot, king salmon will be staked to tree poles with aromatic planks and cooked to perfection. I have never experienced salmon that has been cooked in quite this way, nor have I ever eaten king salmon from the Pacific Northwest, to my knowledge. In my opinion, Pinot Noir is the best wine to pair with king salmon and Willamette Valley Pinot Noir has a special connection to the kings of the area. The Columbia River fishery was once a system so rich that its run dwarfed all of the river runs of Bristol Bay, but damming projects and other forms of land based industrial development have drastically depleted this grand river’s salmon stock.

Bristol Bay possesses the last great run of wild salmon on the earth. The habitat and conditions provide for an average return of 40 million sockeye salmon on an annual basis. If you count all five species of salmon, Bristol Bay is sometimes known to return 60 million salmon per year, without hatchery enhancement. Unfortunately there is a looming threat to this resource in the form of a massive porphyry mineral deposit that foreign mining entities are seeking to develop. The proposed Pebble Mine would be located at the headwaters of the two largest salmon producing rivers in Bristol Bay. The deposit is a low grade of copper, gold, and molybdenum ore that is composed of sulfide rock. It would generate 10 billion tons of waste and eliminate many square miles of salmon rearing habitat. The development is touted for the jobs that would be created for the people of the area, but at the same time it puts a thriving and sustainable fishery at risk along with existing jobs. One thing that the menace of the mine has done is honed the focus of the stakeholders involved and united them under what they value most. Commercial fishermen, sport fishermen, and subsistence users, who are native to the region, have come together despite the fact that there has been enmity between them associated with allocation to each user group in the past. None of them want to risk the devastation that a large-scale industrial mine would pose to the water and the salmon it supports.

Mary Olympic of Igiugig tending to her smokehouse by Ben Knight

In the spring of 2010 six village tribal entities in the Bristol Bay watershed requested that EPA use its authority under the Clean Water Act in Section 404 to prohibit dredge and fill material or mining tailings, from being deposited in the waters of the U.S., in this case, the headwaters surrounding the Pebble Deposit. Other tribes, groups, and organizations soon followed suit in requesting 404(c) and The EPA responded by agreeing to do an assessment of the Bristol Bay watershed. The process was initiated in February of 2011 and a draft was released on May 18th of 2012. A 60-day comment period then ensued and closed on July 23rd. An overwhelming number of people participated in the process and over 200,000 comments were submitted to the EPA in response to the draft assessment. So far results have indicated that 98% of the comments were in support of the EPA findings. The EPA stated with certainty that a large-scale mine such as the proposed Pebble development would indeed cause harm to the health of the watershed and pose a great risk to the fishery if a tailings impoundment breach were to occur. The final assessment by the EPA with adjustments and changes based on the comment period and scientific peer review which will occur during the first week of August is due to be released in November of 2012. There is a lot of hope riding on EPA making a determination whether or not to implement 404(c).

Campaign Emblem

If you value wild, sustainable and healthy food sources, I would ask that you take the time to learn more about Bristol Bay and the threat that the proposed Pebble Mine poses. Below are listed some great resource links where you can not only learn, but take action on the issue. For many in Bristol Bay, not having the greatest run of salmon left in the world return would be a culture shock indeed.