By Kate Vollrath
Since coming to Alaska, I have felt the urgency surrounding the need to protect Bristol Bay from offshore oil and gas development. While I understood that this place boasted one of the world’s largest salmon runs and that Alaskans do love their salmon, Bristol Bay took on a new meaning for me after a trip to the area last weekend. As soon as I stepped off of the plane in Naknek, I knew that this place was unique. Little did I know that my first trip to an Alaskan fishing community would be an experience I would never forget. It has impacted how I think about salmon, Bristol bay, and why this area is so unbelievably special.
The weekend began with renting a car and navigating the gravel road from King Salmon to Naknek. We were already soaked from the rain and decided our first stop should be D&D Restaurant to dry off and warm up while eating pizza. We then drove to the setnet beach. As we walked along the beach we saw setnet sites and the cabins that people stay in during their weeks of fishing. It was a quiet time of day as far as fishing was concerned, but I could imagine the setnetters on this very beach bringing in thousands of pounds of fish! The amount of human energy that fuels the set netting operation in Naknek is nothing short of impressive. I couldn’t believe how little the family we stayed with slept during our time with them! The salmon season is frantic.
We then decided to drive to a lookout point that would give us a better perspective from up above the beach. When we got to the point we could see numerous boats in the water. What really struck me while we took in the scene of the water was that so much of what happens in Bristol Bay occurs out on that water, away from land and towns. That world of boats, crews, nets, and salmon is a whole other city of its own, functioning all for the sake of catching salmon. Before coming to Naknek, AMCC’s Community Fisheries Organizer, Hannah, mentioned to me that Bristol Bay turns “into an offshore metropolis for salmon season”. As I gazed out at the water I understood what she meant. It truly is a sight to see that offshore metropolis come to life during the intense couple of weeks the salmon are here.
Later in the weekend, we ventured to Naknek Lake to take in the scenery during some down time we had. The trip to the lake was the experience that tied everything together in my mind and solidified the specialness of Bristol Bay. As we approached a dock on shore, we met a biologist who pointed out the many salmon that were swimming inches from the dock. At first glance, we could see red masses moving beneath the surface of the lake. The red seemed to move as a separate wave of water. Within in seconds of staring at the water, salmon were leaping left and right all around us! You could feel that this lake was pulsing with the energy of the salmon run…the water was alive with fish. My coworker Sam mentioned, “It’s pretty cool to see a wild resource, so much of our food is far from wild”.This resource is indeed wild, and therefore incredibly unique. Seeing the wild Bristol Bay sockeye salmon jump inches away filled me with gratitude, for the place of Bristol Bay and for those who have vigorously fought to protect it.
On our last night in Naknek, we hosted a film screening of Bristol Bay: A Legacy Story. Although I had already seen the film, watching it after spending time in Naknek made the history of Bristol Bay’s protection from offshore drilling much more real. After the film, we even received “thank you’s” from fishermen who had taken a break from their busy season to come in to Naknek for Fishtival and the film.
After spending time in Bristol Bay talking with fishing families, seeing wild sockeye salmon, and learning more about the culture and history of this place, I feel more strongly than ever that the uniqueness of Bristol Bay and what it means to those who depend upon its incredible fish resource, is worth protecting, once and for all.