After All…a Fisherman: an Adventure Series Talk at Mystic Seaport
A powerpoint slideshow featuring photos and videos of life in Bristol Bay originally accompanied this lecture.
Hello everyone! Thank you so much for having me. I grew up on, in, and around Fishers Island Sound and have very fond memories of field trips to this place from the Pine Point school. It’s an honor to be back in a different format, and to not have to sleep in the belly of the Joseph Conrad this time around — although as a 4th grader that was clearly a memorable experience.
I am attached to the ocean; I am an ocean person. I imagine here at the Seaport, I am not alone? Is this true?
That’s what I thought.
How many of you eat seafood regularly? How many of you catch your own seafood regularly?
Today my plea is to encourage you to eat even more seafood because eating seafood protects the planet. You know why? Here’s the thing, humans are selfish. It is becoming increasingly difficult to protect the earth for the earth’s sake. For too many reasons in 2017, America is just as short-sighted as ever and options like fracking and pipelines and digging big holes in the ground to extract minerals and replace them with toxic waste are more appealing to those in power than renewable options. As we become more engaged citizens out of necessity, so much still seems out of our individual control. However, many of us, thankfully, still have full control of how we feed ourselves. It is important to note that this is not true for all of America — lest we forget the ongoing situation in Flint, Michigan. Many of you, though, are blessed enough with this modern right to choose our nourishment. And the selfish act of eating leads many of us to care about the planet because we care about what we eat. The recent food movement reflects this new change; much of my generation loiters in the grocery store, practicing control over their well-being that seems more and more to be spinning out of our control. Friends of mine pick and choose splurges on sustainable meat or organic vegetables, while our grandmother’s spent their time in the kitchen enamored with boxed meals, dehydrated food, and microwaves. There was little concern for where it came from. And because it was easy, the food of our grandparent’s didn’t need a story. This is no longer true. And it’s important. Choosing our food is also choosing our investments, and the right choice makes the right impact.
Our food consumption fuels us, and only us, but it also undeniably defines the market and the economy in which we live. My hunch is that this New England coastal community eats good local seafood already, but I’ve found that way over here, thousands of miles from Alaska, many are still confused about salmon. As Paul Greenberg, author of both Four Fish and American Catch, put it “Quite simply, Americans are risking their wild salmon because Americans do not eat enough of their wild salmon.” And it’s not just the salmon that we are at risk of losing. Is salmon a great protein source? Yes. Is salmon full of healthy things like Omega-3s? Yes. Alaska salmon is a healthy choice, but it is also an environmental choice. Eating Alaska salmon is about so much more than salmon as food.
Before we get any further, though, let me explain a little bit about why and how it’s me standing up here telling you all this.
Like I said, I am an ocean person. I know that most of this room has high salt content in their blood, that many of you find comfort in the sour smell of low-tide, that some of you have a deep, unwavering respect for the ocean introduced by one or many hairy experiences on the water. For the few who may not be members of this category, you know the type. We are the ones with walls covered in prints of boats, seabirds, or ocean scenes. We can each hum a bar or two of a shanty, rattle off a Coleridge stanza, or use vocabulary we first met in the pages of Moby Dick. Likely our finger nails are also dirty and cracked or our foreheads sunburnt and wrinkled. All of this is true for me, and true for the thousands of folks who pick salmon out of plastic gill nets in Bristol Bay Alaska each summer. Without this bizarre, masochistic satisfaction of being cold, wet, tired, and occasionally seasick, we would not be able to find the gusto to fish and put food on the world’s plates. We are all ocean people.
I grew up right here, but since high school, I haven’t been able to stay here too long. My mother’s family being from Seattle, and my parents living in Alaska for the decade before my older brother was born, I was fortunate enough to visit the northwest consistently throughout my childhood. Then, the summer before I started classes at Middlebury College in Vermont, my family visited Alaska and the fish camp where my dad spent his summers during the 80s, while my mom was working in and out of Anchorage as an observer on larger boats. I have returned to Alaska every summer since. Similar to a salmon, seasonal Alaskan fishermen turn northwest each May and plug up the state’s coastal bays and rivers. I have been living and fishing at a setnet salmon camp on the mudflats of Bristol Bay since I first went out to help with kids and cook for the crew at 18. Camp life is hard work, but it is also an often romantic, slow way of life, focusing on providing fuel to human machines and the longer processes of living without power, running water, or cell phones. I didn’t last long on the beach; the other fishermen quickly saw right through my attempt at a shy demeanor and straight to the New England sea legs I was born with. I returned the next summer as part of a crew and was running a skiff two years later.
Setnetting is one style of fishing, in which a web of diamonds is used to trap the salmon by their gills as they swim through it, translucent in the water. The net is weighted at the bottom and floated with corks at the top, held taut by the current and some form of anchorage on either end of the fifty fathoms stationed along the tideline. We work this gear with 25–32’ aluminum skiffs, souped up with big engines that can tow weight, hydraulics that help us move under the net, and custom-welded fat frames so they can safely carry a lot of what we lovingly call poundage.
The Bristol Bay region provides 40% of America’s wild seafood catch because beginning in early June, millions of salmon of all five species leave the homes they’ve made in the open ocean to return to one of the five Bristol Bay rivers where their eggs first hatched and where they’ll spawn and die. Our job as fishermen is to harvest some of these fish in our nets, get them cold on our boat, deliver them to a bigger boat that will deliver them to the processor. And then do it again, and again…and again, until our fingers swell and our organs oscillate with the tides.
Although our businesses are driven and fueled by the mass-poundage volume fishery of Bristol Bay, we are fiercely committed to upholding the protective laws put in by the state of Alaska and the department of Fish & Game. I truly mean “some” when I say that we harvest some of the fish passing by our nets to the rivers. The Alaska Department of Fish & Game closely monitors the amount of fish that make it upriver with fish counters, both people literally counting fish and radar along the river. Using previous seasons’ data and much biology, they open and close the fishery regularly, limiting the commercial harvest — us — so that enough salmon complete their life-cycle in order to guarantee future seasons. Salmon protection is written into the state constitution.
The discourse in seafood today is largely focused on disastrous fisheries management, but Bristol Bay is the success story because the fish pulled out of the rivers remain completely unmanipulated by humans and because the regulations work hard enough to guarantee future runs. This is not to say that all fishery agriculture is bad, and I can’t help but feature the beautiful success of my aunt & uncles farmed oysters right here in Fishers Island sound. Steve & & Sarah Malinowski everybody! However, in the case of salmon, Americans do not need to be eating farmed fish because the healthy Bristol Bay salmon run could feed each of us. In 2013, the Bristol Bay harvest was 100 million pounds. In 2014, 161 million. In 2015, 192. That means that today every person in the USA could eat half a pound of Bristol Bay salmon, while the typical serving size is only a quarter pound. Instead, the U.S. market is flooded with salmon grown on farms in Chile, Norway, or, yes, even Maine, thus much of this domestic product my peers and I are harvesting is sold abroad.
If the market for farmed product continues to strengthen in this country, the protections for the Bristol Bay watershed and the many individuals who run boats, or in other words, the small business owners who fish there will begin to diminish. The risks this would entail cannot be overstated. Any reduction in Bristol Bay protections will give way to the potentially imminent threat of Pebble Mine. Pebble is a proposed copper mine at the headwaters of the Bristol Bay fishery that would be the largest open pit mine in North America. This investment could end the world’s last great all-natural salmon run — and more importantly, threaten the subsistence lifestyle of Alaskan Natives whose rivers we fish on. In 2014, the tailings pond of British Columbia’s Mt Poully mine leaked an estimated 6.6 billion gallons of toxic mine waste and wastewater to flow into the Fraser River watershed, which is a significant Canadian salmon river. The Mt Poulley mine spans 75 square miles; the corporation behind the Bristol Bay project is applying for permits including an area up to 186 square miles, with the main deposit being just 15 miles from a large fault line in a region already known for its earthquakes. The Pebble Partnership originally contracted the same engineering firm that designed the Mt. Polley tailings system for this project. The need for consumer support of wild salmon is at its peak today, because without it, current administration can too easily pave the way for a mining project that would decimate the last frontier.
I cannot lie; my proclamation that salmon can be a strong contributive factor in well-being and environmental solutions is personal. I have found a home on the Alaska coastline, among tobacco-chewing and hardwork-loving fishermen, among folks who know how to make a restorative meal right out of the ocean with only a pot of fresh water and salt. Among the swollen fingers and tired backs — a sign of a hard day’s work; the blessings — in brutal disguises, of currents and winds; the disconnect from the day to day hustle — an opportunity to rearrange priorities, sometimes daily. The people whom I’ve come to know and love rely on the fish to feed each other and to make a living. Living among them, I have fallen in and out of love in Bristol Bay, with Bristol Bay.
I can’t deny that this message of hope and forward progress I’m sharing with you, should you hear it and carry it with you, will serve me. If you go home today and decide to start eating more wild salmon, to ask the server where the fish is really from, and to read a bit further about Pebble Mine, it will benefit me and the fishermen I know and love. My hope, though, is that it serves you well also. Choosing to eat in a sustainably responsible fashion will improve your health physically. It will fill you with Omega-3s and good protein. A diet full of the highly unsaturated omega-3 fatty acids is believed to not only support hearth health but also prevent macular degeneration, reduce the risk of depression and other mental illness by supporting brain health. Sockeye, or red, salmon is the most common species and contains 1,200 mg of these important nutrients in each serving.
Additionally, however, I believe that making responsibly sustainable choices will support more than one’s physical health. A President wiser than our current, Abraham Lincoln said, “When I do good, I feel good; When I do bad, I feel bad. And that is my religion.” Intentionally choosing to fill your belly and your loved ones’ plates with a wild food, whose story you know, will also fill up your heart and satisfy that warm feeling in our chests for which we humans are always searching. By eating wild Alaska salmon, you are participating and investing in a culture of hardworkers who love the natural world enough to go off the grid each summer and lose their autonomy to the cycles of the salmon. This culture is so strong that each year there’s an annual gathering of Fisher Poets, where fishermen come together in the off- season to celebrate the commercial fishing industry and community and grapple with their spirituality they’ve found in killing so many fish.
I know this may sound hokey for some of your tastes; I agree that it is just dead fish after all. However, what I’m trying to stress is that the extra effort or the extra dollar is adding not only a healthy protein to your plate, but a healthy relationship to your life. Know your fisherman! I know wild Alaska salmon is not the easiest choice here on the east coast, although many of us within the industry are working on that, but when you get the chance, please take it. If I haven’t convinced you yet, the farmed option more readily available here in the east is inferior. We are not very good at fish farming, yet. There are some exceptions, of course, but hundreds of years ago while our species was learning to farm the earth — to plant potatoes and harvest wheat, we were also learning to fish. We were not building fish meal recipes or hatcheries. We did not need to. In the case of salmon, here in the U.S., we still do not need to do it that way. And if you’re worried about food miles, work directly with a direct marketer who does their own processing, because it is unfortunately true that plenty of Alaska seafood is shipped to Asia for processing whole and then shipped back to the U.S. in a neater, cleaner, recognizable package for the American consumer — salmon burgers, nuggets, etc.
Blessed enough to have been raised on the water, seafood is no foreign concept to me and a fishy smell, well, smells just like home. If I convinced you of anything in the past several minutes, I imagine you can relate, but we need to remember that much of the country is still uncomfortable with seafood. I implore you to eat salmon, but more importantly, I implore you to send recipes to your Midwest cousins and to take your land-locked grandmother out to dinner, here on the coast.
Well, everyone, it’s really nice to be home. I’ve gotten good at vagabonding and traveling since I’ve left here, and what I’ve found is home at dinner tables, in meals. If you are fortunate enough to be able to curate these things in your home, create home with intentional eating, make the selfish act of eating altruistic. Find someone who loves what they grow, harvest, or catch, more than you realized possible, and get to know them through a dinner plate.