Celebrating Wild Salmon in Bristol Bay

With Luke Wallace

I’ve lived my whole life on the west coast of North America. It wasn’t until about 6 years ago, when I first traveled outside the reaches of Vancouver, that I realized what wild salmon meant to coastal communities. All over the coast you’ll find thousands of people, Indigenous and settler folk, whose lives are tied culturally, economically, and energetically to the annual return of salmon. From southern Oregon, through British Columbia, and way up to north-west Alaska, wild salmon are the backbone of this coastline.

In June of 2018, four artists and organizers from the Come to Life collective traveled to Bristol Bay, Alaska to understand more about the amazing relationship between salmon and people. Our team consisted of myself (Luke Wallace), Alex Harris (filmmaker), and Joey Stokes and Reuben Sadowsky (of Come to Life Productions). Our plan was to travel to the town of Dillingham where we would throw a concert/salmon cook out, and make a film that asked people what makes Bristol Bay the most productive and sustainable salmon fishery on earth.

We were drawn to Bristol Bay when we got wind of the Pebble Mine proposal. In short, Pebble Mine is proposed in the headwaters and salmon spawning grounds of two of the larger rivers that drain into Bristol Bay and has the potential to decimate a system that literally (and sustainably) feeds America. It would be the second-largest open pit mine in North America. The final piece of the puzzle is that Northern Dynasty Minerals, the company seeking the mining permit, is headquartered in Vancouver- the city that I and our filmmaker Alex grew up in.

Before I tell you how the trip went, I need to mention that people and organizations from all over the world have been fighting Pebble Mine for more than 10 years. There are some amazing films made about the issue like Trout Unlimited’s Red Gold released in 2010. You can also get thorough updates and background information about the mine via Save Bristol Bay’s website.

So, our adventure: We landed in Dillingham, Alaska to 20 hours of daylight and a bustle in the air. Subsistence fisher-people were unraveling their set nets in preparation for the return of the first salmon of the year; the King Salmon. Where I’m from we call them Chinook. Some folks call them Spring. Regardless, the energy was palpable. Down in the boat yard, commercial fisher-people were landing from all over the world to prepare their boats for an intensive and rewarding fishing season. You could hear people welding, sawing, painting, and bumping all sorts of tunes as they pushed hard to meet the opening of the season.

We had the privilege of talking with a variety of people who all had unique but connected relationships with wild salmon. Indigenous elders shared stories of a culture and connection to salmon that had been passed down to them through thousands of years of tradition. Each of them spoke passionately about the central role that salmon plays in their community and how important it is to pass down their knowledge to their grandchildren.

When we returned to the boat yard we heard long time fisher-people talk about the success in how the State was managing the fishery. They talked about feeding the world and taking care of their families. When I pressed them about what specific quality of management was working to ensure sustainable fishing for years to come, they all answered with one word: Escapement.

Simply put, escapement targets are the number of fish allowed to return to their home rivers before you start commercially fishing the oceans. This numbers varies on each river but can be anywhere from 30,000 to 2 million fish. Once those fish have made it passed the fishing grounds, they will swim upstream and spawn way up in the headwaters of their home river, to return again in a few years, in numbers as high as 55 million. When the escapement targets have been met, the fishery opens and the commercial boats begin their annual catch, which supplies half of the world’s sockeye salmon.

There is so much more to share about the amazing community of Dillingham and the respect that people have for the salmon in Bristol Bay. We are going to be releasing lots of interviews, videos and photos from our trip over the next few months as we edit out our short film. Keep your eyes peeled on Come To Life’s website and social media pages for new material.

Lotsa love,