The shallow reach of the Bering Sea crashes between the shoulder and the arm of Alaska's Aleutian mountain range. The tundra, receding from the ocean, is flecked with small ponds two feet deep. White in winter, pale green in summer, the plains roll almost a hundred miles with only an occasional stand of black spruce piercing the horizon.
Twenty trumpeter swans, almost extinct in the lower 48, turn their eyes skyward then return to feeding. A brown bear and her two cubs meander undisturbed along the paths connecting one tundra pond to another. A small herd of barren ground caribou digs through sweet smelling grasses, happy to be done with lichen.
When the snow finally disappears in May, the first of the sockeye salmon, known as reds in Alaska, begin their journey home. Hundreds of miles offshore, they turn and swim toward their natal rivers and streams. Each year between 20 million and 66 million fish arrive in Bristol Bay during a three-week period. It is a biological miracle.
Just as the red salmon return, so, too, do the men and women of the Bristol Bay fishery. The doctors, the lawyers, the drug runners, the teachers, the writers and chemists, biologists and psychologists, the stock brokers and opera singers all leave their outside jobs and join the locals to chase the gold that rides on the backs of the reds.
This year these cowboys of the sea are nervous. The largest salmon run in the world is late. Big bucks can be made and big bucks can be lost in this crap shoot of a fishery. And the ante is high. Only 1800 drift gillnet licenses, or permits, are granted for the limited entry fishery of Bristol Bay. The sale price on these permits topped $124,000 in 1986.
Every group of three or four boats represents a quarter of a million dollars. The nets piled high on deck cost thousands, insurance for the nation's most dangerous occupation is outrageous, and an airplane ticket home starts at $800. A skipper needs to make at least $36,000 to break even.
In the Dillingham boat harbor, the odd jobs are done. The small talk long since talked. All are waiting, wondering, and worrying about the 24 million missing reds. Are they late? Are they coming? If not, it means another season of uncertainty, another winter of want -- most of the gillnetters count the profits from the six-week fishery as their only income.
Men and women hang out in Tent City, a collection of 24 tents and tarps. The fishermen from as far away as Costa Rica and Austria hope to be hired as crew for one of the 250 drift gillnet boats moored here.
Beans have replaced burgers in the camp and a community pot bubbles on the fire. Bugle tobacco and Top papers have long since replaced the preferred factory-rolled Camels.
"Hey man, you get a job?," one man asks of the figure approaching the fire from the direction of the docks. A smoke is proffered at the negative answer.
The conversation turns to the previous day's opening at Egegik, one of the Bristol Bay districts. Only 200,000 fish were caught by 555 boats, indicating that the peak of the run is still several days away. Discouraged moans greet this news.
In the words of one seafood processor manager, "It's getting to be nail biting time."
At 9 a.m., the Alaska Department of Fish and Game announces an opening. "Fishing shall be permitted for drift nets in the Nushagak District for a twelve hour period starting at 1800 hours. Good luck and good fishing."
For the first time in three weeks, the sky is clear. Dale Gorman and his deck hands, daughter Mary and Kelly Kerrone, watch the net fly from the reel. All strain to see if the fish are hitting the mesh. Often an entangled salmon bolts, creating a smoke-like mist as he charges to the surface.
The first set is disappointing: 20 fish. The second: only 10 are picked from the nylon. Dale had gambled; setting his net where he knew salmon had been the night before. Now he couldn't change against the nine-knot tidal current ripping against the boat.
Gorman is certainly not the first person to lose his hand to the eccentricities of Bristol Bay. The bleached bones of deserted canneries bear witness to that.
The demand for canned salmon has decreased because most of the product is fresh frozen and shipped to Japan. Almost 80% of the processors and canneries in Alaska and British Columbia are owned in some part by Japanese concerns, according to industry observers. The freighters with Kanji script on their sterns remind the fishermen that the yen, not the dollar, powers the market for their fish.
All night Mary and Kelly pull the salmon from the gillnet. At dawn, Dale powers toward the tender to unload his fish. He is exhausted from working all night. His catch for the twelve hours was less than 4000 pounds. "That's where the fish are," Dale says as he points to the rainbow on the horizon. "Yeah," says Kelly, "the pot of gold."
Since 1741, when Aleksei Chirikov discovered Prince of Wales Island, Alaska's natural resources have been assaulted. Populations of seal, sea otter, beaver, and walrus almost disappeared.
Salmon was initially spared because it couldn't be preserved adequately: the salted fish often spoiled during the lengthy voyage to European markets. When William Hume and Andrew Hapgood of Sacramento, California, improved upon Frenchman Nicholas Appert's canning technique in 1864, canning companies invaded the North. Thirty-seven canneries were in production in 1888. Eventually, 156 would be operating from Ketchikan to the Yukon River.
During the heyday of canning, local labor was augmented by men hired from Seattle and San Francisco. Swedes, Norwegians, Finns, Czechs, and Italians worked on the sailboats. Chinese, Indians, Aleuts, and Eskimos worked onshore. The companies, particularly in Bristol Bay, supplied food, shelter, clothing, boats, and gear to fishermen and workers.
"Monkey" boats towed long lines of open sailboats to the fishing grounds. Once there, the two-man crew toiled until the hold was full of fish or their supplies depleted. The work offered few amenities and many dangers. But the goal was simple: to catch as many reds as possible.
Companies throughout Alaska illegally blocked streams in an attempt to increase their salmon catch. The four fishery enforcement agents who patrolled most of the territory's 33,904 miles of coastline before 1913 could not hope to stop the slaughter.
In 1919 two federal fisheries agents expressed astonishment that any salmon were left in Alaskan waters.
C.H. Gilbert and Henry O'Malley reported, "The industry has now reached a critical period, in which the salmon supply of Alaska is threatened with virtual extinction..."
Throughout the next forty years the numbers of returning salmon seesawed, peaking one year, plummeting the next. The resource went "right to its knees," according to Mike Nelson, an Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) biologist with 25 years experience in the Bristol Bay region.
Part of the problem was that Federal management of the territory's fisheries called for Washington, D.C. bureaucrats to set the fishing schedule before the season began. Changes had to be printed in the Federal Register before being implemented. This process took two weeks, during which an endangered run could be destroyed by continued harvesting.
Stewardship of the resource was assumed by Alaska after it became a state in 1959. Statehood "put resource control under local management on a day to day basis," said Nelson. In-season management is efficient and timely. If a salmon return was weak, the area's biologist could shut down fishing immediately. Most streams' salmon populations stabilized.
Alaska legislators initiated a system of limited entry for the fisheries during the early seventies. The limited entry program keeps the number of fishermen constant by issuing a set number of permits for any given area. This, coupled with increased monitoring of the fleet and better knowledge of salmon biology, has made overfishing essentially a problem of the past.
Today, the double-enders have long since been replaced with fisherman-owned aluminum and fiberglass hulls complete with shower and head. Hydraulically powered reels, not the muscles of arms and backs, haul in the nylon, not linen, nets. Instead of one woman for every thousand men, there's one for every hundred. But the goal remains the same--to catch so many fish you have to wiggle out of the stern.
At Dago Creek, the Fourth is the traditional peak of the Bristol Bay run. This year, due to a mid-season closure, four hundred boats -- 1200 fishermen -- sit high and dry on the sand.
Four men living in a six foot by eight foot cabin make privacy an unknown luxury. The best attribute is to be inconspicuous: plain in personality, small in possessions. It doesn't hurt to have a sense of humor when the sight of a severed salmon eye perched on the sink breaks through the residual fuzz from a sleepless night of working.
"The interesting part of this job is finding out how far you can push yourself and still function in an efficient and safe manner," says Bob Griswold, a fisherman on the Tanglewood 6, nicknamed the "geriatric boat" by its skipper because no one is on the "sunny side of forty."
"The fishermen are people who test their limits in their personal life as well, and this is just another manifestation of their philosophy on life," says Griswold, a world-class acrobatic snow skier.
"Fishing gets in your blood," says Dale Gorman. More than an occupation, it's a way of life with higher highs, lower lows, and friendships forged by living on the edge.
Brad Larsen studies his charts; he thinks he knows where the reds may be hiding.
Jim Schmidt makes peanut butter cookies and gazes out the windows. Pete Blackwell repairs a net, and Phil Russo reads.
At 10:55 the nets of the surrounding boats are in the water. Brad, nicknamed Honest Abe by the crew, holds off.
Precisely at 11 p.m. he gives the signal and the nets are dropped.
Silence, except for "Born in the USA" playing softly in the background: all four men jump as tail-dancing salmon slam into the net. Spray explodes from the corks. "We got a hit, there's another, another, God we're smoking!" says Pete. "Skipper, you put us on to 'em!"
Not believing his eyes, Brad shoves his hands deeper into his pockets and watches the mist, like smoke, appear from his net. His disbelieving smile turns into a grin that finally splits into a full-bellied laugh as he realizes that what he has dreamed about during the winter has come true. The net is in danger of sinking with the weight of fish. His crew will literally have to wiggle out of the stern as 1000 fish, 6000 pounds, $9000 lay on deck.
The Bay's returns have been record breaking: 1980, 62.5 million fish; 1983, 45.8 million fish. In 1986, for the first time in six years, the return, 23.9 million, is down to the twenty-year average. With the total harvest half what it had been in 1985 and the fish late, ADFG biologist Mike Nelson was under pressure. "A lot of seasons were riding on one decision," he said.
Managing salmon, at first glance, appears simple: enough spawning salmon must survive years at sea as well as "escape" the commercial and sport fishermen; the number of salmon allowed to continue to the rivers to spawn is controlled by fishing season closures.
However, each river system consists of salmon producing tributaries that each produces various runs of genetically unique fish. All runs need to be protected.
For example, the Kvichak River in the Naknek-Kvichak fishing district has two different age group runs of red salmon that return at the same time. Last summer the escapement of the five-year-olds proceeded as predicted. The four-year-olds, comprising 75% of the river's population, did not show up. Concerned biologists closed the river as well as the district to fishing.
The Naknek, another river in the system, also had a red run returning that had reached its escapement goal. In fact, too many adults had already returned and were tearing apart the previous spawners' redds, or nests, thus damaging a future generation of the earlier arriving run.
In the meantime, the commercial fishermen, who had thousands of dollars riding on the success of the fishing season, were screaming to fish. The sport fishermen, many of whom had journeyed to the area at great expense, were screaming to fish.
Add to this the vagaries of nature as well as the need to balance a multitude of international treaties and allocation agreements, and one begins to get an idea of the complexities of managing this resource.
Dale Gorman's total catch up to this point is 29,000 pounds, the equivalent of three days work in 1985. He'll have to find a winter job for the first time in years.
He's thinking about his son. Larry, a mechanical engineer, is saving money to buy a Bristol Bay permit. "I don't know whether to encourage him or discourage him," says Dale. "In the short run it would be fine, in the long run, no. Soon as they build a road, I'll give it thirty years before the run goes the way of the rest of them.
"You know, if a guy sold his boat and permit, he'd get a quarter of a million dollars. If he invested that and got 10% return, he'd make $25,000 a year," says Dale. "It makes no business sense whatsoever but it's the funnest way to make money I know of." His lined face cracks a smile.
Dago Creek is quiet. Full-racked caribou shy as the wind kicks up last summer's trash from a fisherman's dinner. Brown bears, fattened on the flesh of salmon, trek to their winter dens. Trumpeter swans glide on the lakes with exclamation points of goslings following.
The tundra has dulled to its fall drab. The hills have been brushed with the first snow, termination dust the locals call it. It's the end of summer, the end of the $144 million fishing season, the beginning of winter. The salmon are spawned out. The cowboys are gone.
Today's cowboys of the sea wrangle the same problems as did those in Bristol Bay fifteen years ago. After record runs in the eighties and early nineties that were as high as 66 million salmon, the number of returning fish in the 2001 season was under 22 million. Of those, 14 million salmon were caught.
Most devastating to the men and women who make their living fishing in the Bay was the fact that the price of fish dropped, from the $2.40 a pound of a few years ago to 40 cents a pound. As a result, fishing permits once worth more than $100,000 are now sold for $25,000.