The commercial season for king salmon – or chinook – in Southeast Alaska opens on Saturday, July 1. For trollers across the region, it’s the equivalent of New Year’s Day – the beginning of the annual salmon harvest that lasts through next March.
For 50 anxiety-filled days this spring, it appeared that this fishery would not happen. On May 2, a federal judge in Washington ordered fishing closed to make more kings available to an endangered population of killer whales in Puget Sound. On June 21, the US Ninth Circuit Court issued a stay of that order, and allowed trollers to fish as usual while the case remains under appeal.
Photojournalist Berett Wilber grew up in Sitka deckhanding aboard her family’s troller. She recently returned and spent a couple of afternoons visiting the docks, photographing and talking to trollers as they readied for the opening. As she explains to KCAW’s Robert Woolsey, Wilber found mixed emotions among the fleet.
Wilber: “I think many people were excited and relieved that this fishery which makes up often, you know, 40% of their income, even if it’s just a few weeks of fishing each year, that they could still do this. For a fishing family, that’s a big dent in your bank account. And so I think there’s a lot of relief in terms of the economic value of the fish that people are going to be able to go out and make the money that they expect and need to make to fulfill their needs. But I think there’s also frustration, there’s disbelief. I mean, there are people who are thinking that they weren’t going to be fishing July 1 who ripped out their hydraulic system to rebuild it, or people who rejiggered their boats and put on longline gear and decided to go longlining instead, and just don’t really have time to reconfigure everything to rush out for kings. And I talked to one fisherman who said that his wedding anniversary I think is July 3, and he and his wife had made plans to celebrate for the first time in decades their wedding anniversary together in person because he was always out fishing. And suddenly now that was off the table again.”
KCAW: “You mentioned people have been fishing for years and years. There are portraits of Chester Jackson, who’s 83. There’s Steve McMurray, he’s on the Seahorse. There’s Spencer Severson, who’s on the Dryas. These guys have seen a lot over the years, but they have never seen anything like this lawsuit and the roller coaster ride that it’s given people. What was it like talking to these guys?”
Wilber: “I love talking to fishermen. And I love hearing what they are thinking. And I think after growing up on boats, to me talking about fish and talking about the fishing industry and talking about fish politics is a real part of coming home. And so I really enjoyed talking to them. And I think the stories that you hear that people are willing to share even just you know, with a stranger with a camera like I am. I’m maybe not quite a stranger, because I am somewhat recognizable. I’ve been on the dock before and I’m wearing Xtratufs. And it’s not like I’m a tourist down there in my poncho. But the level of detail that people are willing to talk about – they take fishing so personally, especially trolling, which one of the guys I talked to, Chester (Jackson), called ‘the most inefficient method of fishing possible.’ And it’s kind of nicknamed ‘the gentleman’s fishery’ for that reason. Your relationship with fish and with the ocean is such an important part of what it means to make a living. And to have that taken away from you by a judge unexpectedly, is just really painful for people. Some of these guys have been fishing for a long, long time. Chester talked to me about his stories of escaping from a Native boarding school in the Lower 48 when he was 15, and working his way back up across the country to get back to Alaska to start fishing. And when he started, it was before Alaska was a state and you just had to buy one permit, and you could fish for everything in any manner you wanted. And you just think about how many changes people like him have seen during their lifetime of fishing. And it’s incredible.”
KCAW: “You have an image of Chris Carroll. And Carroll told you something interesting about now that killer whales had been thrown into this mix, it sort of created a false dichotomy, that somehow it’s trollers or killer whales.”
Wilber: “This was a feeling that people expressed a lot: This feeling of frustration that this lawsuit has created an image in the minds of the public, especially people maybe outside Alaska who aren’t interacting as much or aren’t seeing the real relationship that fishermen have with whales. Having those moments where you unexpectedly see a whale or unexpectedly see the dorsal fin of a killer whale cutting through the water in the morning as you’re pulling the anchor. Those are some of the most special magical moments that people love to fish for. That’s part of the reason that they want to work on the water, is to have these relationships with marine mammals. And I think this lawsuit creates this fiction that it’s either a fisherman or whales. And the thing that Chris said to me is, he was really frustrated by that idea, because at the end of the day, we’re all eating the same fish, you know, and to set this conflict as somehow being about fishermen versus whales, I think really is ignoring the the bigger picture of really big changes in the ecosystem that are affecting fish, fishermen, and whales all together at the same time.”