Ivan Kuletz in Bristol Bay, sunset

Story by Ivan Kuletz

To commercial fishermen, the ocean is home, workshop, coliseum, hunting ground, town hall, garden, and temple. I learned this while I was earning my B.S. in biology and writing; for several years afterwards, while I worked with my father as a deckhand on his boat in Bristol Bay, Alaska; and when I researched my master’s thesis in public policy, asking Bristol Bay fishermen how they thought of and worked toward a sustainable fishery.

Bristol Bay is a region in western Alaska roughly the size of Ohio. It is home to about eight thousand people, a comparable number of bears, and about 26 million sockeye salmon every June and July.

This superabundance of life is the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world. It is also one of the most sustainable, and that’s no accident: The vast tracts of wilderness, the well-understood reproductive cycle of salmon, the conservative and rigorous management and enforcement of the fishery, and the rich ecology of the North Pacific Ocean make it so.

The big-picture thinking and expansive calculus of life that governs ecology also drew me to policy. Just as ecology looks at the biotic and abiotic components of an ecosystem as well as the interplay between them, public policy looks at the interplay between the social, political, and economic elements of human systems. Once I had understood this notion of a larger human system, I had to know how it related to what I loved: wild places, and wild people. Specifically, wild salmon and wild fishermen.

What struck me most about the Bristol Bay fishermen I interviewed was how they saw their role within this system — as stewards. While all of the fishermen I interviewed said that the sustainability of the fishery was key to their future and the future of their descendants, nearly all said that biological sustainability was the responsibility of the fishery managers.

Instead, they said their job was to bring positive awareness and a good market to their fishery, which in turn would help fund biological management. This belief was strongly influenced by Pebble Mine, a large copper mine that was proposed at the headwaters of their fishery.

The mine, which the fishermen saw as a threat to the health of Bristol Bay and their livelihoods, was pivotal in convincing them to become involved in the sustainability and future of their fishery. Commercial fishermen, as well as Native Corporations, the public and other groups raised awareness of the issue at the state, regional, and national levels. The result was a groundswell of opinion that affected the EPA’s decision to halt development of the mine.

The future of fisheries is often seen as being determined by fisheries biology and management, funding, external factors such as climate change and ocean acidification, and ocean zoning. What many may not realize is just how important people are in this complex question, with all their beliefs, hopes, efforts, and, ultimately, their voices.

Ivan Kuletz is a writer and 2015 graduate of the Master of Public Policy program at Oregon State.

(Story: 2015)