KVICHAK BAY — Last summer, after all the other fishermen had gone home at the end of the Bristol Bay salmon season, Corey Arnold stuck around Graveyard Point. A photographer and commercial fisherman, Arnold described the scene at the old cannery as eerie and empty. When the people left, grizzly bears showed up, a sure sign that it was time for Arnold to leave.
The bears just added to the run-down, barren feel of Graveyard Point, the abandoned salmon cannery that serves as home base for about 120 fishermen for six short weeks each summer. They spend their days catching hundreds of sockeye, or red, salmon near the banks.
It's from here — where there are rusted canning vessels, broken boardwalks and literal human skulls poking out of the ground — that a group of fishermen are helping to change what it means to catch fish in Bristol Bay.
It started with the Iliamna Fish Company, which is run by a group of cousins who spend their summers in silty waters commercial salmon fishing at Graveyard Point. The company runs a community supported fishery, or CSF — a business model that's gained popularity around Alaska and the U.S., which allows fishermen to sell directly to consumers instead of the traditional way of selling their catch to large processors.
For these fishermen — part of a family that has fished in the area for decades — it's not just about making cash to get them through the winter, it's about creating a sustainable business practice that allows them to be full-time fishermen for years to come. The direct sales model marks a change in how commercial fishermen in the region catch and sell their salmon, the latest evolution in a fishery more than a century old.
The Bristol Bay fishery is now one of the most valuable in the world. It was valued at $1.5 billion in output and sales across the U.S. in 2010. In a 2013 report, Alaska fisheries economist Gunnar Knapp noted that the increase in value of Alaska salmon from 2002-2013 was supported in part by "niche" marketing, which includes community supported fisheries.
"It's the quality of new fish markets, with people who want that real connection," said Reid Ten Kley, a fisherman and founder of the Iliamna Fish Company, as the fishing season wound down last July.
Welcome to Graveyard
When the processing plant was first built in 1910, Libby's Graveyard Koggiung cannery was home to hundreds of workers at the height of each salmon season through much of the 20th century. The cannery closed in 1959.
Bristol Bay historian John Branson said it's unclear whether the name refers to a pre-contact Alaska Native burial ground nearby or a gravesite for Chinese cannery workers who died during the construction of the cannery.
But massive tides have quickly eroded the narrow isthmus of land over the years, exposing graves and leaving human bones on the beach.
Of the 7,000 fishermen that make their way to Bristol Bay each season, about 120 end up at Graveyard. A few come from nearby Naknek and Dillingham, but almost everyone else comes from other parts of Alaska and beyond.
They live in the abandoned cannery buildings and bunkhouses, many of them deteriorated and rusting. Some parts of the buildings have been converted into gear shacks, filled with hanging orange waders, Xtratufs, buoys, lines and nets. The only designations of ownership are names spray-painted on the walls of the building, along with the year the space was claimed.
Some families have kept up the buildings, bringing over materials each year to keep them from collapsing. They've hauled in stoves and flush toilets. One family even installed a dishwasher.
Other buildings haven't been kept up as well. An old bunkhouse — known as the "Graveyard Hotel," holds the Grossi operation, a family whose Italian grandfather was one of the area's founding fishermen. As the roof collapses, the family has tried to keep it up by adding plastic sheeting to divert the rain. Fishermen spend the summer sleeping in tents set up in the bunkhouse, surrounded by graffitied walls and plastic siding. Over the top of the main door is a white paint handprint with the word "Lucky" written across the top, a quick hit intended to bring good luck on the way out the door.
But the insides of the building are less important than what happens outside. That's where all the aluminum skiffs with outboard motors power fishermen through the muddy waters of Kvichak Bay (pronounced "Kwee-Jack"), scooping up the millions of fish bound for the river of the same name.
Jack and Lyn Vantrease, grandparents of the founders of Iliamna Fish Company, first began fishing Bristol Bay 60 years ago.
Now, grandson Christopher Nicolson fishes his setnet sites with his brothers, Carl and Cameron. They are cousins to Reid, who fishes with his wife, Eike, who he met at Graveyard, sister Krystal Foote, and brother Rian Ten Kley. Along with their 25-person crew — many of whom have been fishing with them for years — is the drift boat headed by another cousin, Lyle Wilder.
For the family, the center of the action is the old administrative building. That's where the crew meets every day for meals, prepares for the day or just relaxes. The conversation is nearly always about fish.
They fish almost nonstop during the height of the run, with only the tide serving as their schedule. It's a relentless schedule of little sleep, lots of eating and tons of fishing. Crew members say they even dream about fishing. They say in the early days of the harvest, their hands go numb from pulling thousands of salmon from the setnet sites that line the point.
Together, the whole crew collectively shares their catch of about 600,000 pounds of fish each year. Of that, only about 10 percent is diverted into the community supported fishery program while the rest is sold to processing companies, who in turn sell the fish around the world.
Community supported fishing
The idea behind Iliamna Fish Company's salmon-share program is not unique. Across Alaska, there are seafood share programs. Think of getting a weekly veggie box from a local farmer or any buy-in to a community supported agriculture product, only once a year instead of every week, with sockeye salmon instead of produce.
Reid Ten Kley said he came up with the idea for the Iliamna Fish Company's CSF while thinking about ways to make their fishing lifestyle more sustainable. Tired of being tied to the the amount they could catch, compounded with an ever-changing price for the fish, the family first tried to up the value of their catch by doing their own processing. For a short period their aluminum skiff served as the smallest licensed fish processing vessel in the state. Reid admitted that set them up well for their future CSF venture, but that it was difficult to process fish in any serious quantities.
So instead the family turned to selling shares. People sign up and pay half their share before the season starts, then the rest once the fish are delivered at the end of the season. It not only provides advance income to prepare for the season, but gives the group a chance to figure out exactly how much fish they'll need to catch.
They started their CSF small — in Portland, where Reid and his siblings live, and where they sold 1,000 shares last year.
In 2010 they branched out to the East Coast, home to Christopher and his wife Emily, selling additional, smaller shares in Brooklyn, New York. And last year, in a bit of an experiment, Lyle Wilder, who lives in Port Alsworth, began selling a few shares — $200 for 21 pounds of packed, frozen salmon — in Anchorage.
Reid said for the first few years, the family actually lost money operating the CSF. But after years of trial and error, it's finally turning a profit.
By spreading out the wealth it's also allowed the family to focus on things affecting the fishery. It's allowed them to focus more on opposition to the proposed Pebble Mine in the Bristol Bay headwaters and management issues that affect their fishery.
"It's a gamble every year," Eike Ten Kley said of how much they're expanding the model last summer. "We don't want it to grow too much, but just enough to support us and our families."
The CSF movement appears to be growing in Bristol Bay, with about a half-dozen similar operations distributing fish directly to consumers across the country.
The Alaska Marine Conservation Council started a program in 2014 that distributes Bristol Bay salmon to Alaskans. They've also coordinated CSFs for Kodiak rockfish, tanner crab, king crab and now sockeye salmon.
"It's like our Girl Scout Cookie," Kelly Harrell, the council's executive director said of the program, which also serves as a fundraiser for the council and a way to provide additional funds to fishermen. She said since the council started the first program in 2011, they've returned an additional $27,000 to local fishermen above what they would have been paid otherwise. She said 140 households have bought shares this season, with most of them coming from Fairbanks, a community they expanded to this spring. The organization has sold about 3,500 pounds of salmon since they started the program, but hopes to sell a total of 5,000 pounds this summer.
A member of the steering committee for Local Catch, a group dedicated to expanding CSFs around the country, Harrell sees CSFs as a way to capitalize on people's interest in eating local food.
She was worried when the council started selling the Bristol Bay salmon in Southcentral Alaska since so many already catch their own fish. But the salmon program has been a hit with people from all over Alaska, many of whom are either too busy to go fishing or find it too cost-prohibitive.
Plus, she noted, many of the people who bought shares liked the story of the 12 setnetters operating in Bristol Bay the council works with. In each share, they provide a printout with the stories of the fishermen who caught the fish.
And it's providing that story that makes Harrell think interest in local seafood programs is more than just a trend.
"Local food and connecting more deeply with food is something people value very deeply," Harrell said. "It's not going away."
Slideshow: Capturing a pop up town: Corey Arnold's images of Graveyard Point
The Iliamna Fish Company supports the growth of more CSFs, though they have some concerns that too many people trying to enter in to the market could lead to a watering down of the product.
But for them, they still continue to move forward, working to catch the fish and sell their story, hopefully teaching people about the fish and the place they cherish so much.
"It really does change the dynamic economically for people, and it does empower more change in the family and in the culture," said Reid Ten Kley. "Whether it's families that sell directly or dockside, consumers in the domestic market have made a decision that Bristol Bay wild Alaska salmon means something."