Every July in Alaska, the conversation turns to salmon.
Right now, salmon-hungry Alaskans are processing their catches, strapping dipnets to their cars, heading out to or returning from their commercial fishing sites or packing away fish from guided trips.
Catching your own isn't the only way to get an Alaska salmon, though there's something more personal about it. Salmon, according to Erin Harrington, executive director of The Salmon Project, are an intrinsic part of Alaska life.
Harrington's group has been exploring what it calls "salmon love" across the state since 2012. Through interviews and research, the group found that many Alaskans consider salmon to be a key part of the Alaska experience, no matter their involvement in the fishing process. For some, it means heading to their family's annual subsistence fish camp to participate in the traditional ritual of catching and preparing fish. For others, it's about sharing part of their catch at a barbecue.
"We feed who we love," Harrington said.
University of Alaska Southeast sociologist Lora Vess is researching how Alaskans interact with their food systems. She's still going through her research and conducting interviews, but she's found that many people who live in Alaska or move here find themselves drawn to salmon.
She said even those who don't have a family connection to fishing, or who come to the state from Outside, often try to participate in a salmon fishery because many feel "it's something they need to do.
"A few people have to talk themselves into 'learning to like salmon,'" she said, "in part because (Alaskans) have so many ties to salmon."
There's more than one way to catch a fish, and even more ways to fill a freezer. Here are some of the most popular methods of collecting enough fish to keep those ties to the rest of the state.
One of the most popular ways to catch a fish in Southcentral Alaska attracted tens of thousands of Alaskans, who collected personal use permits in 2014.
Jonathan King, fisheries economist for Northern Economics, said that if they do it right, Alaska residents (the only ones allowed to participate in the fishery) could catch sockeye salmon for as low as $1 or $2 a pound.
Of course, that depends on whether you already have all the necessary gear, if you camp or just come down for the day, and if you hit the run right. Get skunked or only nab a few fish and expect a much higher cost per pound.
"You have to be a student of the ... fishery," King said.
Pros: Easy access to lots of fish; relatively easy catch method with high yield.
Cons: High cost of gear; possibility of not catching fish; energy- and time-intensive.
Rod and reel
With convenient access to places like Ship and Bird creeks, it's easy for Anchorage residents to pick up a few kings or silvers close to home. Hundreds of other Alaska streams, lakes and seas offer access around the rest of the state. But prepare to battle other anglers versed in "combat fishing" in popular areas. Daily limits are generally smaller, but can add up if you're willing and able to put in the time.
Pros: Scenery; traditional fishing experience; broad access to waterways; access to multiple fish species.
Cons: Smaller daily fish limits; costly gear investment or expensive guide service; time-intensive.
Subsistence fishing in Southcentral Alaska is a fairly limited endeavor. People can subsistence fish in only a handful of spots, all far from the road system, according to Jim Fall, subsistence program manager for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Subsistence is similar to personal use in that only Alaskans can participate, but Fall said the fishery carries traditional components that give it special status. When it comes to managing in times of low abundance, Fall said subsistence fishing gets top priority and is last to be restricted.
Pros: Strong on tradition; easier catch methods like fish wheels and gillnets; higher limits.
Cons: Often difficult to get to; dependent on fish runs; can't participate in the personal use fishery.
From a processor
Some processors sell, but many who do sell fish at a steep price. Lisa Hanson, owner of Alaska Seafoods Direct in Soldotna, does most of her business processing salmon for sportfishermen fishing along the river. The fish she sells come from local setnetters.
"It's an opportunity to have some more variety and we simply make it convenient," she said.
Pros: Consistent access; easy to find; usually already packaged; less time commitment.
Cons: Expensive -- packaged sockeye salmon filets start at $16.95 per pound at Seafoods Direct.
From a fisherman
Alex Pfoff started selling fish directly from his Cook Inlet west-side setnet site seven years ago as a source of income in addition to what he earned selling to processors. Now, with interest in local foods growing, he said those direct sales make up 90 percent of his operation. With whole sockeyes selling between $4.50 and $5 a pound -- subject to supply and demand -- he said he gets all kind of buyers, from those who can't make it fishing to those who want to supplement what they've caught.
Buying directly from a fisherman "makes the experience somewhat personal," he said.
Some fishermen also sell via community supported fishing models, where people pay for fish before the season starts. The Alaska Marine Conservation Council has a program that sells just to Alaskans, or you can find a fisherman at LocalCatch.org.
Pros: Cheaper than a store or processor; buying fish directly from the source; known quality.
Cons: Fish still need processing; dependent on catches and fishermen; logistics can sometimes be tricky.
From a store
This is by far the easiest way to get a fish, with easy access at grocery stores around the state. The Dimond Boulevard Costco sells whole headed and gutted Alaska sockeye salmon for $4.99 a pound. It's also available frozen and filleted online for $12.27 a pound.
Pros: Consistent, known quality; easy access.
Cons: More expensive; unknown who caught it; unknown when it was caught.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing