OPINION: Why we sail back to Bristol Bay

“I look back on the sailboats as foolish, hateful and dangerous, romantic and beautiful. Nothing will ever compare with the lovely sight of those great-winged graceful boats scudding with the wind across Bristol Bay.” — Al Andree, Bristol Bay sailboat fisherman

As I write this, the commercial fishing fleet in Bristol Bay is harvesting a predicted run of more than 71 million sockeye — the largest in the 137-year history of the fishery. Also, as I write this, a 29-foot sailboat has just launched from the Homer harbor destined for Naknek to join the fleet in a celebration of the magic that brings these fish back year after year after year. But it is not just any sailboat, it is a restored 1936 Bristol Bay double-ended gillnetter of the type that pioneered Bristol Bay’s lucrative sockeye fishery in 1884. As it makes its way to Naknek, the double-ender will sail across Cook Inlet, travel over the 17-mile portage to Lake Iliamna, visit the villages along Alaska’s largest lake, and maneuver through the Kaskanak flats and the sandbars of the Kvichak River before reaching its final destination.

Why do this? Three reasons: history, beauty and fish.

We sail back to Bristol Bay to remember our history. Commercial fishing is Alaska’s premier industry. Alaska’s first cannery was established in 1878, 20 years before the iconic Klondike gold rush. Arguably, Alaska’s first locally produced export product was the one-pound tall can of salmon. Certainly the history of commercial fishing is checkered with the good and the bad, but it is our history. It can also be a part of our future, and if we’ve learned, there will be more good than bad.

We sail back to Bristol Bay because the double-ender is a thing of beauty. The boat is a simple, sensuous construction of wood and canvas, a graceful but practical application of 19th century knowledge of wind and water to the ancient human endeavor of gathering fish. Nothing in the modern fleet of big metal, big power, gadget- and gizmo-driven boats can evoke the same sense of splendor and awe.

But splendor and awe is the view looking out at a double-ender. For those “iron men” who fished from them, the daily grind of living in an open boat was exhausting. Nets were pulled by hand, the weather was wet more than not, and shifting sandbars were always waiting to take their toll on unwary fishermen.

The very day this sailboat left Homer was the 74th anniversary of a legendary disaster in the history of Bristol Bay. On July 5, 1948, during the peak of the sockeye run, when hundreds of sailboats were loaded with fish, a big storm with raging winds came in from the southwest, pushing many of the helpless boats into the shallows. Many boats were stranded and at least one fisherman, and possibly more, drowned. In the lore of Bristol Bay, that day became known as the “Bloody Fifth of July.” Fishermen used the incident to press for motorized fishing boats. Finally, the federal managers of the fishery relented and boats with engines were allowed in 1951. By 1954, the sailboats were gone. But many double-enders were outfitted with engines and lived on to fish for another 20 or more years as “conversions.”


Finally, we sail back to Bristol Bay because we love our salmon. The Alaska Territorial Board of Fisheries, formed in 1949, noted in its first report that while development in the territory was needed, it should not come at the expense of salmon, for salmon were Alaska’s “most important resource which, if properly cared for, will produce year after year.” For Bristol Bay sockeye that observation has proven true. The diversity of habitat available to Bristol Bay sockeye has not changed significantly for millennia. That diversity has allowed sockeye to endure despite threats like droughts, floods, low snow years, high snow years, volcanoes and even the bad decisions of fisheries managers that came with the ever-changing shifts in fisheries politics. Damage that diversity, however, and sockeye will become vulnerable — and no amount of good management or favorable shifts in fisheries politics will save them.

While Bristol Bay’s salmon habitat remains whole, it is now legally fragmented. The survival of sockeye and the commercial fishery is largely dependent on the willingness of its federal, state and Alaska Native corporation landowners to restrain themselves from activities on their lands that could significantly damage their habitat.

So, we sail back to Bristol Bay to emphasize this point, and in doing so, celebrate the recent decision of Pedro Bay Corp. and its shareholders to sell a conservation easement over their Native lands that will protect 44,000 acres of critical sockeye habitat on Lake Iliamna. We also sail back this vintage drift gillnetter to celebrate the decision of Bristol Bay’s current gillnet fleet to contribute $1 million to help purchase that easement.

Tim Troll is the executive director of the Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust and author of “Sailing for Salmon: The Early Years of Commercial Fishing in Alaska’s Bristol Bay – 1884 to 1951.”

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Tim Troll

Tim Troll is Executive Director of the Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust, an organization dedicated to preserving the wildlife habitat, culture and history of the Bristol Bay region.