NAKNEK — I spend most of my life outdoors. I am out of the house almost from the time I awake until I finally sleep.
As a result, I see and learn many random things inadvertently. My season of commercial fishing in Bristol Bay is a little different. Instead of being on land, I experience the wilderness of the ocean. Though the waters of Bristol Bay are not technically the ocean, the environment is quite different than what I'm used to — and thus fascinating.
The waters and land of shallow Bristol Bay are extremely diverse. Bird life abounds over the water, and a multitude of marine species — fish and mammal — use Bristol Bay's resources. Gulls, diving ducks and other open water species cruise the estuaries and open ocean. Shorebirds spend their days combing mudbars and the grassland perimeter. Land animals find the sea's resources along the shoreline and the adjoining meadows.
Nowhere is this more evident than where the Kvichak River pours into Bristol Bay. The Kvichak drains Lake Illiamna, Alaska's largest lake and the spawning ground for more sockeye salmon than anywhere else in the world.
Red salmon fuel the eco-economy of Bristol Bay. Much of the life that abounds in the bay is due to huge salmon runs that return every summer to the river systems of Bristol Bay. Fish are food. Live adult salmon feed seals and beluga whales. Out-migrating salmon smolt feed these same animals and others. Salmon carcasses are gobbled up by gulls and bears. These critters are the ones that are the most visible. But salmon also have more subtle influences on life in the bay.
The health of sand fleas and various mud worms depend on decomposing salmon. Sandpipers, ducks, cranes and even some songbirds feed in brackish water.
To be sure, many western Alaska bird species would be present without the salmon run, but not in the numbers we see today. Bald eagles and osprey dominate the predator avians. Parasitic jaegers torment the numerous gull species.
In fact, young glacous gulls have an extremely high survival rate in the bay compared to other areas, no doubt due in part to the cannery fish waste they can feed on.
Summer fish waste also agrees with the many brown bears that move from grassland and mountain habitats. They change their grazing habits to feed on the abundant protein found in the tidal sloughs along the shallow shoreline. Many of the grizzlies move to the spawning streams inland, following the salmon prey.
All of these animals are visible from the deck of a Bristol Bay fishing boat. On the vessel, we get to watch while the seals learn that it is much easier to rob salmon from our nets than catch their own. Last week, we had a seal grab a salmon inches from my deckhand's hand as he pulled the net.
This interaction with Bristol Bay wildlife is fascinating and offers a tiny window into the behavior and habits of life around us.
The other evening, a 3-year-old brown bear poked his way along the mudbar toward our anchorage. He paid no attention to us or his surroundings, other than what was in front of his nose. He occasionally picked some edible from the mud and swallowed it. He leisurely passed our boat, only yards away, seemingly unaware of our presence. I have no idea what he found so appealing in the mud.
The huge Kvichak flats exposed by retreating 20-foot tides not only support myriad seabirds, clams, scud and mud worms. They are also used by beluga whales to trap food in narrow channels. At times, half of the feeding whales may be exposed as they work in retreating tidal waters. Belugas also spend time feeding on out-migrating salmon smolt, which make excellent food for sea mammals, birds and fish. Rainbow trout, Dolly Varden and lake trout depend on salmon smolt as a main protein source. Saltwater fish, including halibut and spiny dogfish, also eat the smolt.
No doubt, commercial fishermen take more salmon than any animal. And the salmon feed many Bristol Bay families in villages along her river systems. Sport fishermen come in droves to chase salmon and huge rainbow trout. Halibut fishing behind the waste lines of the floating processing vessels can range from very good to excellent.
The diverse life in the waters of Bristol Bay is there for those who are lucky enough to experience it. We must continually take care not to disrupt the natural order that has existed in the bay for thousands of years.
Unfortunately, humans have never been able to do that. What we can and must do today is attempt to use the abundant resources of the bay as we need them and not cause permanent damage to the complicated systems that compose a river estuary.
Come to the bay if you are able. Sit still and observe the life around you; watch how it lives.
John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.