Sand Point, Alaska
It was drizzling rain as we pulled out of the harbor a little after 9 a.m. in the middle of last August. A light wind was blowing from the northeast, and the usual fog obscured our view of the mountains that line the Alaskan Peninsula. Vaguely, in the distance, loomed the big boy of the region, a snow-covered volcano known as Mount Pavlov. Flying over Pavlov at night, it's said, you can make out a faint glow pulsating ominously from down inside the cone.
Our boat was the 37-foot gill netter Melissa Marie, captained by Benjamin Mobeck Jr., 41, and named for his daughter. Mobeck is a fourth-generation fisherman who has worked in the islands since he was a little boy, when his grandfather taught him how to hold a compass course on his wooden double-ender, steering a few points this way and a few that, until he'd go dizzy from the effort. Great-grandfathers on both sides had emigrated in the 1890s from Scandinavia. They rounded the Horn and sailed up from San Francisco as crewmen aboard codfish schooners, settling on the island of Sanak, about where the peninsula breaks up and becomes the Aleutian Islands, stretching out toward Russia, like the tail of a big dragon.
They married Aleut women and eventually moved to Sand Point on Popoff Island, 500 miles west of Anchorage. Sand Point is the biggest port in the region, with more than 110 fishing boats and 800 or so year-round residents. The population increases in the summer when Filipinos arrive to work at the Trident cannery, which each year processes 5,500 tons of fish sent out to Japan and Europe and to supermarket chains in the United States.
Today, Mobeck was headed for Balboa Bay, 10 miles away on the mainland. At the eastern entrance sits a 1,053-foot promontory known as Swedania Point. It got its name from the Russian do svidaniya, meaning "goodbye," not inappropriate nomenclature for such a desolate piece of granite, whose jagged face plunges into the ocean like background scenery from Lord of the Rings. Inside, the bay is 5 miles wide and 12 miles deep, and owing to the rain we couldn't see up to the head. But I knew Balboa Bay pretty well. Fifty years ago, in the summer of 1959, when Alaska became the 49th state, I was stationed there as a stream guard for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
I was 20 years old, just graduated from college, and had come out from Connecticut. Fish and Wildlife transported a dozen of us from Anchorage to Sand Point in an amphibian, then dropped us off at our respective bays 50 to 100 miles apart via a converted 90-foot minesweeper named the John R. Manning. Our job was to guard the salmon streams at the head of each bay from being cleaned out by fishermen from the islands and the big purse seiners up from Washington state. I had a shack to keep out the rain and the wind that blew like crazy everywhere and all the time. It was plywood and measured 8-by-10 feet; to my dismay, it had blown down the previous winter and lay scattered all over the field. Before they pulled out, the crew of the Manning helped me nail together the walls and the tin roof and gave me some rope to tie it to the ground lest it blow away again, with me in it.
They left me with boxes of food and a skiff with a 10-horse Johnson outboard motor. Weather permitting, I was expected to patrol the bay to make sure no fishing boat had crept up inside the "Fishing Prohibited" markers that I would shortly set up 1,000 yards from mouth of the stream. Truth be known, there was little I could have done if they had. I had no radio to call in on. We'd been issued beat-up Krag-Jorgensen rifles used by the U.S. Army during the Spanish-American War. The guns weren't for pointing at fishermen; they were protection against the brown bears, which lumbered about the region like lords of the manor. My boss had assured me the bears would stay pretty much near the salmon stream, 3 miles up the bay. True enough, it turned out, but, judging from the large prints I discovered on my beach in the morning, they seemed to be in the habit of commuting to work.
As for violators, if I caught a fishing boat inside the markers, I was to motor over in my skiff and inform the captain that he was fishing illegally here, and I needed to come aboard and use his radio to call in the Fish and Wildlife plane to fly over and photograph him with his nets out; otherwise, the government couldn't prosecute. As a radio-less tenderfoot from Connecticut, summoning up such an air of authority seemed a bit daunting, especially after hearing tales told by a veteran stream guard about colleagues gone missing in prior years, presumably thrown off the sterns of fishing vessels they had tried to violate. These stories were undoubtedly apocryphal, I told myself. Weren't they? In any event, I never had the chance to find out, since in my three months of salmon guarding, I never caught anyone near the mouth of my stream.
At summer's end, when our tours were up and we all returned to Sand Point before starting for home, we shared in the exhilaration that, thanks to our stalwart efforts out there in the bays, the salmon industry of western Alaska and the Aleutian Islands had been saved for another year. We also felt sadly sure, since Alaska had become a state, that it would abandon the federal stream guard program as too expensive, that fishermen would henceforth swoop in and loot the streams for quick profits, and that the salmon fishery would collapse by reason of shortsighted greed.
As we now know, no conjecture could have been more wrong. Not only has the Alaskan salmon fishery thrived since statehood, but so have the fisheries for other species harvested up there — pollock, halibut, cod. Since 2000, all have won the stamp of approval as fully sustainable by the international Marine Stewardship Council based in London, and a recent report financed by the National Geographic Society rated Alaska as one of the best-managed fisheries in the world, alongside those of Iceland and New Zealand. What's more, in the fall of 2008, in a study of data compiled from 11,135 individual fisheries, marine biologists at the University of California, Santa Barbara concluded that if fishermen universally adopted management practices like some of those used in Alaska, they might well reverse the grim conclusion reached two years earlier by the University of Dalhousie in Halifax, Nova Scotia, that under current practices, virtually 100 percent of the world's fisheries would collapse by the year 2048.
Despite the praise, however, there is evidence to suggest that Alaska's success in saving the fish might be accompanied by unintended costs. Indeed, there are few economic or cultural situations in the world that seem as complicated and contentious as the fishing business of Alaska. "Believe me, fishing politics up here are very intense," says Gunnar Knapp, professor of economics at the University of Alaska Anchorage, who has made a specialty out of studying the salmon industry. "You can listen to one person who will say that what someone claims as the best possible solution is absolutely terrible, and walk across the street and find another person who feels the exact opposite."
Of the many issues complicating Alaska's fishing business, none seems as fateful as that of "limited entry." The policy resulted from a decision by the state back in 1973 to stem the tide of out-of-state boats coming up to fish Alaskan waters. If left unchecked, their fishing prowess seemed likely to reduce the salmon population to that of an endangered species, and in short order. By legislative fiat, entry into the salmon fishery was limited to those boats, locally owned or not, that were currently engaged in the fishing business. No more would be allowed.
Originally, the permits were issued for free; but, as the finality of the law dawned on people, the value of the permits skyrocketed: By 1991, at the height of prices fishermen were being paid for their salmon, the cost of buying a single permit had reached more than $400,000. This was a tidy asset considering that, in the beginning, fishermen could have been issued up to three free permits for the different modes of fishing — stationary gill netting, drift gill netting and purse seining.
Not surprisingly, many fishermen gave in to temptation and sold out, until in some communities, especially small villages dotting the peninsula, the ownership of permits began to shift from the locals to outsiders, usually those with large pocketbooks. A study by anthropologists from Idaho State University of villages in Bristol Bay, which lies to the north of the peninsula and rates as the largest salmon fishery in the world, discovered that, of the 614 drift-net permits held by local fishermen in 1978, only 391 were still locally owned by 2008. Some places were hit even harder. In Nelson Lagoon, a tiny village on the other side of the peninsula from Sand Point, they found that locally owned permits had declined during roughly the same period by nearly half, from 51 to 27. And out in False Pass, across from the island of Unimak, at the start of the Aleutian Islands, they fell from 21 to 6. "Most of these permits were sold to nonlocal fishermen during hard times, and they will likely never return to local hands," wrote Katherine Reedy-Maschner, an Idaho State anthropology professor. "If these trends continue, these two villages may cease to be fishing towns, or they may cease to exist altogether."
For his part, Knapp has concluded that the real effect of limited entry wasn't so much to save the salmon as it was to determine who gets to catch them. "Everyone throws into the conversation as to why they're putting forward some plan or other that it will 'Save the Fish'; but I'd be very skeptical of that," Knapp says. "What it's really about is what kind of people will get to catch what fish are going to be caught." As far as permits go, he says, "the concern is they go to wealthier fishermen who have more access to capital and more savvy about how the whole regulatory system works. Inevitably, it's led to an outflow of fishing opportunities from rural communities. Pretty soon the pattern of young people who would normally follow in their parents' and uncles' footsteps becomes disrupted, and gradually but steadily over time you begin to have a shift of who's doing the fishing. It's not like suddenly people are getting kicked off their boats and they're given to someone else. It's a long-term process that people look back on and say, 'My God, this thing has really changed.'"
Located at the western edge of Popoff, a mountainous, treeless island about 10 miles long by 7 miles wide, Sand Point is dominated, visually and economically, by the Trident Seafoods plant situated on the edge of the harbor. Along with its size, Trident declares its presence by the muted roar of its power generators and also the odor emanating from an adjunct factory that grinds fish waste into pellets the company sells to fish farms; depending on which way the wind is blowing, the odor can be rank enough to cauterize an olfactory system. The island is an isolated place, sometimes dangerously so. Daily prop-jet service connects it to Anchorage — at $810 a round trip, it's not a casual venture, but it's what islanders must use for school trips, baby deliveries, any medical emergency. Ten years ago, a young mother of two children who had suffered an aneurism died aboard an outbound MedEvac plane that had been prevented from landing in time to save her because of 100-mile-an-hour winds.
A dusty gravel road winds up and down through several clusters of modest houses, many of which possess what Lower 48ers would consider to-kill-for views of mountains and the sea. The road is marked with ominous signs setting out a "Tsunami Evacuation Route," in case an earthquake develops out of the Aleutian fault, which lies just to the south. The island has a hardware store, a food and clothing emporium run by the Alaska Commercial Co., which has sold stuff to Alaskans ever since the Russians left, two luncheonettes, and a Chinese restaurant that doses customers heavily with sweet-and-sour cuisine. There's a modern, one-building school catering to 100 or so students, K through 12, and a fully uniformed police force, whose chief and two officers festoon themselves with Glocks, bullet-proof vests and belt loads of other enforcement accouterments, as if they'd been assigned to subdue a drug ring in a Newark housing project. Social headquarters — at least for the island's population of drinkers and dope smokers — is the boisterous Sand Point Tavern, oft-commented-upon bête noire of polite Sand Point society, which blames the tavern for whatever decline can be detected in the island's moral standards.
Not far from the bar, on a hillside looking across Unga Strait toward the shrouded entrance to Balboa Bay, is the Sand Point cemetery. In August, it overflows with daisies and lupine and bushes bearing large orange salmon berries, which island women make into pies and jams. Ravens circling overhead fill the air with their strangled cries. Wooden crosses mark the graves, a few of them with the slanted bar memorializing former congregants of the old St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church that presides over the harbor. The people underground seem to have begun dying in the 1930s, but they all left progeny to carry on in the fishing industry: Halversons, Gronholdts, Gundersons, Ludvicks, Osterbecks, Andersons, Carlsons — a lot of them now related to each other through marriage.
Ben Mobeck Jr., whom I accompanied out to Balboa Bay, is also a Holmberg. His mother, Mary Ann, 62, who lives with Ben's father in a house near the graveyard, is one of 12 children produced by John Holmberg Sr. She spent her childhood on Sanak, which, with its handful of abandoned, crumbling houses, is now a ghost island out there in the North Pacific. While these days Sand Pointers provision themselves with food ordered from Costcos in Seattle and shipped up on a barge, the Holmberg children grew up living off the land and the sea. "The old saying was, 'When the tide was out, our table was set,'" says Mary Ann, a jolly, bespectacled woman who organizes activities for island oldsters via a social service center run by the Eastern Aleutian Tribes, an organization that represents the interests of several thousand Native Alaskans. She and her siblings would root for clams, sea urchins, baby octopuses and bidarkies, black crustaceans that cling to rocks with a tongue-like muscle that makes for good eating. They gathered seagull eggs, which were jellied in large glass jars and would last through the winter. As for vegetables, nothing that requires much sun grows well in the islands, but rhubarb thrives, as do root crops such as rutabagas, turnips, potatoes, beets, carrots, salsify and parsnips.
I feel a connection to the Holmberg family. Fifty years ago, John Holmberg Jr., now 78, who's Mary Ann's brother and Ben's uncle, was the first fisherman to show up in my bay. He worked a gill net from a small, 42-foot boat named the Milfred. Sand Pointers get recalled to memory by their boats, and it's not uncommon for a man to go through a half dozen in his lifetime, able to reel off their names and characteristics like long-gone children. Many still exist, in what's known as the "Bone Yard" at the harbor. Ben's father's first boat, the Sun Dial, sits up on chocks, paint-chipped, its cedar frames sprung loose. Even his grandfather's decaying double-ender can be seen lying encrusted with seaweed below the water line near the fish food plant.
John Holmberg was 28 years old when I knew him in Balboa, and he arrived as a welcome visitor, indeed. Most of the time, I had only my own company to keep — reading through English Lit books ignored in college, fetching water from a trickling brook that was too small for the bears to check out, futilely chasing leaks with a can of roofing tar. Invariably the tar would ooze through nail holes in the tin onto my blanket or, worse, end up in my hair. Regularly, I'd take out the skiff to scrounge driftwood from the beaches to feed the tin Yukon stove I kept glowing. One calamitous day, I endeavored to light some wet sticks using the Blazo fuel meant for the Coleman lantern and proceeded to catch the whole stove afire, along with a crate serving as a dining table, nearly burning myself out before dousing it all with a pail of drinking water.
Every couple of weeks or so, or whenever it might occur to my boss that I could be running low on food, the Fish and Wildlife plane would fly by. The drill was for the pilot to get my attention by buzzing the shack, then he'd fly over again and drop a crate out the airplane door. No parachute was attached, so often the load would burst apart on landing, whereupon the game became one of finding the fresh stuff in the tall grass and alder bushes before the foxes got it.
When Holmberg was in the bay, I'd help him pick fish out of his net, and we'd talk and drink coffee or beer in his wheelhouse. One day he mentioned casually that a stream guard could make some money for himself if he chose to sleep late some morning, catch up on a little shut-eye. Obtuse as I was about the ways of the world, even I could sniff out the offer of a bribe here, and I remember replying: "Look, John, I don't get many people to talk to out here, and I'd hate to lose our friendship if I woke up tomorrow morning and found you up there inside the markers." As far as I know, he never did go up, or, rather, I don't think he went up, because the next day I did in fact oversleep, in no way intentionally, and didn't roll out of bed until 10 a.m.
These days Holmberg spends most of the year in Edmunds, Wash., near Seattle, where a number of Sand Pointers retire after they're done with fishing. I called him last summer, the first time we'd talked since 1959. He said, yes, he did sort of remember that critical conversation, but he allowed as how I had taken him too seriously. "I was only fooling with you," he said.
A long with monitoring the yearly salmon catch, the state of Alaska tries to ensure sustainability by counting literally every salmon that makes its spawning run up one of thousands of natal streams throughout the state. From May into September, the fish crowd into the shallow bayhead lagoons, leaping in the air seemingly in ecstasy, waiting for the biological word that says it's time to go. Once up the stream, anywhere from a few miles to a thousand on the mighty Yukon, the female fans out a little gravel nest with her tail and lays 8,000 to 10,000 or so eggs; the male blankets them with his cloud of sperm, and the adults turn a different color — red, black or green, depending on the species — and they die. It will take anywhere from two to five years for those baby salmon to make their way downstream, grow to size far out in the ocean and return to that same stream to replenish their kind.
The state mostly counts fish going upstream rather than down — calculating what's known as the "escapement" rate, meaning the ones who've escaped getting caught in a fish net. But no one really knows how many of those baby salmon will actually make it back. Last year, biologists in California attributed the collapse of the king salmon run in the Sacramento River not to the diversion of river water to agricultural purposes, as was originally thought, but to something bad happening to their food supply out in the ocean that resulted in their starving to death.
Counting salmon can be a dizzying proposition, as Alex Bernard will testify. A 30-year-old biology graduate of the University of Northern Colorado, Bernard is now the assistant biologist at the Sand Point station of the Alaska Fish and Game Department. Each week during the season, he tries to monitor the run in each of the 232 salmon streams along an approximately 700-mile-long stretch of islands and coastline. He flies with a Fish and Game pilot from the Sand Point airport in a single-engine Cessna 185, equipped with extra-fat tires so it can land on a gravel beach in an emergency. Bernard uses five clickers to keep track of the different concentrations of fish as well as the different salmon species. He calculates, for example, that a tiny pod of fish about the size of an eraser head when seen from 300 to 500 feet in the air probably represents 50 salmon; a dense black line of them stretching half a football field length up a 50-foot-wide stream is about 100,000.
With his head stuck in a bubble-shaped window to give him a good view, with the plane banking sharply 30 degrees this way and that just above the terrain, so the stream and the alder bushes rush by in a blur, Bernard says he can't take more than an hour or two at a time, even with a load of Dramamine on. "The only way to describe it," he says, "is to imagine putting your head into a toilet and flushing it over and over and trying to follow the water as it goes down the drain."
How many salmon Bernard counts determines how many days the department allows Sand Pointers to go out and fish. A high count, depending on how it computes with those of previous years, could mean opening up the fishery for anywhere from 24 to 88 hours; after that, it would shut down again so biologists could see how the count fared the next week. Along with Bernard's count, the state has to navigate through the treacherous fish politics that rule in Alaska. Fishermen in villages along Bristol Bay, for example, are convinced that fishermen to the south — on the other side of the peninsula in Sand Point and in boats coming up from Washington — are catching fish that rightfully belong to them. They argue that salmon, making their way up from the south and southwestern part of the Pacific, really have it in mind to swim through gaps in the peninsula like the one in False Pass and return to streams that empty into Bristol Bay, except that they get caught. The same claim is put forth by fishermen around Chignik Bay, which is located on the peninsula about 100 miles east toward Anchorage. "It's a lot like fights over water rights in the Lower 48, where people fight tooth and nail with gunshots fired over who gets the water and who has rights to it," Bernard says.
The issue of whom these fish belong to is particularly fraught regarding Chignik because most of those thought to be headed for that bay happen to be sockeyes. Also known as red salmon, sockeyes, along with king salmon from the Yukon River, have more fat content than the other varieties and reign as royals in the salmon realm. More to the point, the salmon processors last summer were paying 85 cents a pound for sockeyes, nearly four times what they paid for any of the three other kinds — silvers, chums and humpbacks, or humpies, as they're called.
To avoid the issue turning violent, every three years the state's Board of Fisheries sets an allocation of fish that must be caught by Bristol Bay and Chignik before Sand Pointers can even put a net in the water. This number is negotiated each time, arrived at after much politicking by lobbyists and lawyers representing competing areas — and it rarely satisfies everyone, especially not Sand Pointers. By the time they're let out to fish, a lot of the sockeye run has already gone through to Chignik, and a lot of the fish Sand Pointers are left to catch are chums and humpies, which last August sold at the Trident cannery for only 24 and 22 cents a pound, respectively.
By the time Ben and I arrive at the eastern entrance to Balboa Bay in August, the rain has let up temporarily and two purse seiners are already circling the area. It's a popular spot. Ben inherited the permit from his father when he was only 13 years old. In an inventive deal worked out with another fisherman, Ben's father granted the man permission to use the permit if he agreed to take the boy on as a deck hand and teach him how to fish. It was one of three permits Ben Sr. was awarded when limited entry took effect in the 1970s. He retained one for himself and is reserving the third for his other son, Emil, 44, who currently works as a deckhand on his father's purse seiner. Passing permits along to children not only provides them entry into the fishing business; it's also a way for fathers to fatten up their Social Security checks when they retire. "If I can get a little percentage from them in the summer," says Ben Sr., now 65, "then I won't have to eat bidarkies off the beach all winter."
As a whole, Sand Point has done fairly well when it comes to keeping permits in the hands of locals. According to the Idaho State study, of the 111 permits held by resident boat owners in 1980, some 92 were still in Sand Pointers' hands as of 2008. But sad tales abound of families who have let permits escape from their grasp. Some fathers sold theirs after bitter squabbles with their sons, or their sons became alcoholics or drug addicts and were disinherited. Some fishermen borrowed heavily to outfit their boats with newfangled fishing gear or buy a bigger vessel with added fish capacity. When salmon prices took a catastrophic dive, as they did in the late 1990s and early 2000s, boats and permits were lost in bank foreclosures; others were seized by the IRS in lieu of unpaid taxes. A few fishermen, dazzled by the high permit prices being paid in the 1980s, put theirs on the market. "You could have made close to a million dollars back then," Ben Sr. says, "so a lot of them sold their permits, but they never did anything with the money. They went off and got drunk or just spent it, and then there was no more. It was all gone."
Owning a permit or not usually spells the difference between making a decent livelihood and facing a bleak economic future. Those without them have little else to do on the island except work as deckhands for someone else, earning 10 to 15 percent of a boat's catch, as opposed to the 50 percent or more for the permit-owning captain. They could always, of course, take one of the 400 or so seasonal jobs sliming fish at the cannery, but this work is disdained by locals as fit only for the Filipinos and other foreigners imported for the season, some from as far away as the Czech Republic.
If you're smart about it, working at the cannery is not such a terrible deal. Outfitted in company uniforms consisting of electric-blue jump suits and hats, Trident employees resemble the minions working for some Dr. No character in a James Bond movie. They earn only minimum wage, around $7.35 an hour, and they're expected to put in 12 to 16 hours a day, seven days a week. But this can add up to as much as $2,500 or $3,000 a month, all of which could go into a savings account, since Trident pays for their round-trip airfare, provides them free lodging in a dormitory and feeds them for free in a cafeteria, where the food is fresh and good enough to attract paying customers from among the islanders. If workers bring along a spouse or other family members, they can expect to return home with $36,000 or more in the family coffers, a sum that goes a long way back in the islands, and this for only half a year's labor. Still, Trident's roster includes few Americans, either from Alaska or the Lower 48. "Let's face it," says the plant foreman, Elmer Mercado, who's been with Trident for 23 years, "if you're a guy born and raised in the USA, you'd never work for $7.35 an hour, and if you had to work 12, 16, 18 hours a day, with no TV, no movies, no malls to go to, it would be, 'The hell with this, I'm going home.'"
Setting up his fishing gear in Balboa Bay, Ben puts the stern end of his boat in close to the beach, just inside Swedania Point, and starts pulling his gill net out of its bag. As we motor slowly toward the middle of the bay, he pays out the 600 feet of net off the back, over a big roller fastened above the transom. The net is nearly 30 feet deep and suspended by floats and weighed down by a lead line on the bottom. Normally he anchors one end to the beach and the other to a buoy out in the bay. His permit allows him another 600 feet, part of which he uses to make a 45-degree hook at the outer end, angled back toward the beach. As salmon swim along parallel to the shore, some become enmeshed in the first leg; if they don't like what they see — a lot of other fish thrashing about in the net, for instance — they make a right turn and head out toward the middle of the bay, and get snagged in the hook.
Theoretically, that is. Balboa Bay is more than 60 square miles of water, so catching fish is not best left to happenstance. Just because salmon are programmed to head up the stream doesn't mean they line up in orderly fashion, like people waiting for a movie in Manhattan. Salmon move with the wind and the tide; until they get the final go sign, they mill around, swimming in whatever direction the forces of nature send them. In Balboa, Ben relies on a falling tide to float the fish out of the bay toward the mouth. Ideally, then, a light westerly breeze would arise, or one coming in from the south, blowing the fish toward the eastern shore, where they'd fall victim to his nets. Dead calm is less good because there's no wind to help move the fish. A bright day isn't so great either; that makes the net flash in the sun, alerting salmon that something strange is up ahead they might not like.
"If I were just anybody coming into this bay I could have set up on the other side, and I wouldn't catch anything, because there're no fish over there," says Mobeck, who spends summers in a cabin next to his parents' house but the rest of the year in Everett, Wash., with his wife, Kelly, a paralegal in a law firm. "Knowing where to go is half the battle, or having a father who knows. You can also ask questions, but we're all fishermen out here, and we don't want people to invade where the fish are, so sometimes, depending who they are, they'll give you the wrong information."
Unlike purse seining, where a whole school is encircled by the net and scooped out of the water, in gill netting the salmon swims straight toward the net, thinking it can swim right through, but then gets caught by its dorsal fin. The more the fish struggles the tighter it gets caught. The mesh measures a little either side of 5 inches square; later in the season, the state mandates use of the larger opening so immature fish can swim through unscathed. Once the net is full, some gill netters reel it in over the stern, but Ben would rather go out and patrol the net in a skiff, hauling up sections and picking out the fish himself. This way, the net stays out there fishing all the time, with no off-duty periods when it's being hauled in.
Ben's mother teases him about gill netting, saying it's "an old-man way of fishing," because it's more sedentary. It doesn't require the elaborate maneuvering of a purse seiner, which has to marshal two seine skiffs and a crew of four equipped with radios in a military-like operation. Seiners do catch more fish, 25- or 30,000 pounds in a single haul, whereas the fish hold in Ben's boat accommodates only 14,000. But with all the gear and a big crew, the cost of running a seine boat is much higher. Gill netting also results in less damage to the fish, so processors pay him more, he says. Crushed in the mass of writhing salmon, the fish caught by a seiner can often lose their protective scales, exposing their flesh to bruising or getting cut. Blood can get into the meat and make for darkened flesh, which a processor has to put in a can rather than sell to a restaurant or supermarket.
In the winter of 1997, when Ben supplemented salmon fishing by working on a crab boat in the Bering Sea, a heavy crab pot came loose from a stack and smashed his foot bones in three places. The captain dropped him off at a processing plant, but a week went by before he saw a doctor, and the foot still pains him when it's cold and damp. "So, that was my sign," he recalls. "I said, 'I gotta do something different.'" Back in Everett, he joined the seaman's union and eventually won an able seaman's job aboard an oil tanker heading for the Middle East. Year by year, he took more tests and rose in rank, taking a leave each summer to fish at Sand Point. Now he's studying for his mate's license, and dreams of becoming a tanker captain.
One of the differences between Mobeck and many others raised on the island is that, when it came time for high school, his mother took him out of the Sand Point school and moved with the boys to Lynnwood, Wash., near Seattle, so they could see another part of the world. As people working in the local school readily confirm, staying around Sand Point through teenage-hood can be a limiting experience. Other than rodding around on four-wheelers or hanging out at an Internet coffee shop called the Cut Her Loose Café, there's not much to do, except drugs. And there are plenty of controlled substances to abuse, enough so that the local community health center brought in a licensed clinical social worker from New Orleans last summer who plans to start a teenage branch of AA in the spring. The number who go on to college from Sand Point is pretty low, only one from the class of 2009; and the pregnancy rate leans heavily in the opposite direction, to the degree that the girls basketball team has earned the nickname "The Young Mothers."
"You grow up someplace else, you develop skills, you see things, you learn how to parallel park, take the public transit system. But these kids look at life through a straw," says Carl Dirkers, director of special education, who with his wife also runs the Marine View, a bed-and-breakfast overlooking the harbor. "The junior class has a program where they raise money to go to Washington, D.C., but it's too much for some kids. They get down there in the underground and some of them, they just close down."
When Ben went off-island to high school, the mainland education system at first proved overwhelming, so the family switched him to a small Christian-run school. On weekends, he and his brother would gas up the car and just drive. "I didn't know where the road was going, and we didn't have any maps; we'd come to a crossroads and turn left or right. We'd go through towns and see houses and tall buildings and colleges. The freeways were another thing, a road that had no stops, going from Canada to California. I just couldn't fathom it."
Ben's fishing permit limits him to set netting, and he had already put his regular gear away for the season, so today we let the net hang off the stern as we drift in the wind and current. This style is known as drift netting, and requires another kind of permit. But we were after what's known as "subsistence" fish. Anyone who gets a card from the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs saying he's some part Native Alaskan, or a "Nate" as they're colloquially called back in Anchorage, has the right to shoot bears and moose and caribou, as well as catch 500 pounds of salmon, without bothering with the usual permits or licenses, as long as it goes for the subsistence of his family. Thanks to all those Scandinavian men marrying Aleut women in the early 1900s, just about every permanent resident of Sand Point is some part Aleut, in Ben's case one-quarter and his parents', one-half each.
As a result of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, Alaskan Natives were also awarded ownership of 12 percent of the state's land. This is a lot of territory, much of it with spectacular views, but, unless oil or minerals lie underneath, the land has about zero economic use. Natives own much of the vacant land surrounding Sand Point, for instance; they own from the water's edge to the ridgeline of the mountains around Balboa Bay, and they own a large former Navy base where the government spent billions to build docks, housing, a jet port. Right now, the Aleut Corporation has the place up for sale or lease, but the bad news is it's located on the island of Adak, half way out the Aleutian chain, and has drawn precious little interest.
There are few, if any, actual, full-blooded Indians left around Sand Point. When the local school has its native culture fair in the spring, it brings in natives from the mainland to do the songs and dances. None of the Sand Point Aleuts have the look of movie Indians — reddish skin with a sculptured nose and long black hair — but they still at times have to confront the out-dated stereotype of their heritage. When Ben met the girl who's now his wife, he told her he was part native, but not the kind she had in mind. "My wife grew up in Anchorage, and, to her, being a native was like the ones down on Fourth Avenue where the people on the street were all drunk and panhandled people. I said, 'Well, yes, I'm a native, and there are people who do that, but I'm better than that.'"
In Balboa Bay, our net hadn't been out for more than a few minutes before we saw the corks near the shore getting tugged under water as fish began hitting mesh. The commotion gradually worked its way up the net's length toward the boat, and pretty soon the whole thing was fairly throbbing. After about 20 minutes, Ben tied the near end onto a big reel on deck and began slowly hauling in his catch. As fish came in over the transom, flapping and straining to get free, he worked them loose and put them in piles according to species. Balboa is mostly a humpie and chum bay, but reds travel in with them, even though it's not their stream. Realizing eventually it's the wrong place, they make their way out again and try another bay, like travelers looking up and down a street for the address of a friend.
Biologists can tell species apart in many ways, but Ben needs just to look at their tails — humpies with the spots, chums with stripes and reds a deep blue with no markings. On a normal fishing day, it would be the reds he'd want most, of course, but usually they account for only 10 percent of his catch, enough just to cover what he paid for diesel fuel and food. Pretty soon we had a couple dozen fish, averaging 8 to 12 pounds each. And since he was catching only subsistence fish, he threw the rest back, removing them carefully from the mesh so as not to cause any damage. He'll give some fish to friends and family, maybe smoke or freeze the rest. Humpies smoke the quickest and dry the best because they have very little fat. (The fat content of salmon depends on how far up a stream they go to spawn: Those with the longest journeys build up a lot of fat out in the ocean to sustain them during the time they spend in freshwater, when they don't eat anything. The leaner ones — humpies, chums and silvers — come from comparatively short streams. The fattest, with the longest run, are the kings of the Yukon.)
For general eating, it's the reds that everyone prefers. Like the French with their wine, Alaskans claim they can distinguish reds by the water they've swum in, those from Bristol Bay as opposed to Cook Inlet, say, and they can argue all night about which provides the best eating. Wherever they're from, reds are sweeter, more succulent. When it's properly broiled, not overdone, God forbid, sockeye flesh is purported to melt in your mouth, like a pat of butter. At the top of the sockeye heap are the Copper River reds from near Cordova, southeast of Anchorage. Alaskans claim they can divine the faint taste of copper in the flesh that adds to their distinction. Arriving in June, these are the first reds of the season, the ones that are cosseted with care by fishermen, pampered by the processors, given special branding treatment by the marketers and flown out by air to gourmet chefs in Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York City and many cities in Europe.
Not to be considered second-class citizens, the processors in the Aleutian area have tried branding the reds from their region; they call them "Aleutia" salmon. They're also handled with special care and rate a higher price at the cannery, $1.05 a pound instead of 85 cents. "If it's missing scales, they don't want it, or if there's marks or it's scuffed," says Ben, who loyally maintains he likes all salmon, regardless of species, origin or fat content. "They pay a better price, but I haven't signed up for that market. It's probably worth your time, but it's another added thing you've got to do in the whole scheme of things you've got to do." He knows all about the Copper River mystique. "I've been to Seattle and seen the label. I don't think they're any different from the reds we have here, but it's the first to the market, and now it's August and all the Copper River fishermen are sitting at home, relaxing."
While we were in Balboa, Ben's father was purse seining in Stepovak Bay, about 90 miles to the east. And in the 48-hour open period he was allowed to fish, he seemed to have made out pretty well. In four separate sets of his net, he pulled in a total of 107,000 pounds. Back in his kitchen, as his wife cooked up a lunch of king crab claws and deep-fried slices of halibut in beer-batter, Ben Sr. sat at the table with his two boys and toted up the figures. At an average price of 23 cents a pound, the trip had grossed him a little shy of $25,000. Expenses were $500 for fuel and $130 for groceries. The three crewmen would share in a 48 percent split of the gross; the rest was his net. This meant he'd cleared between $13,000 and $14,000 for the two days of work. Was that a good trip? I asked. "Well, we caught a few fish," he said, speaking in typical understatement, fishermen not being ones to accentuate the positive.
"Yes," chimed in Ben Jr. "That was a good trip."
Over a fishing season, June into mid-August, Sand Pointers try to average between 500,000 and 1 million pounds, which nets them $110,000 to $120,000, after expenses. Out of this they must also pay for boat maintenance, dockage fees, taxes. They can experience expensive equipment breakdowns, prices may fall. In all, they've a lot to keep them worried. "I've never seen a fisherman say, 'Oh, I'm happy,'" says Elmer Mercado, the foreman at Trident, who deals with them daily as they come by for fuel and supplies. "They catch a lot, and the prices go down, and they complain. They don't catch much, and the prices go up, and they still complain."
For sure, one needn't search far in Sand Point to run into griping about the local cannery, one of 11 plants operated in Alaska and Washington by the Trident Seafoods Corp. of Seattle. The other processor in the area is also a seafood giant, Peter Pan, in King Cove. Fishermen sell to both of them and check their prices before calling for a tender, but only to discover they're usually pretty much the same.
The latest blowup between Sand Pointers and Trident came during the summer of 2008, when the company lowered the price for humpbacks to about 15 cents a pound, and Peter Pan wasn't doing much better. Enraged, some of the fishermen tried to organize a boycott of Trident, to withhold their fish in an economic war of nerves. Just about then, a floating processor called Snopac moved its barge into Sand Point on its way south and started buying fish for 40 cents a pound. This brought the Trident price back up more or less forthwith. The Snopac barge then continued on its way to southeast Alaska, but the experience left the idea percolating in Sand Pointers' minds that maybe they should put money into a processing co-op of their own.
So far, however, the idea hasn't progressed very far, and, considering the mentality of many fishermen, some people don't think it will go much further. "It's hard for them to take that step," says Carl Moses, owner of Carl's, the island's hardware store, and a retired state legislator. "Fishermen are independent and don't understand the benefit of being part of a co-op, or having an ownership through the whole chain of marketing the fish. They want to stay with what they know, with their guaranteed market."
Moses, now 80 years old, grew up on Sanak Island with the Mobecks and the Holmbergs. He used to own as many as six boats himself and knows the fishing business pretty well. He knows that, when it comes to things like withholding fish from the cannery, the cannery has a few cards to play if fishermen get too far out of line. "They'll pick one or two fishermen, and they'll use them as an example," he says. Aside from selling it their fish, Sand Pointers use Trident for a lot of services, such as storing nets and gear and buying fuel and supplies on credit, not paying until the end of the season. During the 2008 rebellion, Trident ordered one fisherman who'd begun selling to Snopac to get his gear off company property. What's more, the cannery let it be known that it wouldn't be buying the Dungeness crab he'd planned to fish for that winter.
The fisherman in question has an uncle who owns four purse seiners and two crab boats. "I talked to him," Moses says of the uncle. "I said, 'They're using your nephew for a scapegoat. What if you worked with your nephew and tell the cannery if you do that to him, then we'll fish for someone else." The uncle didn't seem interested, Moses says. "The problem is they don't have an association, and they're not organized. They don't stick together."
In the opinion of economist Gunnar Knapp, grousing about the processors is wildly beside the point. The real problem salmon fishermen face is fallout from globalization — more specifically, competition from the international salmon farmers in western Canada, Chile, Norway, Scotland and other places, who raise fish in ocean pens, feed them on grain like cattle and send them on to the market in huge numbers. These farmers possess an economic advantage that, as far as Alaskans are concerned, seems insurmountable. Not only do they set up their enclosures close to truck routes, or build roads where there are none; they can also supply wholesalers with a steady, year-round product, one that's handled carefully to avoid damage and turned out in whatever species and size the stores want. That, as opposed to fish in Alaska that are caught thousands of miles from transport, spawn only seasonally so they all come on the market in a rush, and in whatever size and variety as happens to have been caught. It's thus no surprise that wild salmon, which during the season sells for $12.95 a pound in East Coast supermarkets (compared to half that amount for the farmed variety), has reduced its appeal to a niche market of buyers, to those who buy wild salmon because it tastes better and is worth the price.
In 1980, barely 1 percent of the world's salmon came from farms; by 1992, that had risen to 32 percent. The landmark year was 1999, when salmon farmers produced so many fish they virtually crashed the market, flooding it with as many farmed salmon as there were caught in the wild, and their share has been going up ever since. As for Alaskan fishermen, what they've been receiving for their catch has gone in the other direction. The price for reds, for instance, which reached a statewide average of $2.35 a pound at the cannery in 1988, had fallen to 58 cents by 2001. Prices have come back a little since then, but prospects don't seem bright for dramatic improvement. "It brought financial catastrophe to a lot of good people," Knapp says. "Here, you work just as hard as you always have, and you go to the processor, and he's paying you half or a third of what he gave you five or six years ago."
Nevertheless, the future isn't entirely grim. When it's in season, wild salmon — and Alaska is the major producer of wild salmon in the world — still dominates the select restaurant market. And in selling salmon at bargain prices, the farmers may have done Alaskans some small favor, by popularizing salmon in the public mind. Whereas it used to be strictly a low-end food item, eaten overwhelmingly out of a can, like tuna, salmon nowadays sits proudly alongside other fish fillets and steaks at the fish counter; and overall salmon consumption has increased dramatically, from 8.5 million metric tons sold in 1985 to 16.9 million as of 2001. Thus, while Alaska's share of this dropped from 35 percent to 19, the total amount of salmon it sold on the world market actually increased by about a quarter of a million tons.
Then there's the health angle. Both wild and farmed salmon contain a lot of omega-3 fatty acids. This, as most people know by now, is the fat that reduces cholesterol and circulatory disease, lowers depression and maybe even assists in warding off Alzheimer's disease. Farmed salmon have been found to contain even more of this beneficial fat variety than wild. At the same time, however, farmed salmon, which are administered pesticides and antibiotics to ward off parasites and diseases caused by their being raised in close confinement, have a dramatically elevated chemical content that poses a serious threat to people's health; ones that have been shown to cause cancer, memory impairment and neurobiological changes in children. According to a study done in 2005 by Cornell University scientists, these chemicals — namely, chlorinated pesticides, dioxins and PCBs, among others — exist in salmon raised in western Canada and Chile at a percentage that's 10 times what is found in salmon caught in the wild; salmon raised in Scotland and Norway have even more.
The researchers, Barbara Knuth, a professor of natural resources, and Steven Schwager, an associate professor of biological statistics, noted that the chemicals in question take a while to build to a critical level; so for older people, especially those with heart problems, the benefits of staying on a diet high in farmed salmon, particularly from Chile because of its even higher good-fat content, might outweigh the threat posed by chemical intake. But, the researchers warned, "for people who are young — and they're at risk of lifetime accumulation of pollutants that are carcinogenic — or pregnant women — with the risks of birth defects and IQ diminution and other kinds of damage to the fetus — those risks are great enough that they outweigh the benefits." For young people, and especially expectant mothers, the researchers recommend they eat farmed salmon from Scotland, Norway and eastern Canada no more than three times a year, and those from Chile, Maine, western Canada and Washington state no more than six. Wild chum salmon from Alaska, on the other hand, can be safely eaten as often as once a week, and humpies, reds and silvers, some of which might have been caught around Sand Point, twice a month.
Whatever the future holds for wild Alaskan salmon economically, the state deserves considerable credit for setting one of the highest standards in the world when it comes to preserving a fishery for future generations. How many fishermen can survive the effort, however, remains an open question, as does whether the state's complicated rules and regulations can easily be transferred to other places. Aside from the effect limited entry has had of shifting permits once owned by small fishing operators to larger ones, it's done little to provide fishermen much advantage in competing with super-efficient salmon farmers. For one thing, the way the system now works — counting salmon going upstream and sending fishermen out for a limited number of days, depending on the tally — might succeed in maintaining a stable fish population, but it creates a periodic fishing frenzy that encourages boat captains to take chances with weather conditions that can endanger themselves and their crew. For another, in terms of man hours and diesel fuel, it's a terribly inefficient and expensive way to run an industry. In a study released in October of 2008 by the World Bank titled "Sunken Billions," researchers calculated that each ton of fish caught worldwide used up approximately a half-ton of fossil fuel. What's more, the buildup of fishing fleets and the introduction of sophisticated fishing technology has resulted in "massive overcapacity," whereby the catch-per-vessel rate has gone into steady decline. The bank estimated the cost of this redundancy, the "sunken billions," at about $50 billion each year. The only reason many fishermen can stay in business, it said, is because of government subsidies generated in response to political pressure from fishing interests. If fish stocks were rebuilt to sustainable levels, the report concluded, "the current marine catch could be achieved with approximately half the current global fishing effort."
What conservationists such as the Environmental Defense Fund prefer to the limited-entry system — and what the Obama administration has thrown its weight behind — is a system called Individual Transferable Quotas, or "catch shares." In this scheme, government biologists determine what amount of fish can be safely caught in order to sustain the fishery, and shares in the total catch are divided up and thrown onto the open market, where they can be bought and sold, like shares of stock in a company. By owning shares, the argument goes, fishermen have a stake in promoting conservation measures that preserve the fishery as a whole, and also the value of their shares; if fish stocks improve, their value would increase. Along with saving the fish, the catch-share system obviates the frenzy-mode of trying to catch as many fish as you can in a limited time. Guaranteed a share, fishermen could pursue their catch as they wish, going out on good days rather than bad, staying out longer to conserve both the fuel and manpower expended in the current herky-jerky fishing derbies. In Alaska, this system governs the halibut industry, where it's not only made for a flourishing fish population but, at the $5-a-pound being paid last August by the canneries, has delivered a financial bonanza to halibut fishermen.
As with almost every fish-saving idea, the catch-share system produces winners and losers, and a large amount of controversy has followed in its track. Because the plan limits the number of shares to the total amount of fish that can be sustainably harvested, it inevitably results in a reduction in the number of fishing boats allowed on the water. Indeed, if this weren't the case, there would be no improvement over the old system, where too many boats went after too few fish, where no one made much money, and where the fish all but disappeared. Since catch shares went into effect in the mid-'90s in Alaska, for instance, the number of halibut boats has dropped from about 4,500 to 1,500, with the surviving few being generally well-financed operators who can afford to purchase a large number of fish shares.
The same sort of reduction looms ahead for communities on the East Coast, with a lot of unhappy fishermen as a result, especially those from families that have gone to sea for generations and now face being closed out of the business. Last fall in Gloucester, Mass., where the depletion of cod stocks in the waters off New England has reduced many in the local fishing community to a state close to impoverishment, some 300 angry fishermen from up and down the coast converged in protest on the regional office of the National Marine Fisheries Service, which enforces the catch-share system.
One idea for how to guarantee local fishermen a share of the catch is to expand the concept of catch shares to an entire community. Called a "community fishing quota," this plan would give a fishing village, such as Sand Point, the exclusive right to catch all the salmon within, say, 40 miles of its shores. Each resident fisherman would be allotted a portion of whatever number of fish biologists determined could be caught. His catch share could be sold back to the community or passed down to children, but it could not be transferred to the hands of outsiders. In this manner, the fish would be saved, the fishermen would be saved and the community would exist as a thriving economic enterprise.
So far, the proposal has won few adherents, at least in Alaska, outside of some academics and special-interest advocates. "The politics would never play that way, because outside fishermen are just too strong," the economist Gunnar Knapp says. "You're talking about a couple of billion dollars annually in the fishing industry, and there's an enormous ongoing debate about who has access to that. Is it some politically astute guy who lives in Anchorage, where the decisions are made? Or is it some Aleut guy living 600 miles away?
"So it's no wonder, when they talk about giving the fish to the people who live there, the reaction is: 'Ha Ha. Are you kidding?'"
On one unusually nice day, with the sun actually peeking through the clouds, I returned to Balboa Bay to locate the site where my shack had been, to see if there remained any sign that I'd lived there. The boat captain taking me out was Geoff Flaherty, who in the fall works as a guide at a hunting camp on Bear Lake on the peninsula. He brought along his Remington .300 Magnum in case we surprised a bear in the alder bushes, an event he never considers beyond possibility when venturing onto the mainland.
We took the boat to the head of the bay, where four salmon streams flow down from the mountains and into a lagoon known as Albatross Anchorage. It's where the salmon gather in large numbers before the final rush. Today it seemed to be mostly silvers, leaping all over the place. We tried to catch some on a lure, but they weren't interested. Two brown bears appeared up at the head, about 500 yards away, swatting at fish in the stream, not paying us any attention.
I found the field where my shack had been, a little spit of land jutting out to a point. It was still filled with tall grass and beach sunflowers blooming by the ocean. The shack was gone of course. I kicked around in the grass for remnants, but in 50 years just about everything decays into nothing. I recalled how the wind at night would make the building heave and sway, and I'd lie in my bed, giving thanks to the crew of the Manning for leaving me that piece of rope. I'd turn 21 at the end of the summer and knew I'd be going back east to face the expanse containing the rest of my life, whatever that would be — I wasn't one of those you'd call terribly career-directed. When the fishermen went in for the weekend, I'd sit against a drift log on the beach reading my favorite book of the summer, which was Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe, searching for some clue in there about how to address what might be coming next.
In the actual event, when I got back to Connecticut, I went to New York City and got a job in the advertising business, not from any clear-headed resolve but because I thought that's where you could at least meet girls. Through an ad in the Times, I became an advertising trainee for a firm on lower Madison Avenue, very much lower, it turned out, not the neighborhood of J. Walter Thompson and the other big agencies. Shortly I found myself traveling around the country, inspecting highway billboards for National Distillers brands. My task was to make sure advertisements for Old Crow bourbon or Gilbey's gin or a low-shelf blended whiskey called PM were not defiled by graffiti or relegated to low-traffic roads such as dead ends leading to the town dump. And as I'd retire for the day to my motel room in some town like Monroe, La., or Albert Lea, Minn., wondering how on earth I'd landed in such a place, I'd think back to my time in Balboa Bay and ask myself: Why did I leave? Why did I abandon what up to that point had been the best time of my life?
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