What is the state of fish in Alaska?
How is it different from when you first started commercial fishing there?
When I got my start commercial fishing in Bristol Bay back in 1995, the Kvichak River was on a downhill slide and sockeye salmon weren’t returning in huge numbers like they used to. The river was mostly shut down to commercial fishing for short of a decade. Some blamed overfishing, others blamed high seas international poaching, and others blamed natural cycles and ocean conditions unrelated to human activity.
But the science didn’t add up for the overfishing case. As it turned out, catching more fish on their way to spawn seemed to produce healthier, more successful babies for the salmon that did make it to their spawning grounds. Lately, commercial fishermen harvest about 50-70% of all the salmon returning to Bristol Bay, and this year we had the largest return of salmon since records began in 1893. That said, in other parts of Alaska, this year several rivers like the famous Copper River saw a near collapse of sockeye salmon returning to their native spawning grounds and no one can say for sure what happened. Other fish stocks such as halibut, pollock, and crab go through huge boom and bust cycles naturally.
Climate change is tripping me out though. Trees are growing large around our fish camp when it was once only frozen tundra. I remember digging an outhouse back in 1995, peeling back the tundra to find only frozen earth. I’d chip at it daily with a pickaxe and letting the sun thaw it inch by inch. This summer, we dug a new outhouse hole and were 10 feet deep in the warm ground in just a couple hours. There also seems to be an affect on run timing, this past summer the fish showed up 2-3 weeks later then ever before. We are entering an era of unpredictability and for the fish, only time will tell.
What thoughts flow through your mind when you step onto a fishing vessel now?
I think about what the tide is doing, how fast it is, what stage it’s at, and how high it will it go. I think about how the fish are swimming with the current during the flood tide and against the current in the ebb tide. Fish stack up on the ebb, and they push through hard on the flood. I think about the placement of my nets and how long it will take to pull the fish in before the tide empties out. I wonder if I have too much net out or too little. I wonder if the beluga whales are here because there are a lot of fish offshore. I think of a lot of things that have nothing to do with computers and email and iPhones. I feel connected to the living systems on Earth and I think of how lucky I am to experience this.
How did you find a way to combine your love of fishing and photography?
I was doing both for many years and never really thought about combining the two. For my first five summers of commercial fishing, I was just fishing, and have few photos to prove it. I was going to art school in San Francisco around that same time making conceptual “art school” kinda work like black and white abandoned buildings, friends naked, homeless people, dolls…things that people do when in art school.
But after many years of fishing and coming back with dramatic stories of nearly sinking, bear encounters, and screamer captains—stories that were so different than what my friends back home could relate to—I started to think about turning my fishing work into a long-term photo project, maybe even a lifelong project.
I wanted to document the world of commercial fishing in a not-so-typically documentary sort of way by being more playful, more abstract at times, and focused on the experience of what it feels like to be at sea or in a remote fish camp rather than the more literal act of fishing. So in 2002, I found a job on a small cod jigging boat in the Bering Sea for two months, and that’s when I spooned my first cod.
What are some of the most profound moments you’ve caught photos of?
Lately I’ve been photographing the sea but with some sort of interruption of fishing gear slicing through the frame. I spent some time on pollock trawlers in the Bering Sea and was floored by the complexity and massive scale of the gear being used. There was a such a dramatic battle of force between the waves and dozens of strands of colored lines tearing through the water as the net came to the surface, then a half a million pounds of fish would burst to the surface in a giant log snaking into the horizon.
Another favorite is a portrait I made of my friend Ben giggling and hugging a big bloody king salmon at Graveyard Point some years ago. There is an incredible amount of blood pouring out of the fish. But for me, it says something about our complicated relationship with the fish we love and kill for a living.
What would be a dream story assignment for you?
I’ve always wanted to spend time in the Faroe Islands, Greenland, and Russia, photographing the far reaches of commercial fishing in the high North. I’m really interested in seeing for myself the state of fish in these underreported regions.
How’s life going in the abandoned cannery you live in called Graveyard Point?
Graveyard Point is a very special experimental temporary community of salmon fishermen that pops up every summer in Bristol Bay. It was abandoned as a fish factory in the 50s and since was taken over by the setnetters that have fishing sites nearby. It’s a melting pot of characters from all walks of American life who take shelter in the rusted and rotting carcass of the old cannery buildings.
There are about 60 permit holders with small aluminum boats and their crews who sleep at Graveyard, and deliver their catch to “tenders” or fish buyers who anchor in large boats nearby. Graveyard is a dirty place with a lot of unshowered, sleepless fishermen wandering the old wooden pathways, trying to avoid huge brown bears and keeping their skiffs afloat during storms and 25-foot tide changes. Cell phones don’t work very well at Graveyard and there are probably at least eight million mosquitos that also live there. It’s a work paradise.
You’ve been fishing since you were a little kid, are there any lessons you learned that have help shape the man you are today? Or in other words, what have the fish taught you?
I’ve learned to be a responsible human, to care about quality and sustainability and renewable systems. I’ve learned that the experience of life at sea is a privilege. I have more empathy for taking the lives of fish. I’m thankful for their sacrifice. I’ve also learned the value of suffering and how it makes life on shore that much more rewarding in the offseason. The fish have taught me patience and sacrifice. They nourish my soul.