Early in this century, the first commercial fleets and packing plants began setting up business along the shores of Bristol Bay, on Alaska's southwest coast. It's still raw country. The town of King Salmon, the closest you can get to the fishery on a commercial flight, is little more than a collection of Quonset huts and barrooms.
I've come here at the height of the sockeye salmon run to solve a bit of a puzzle. Even though it sounds as if the Bristol Bay salmon fishery should be in as much trouble as the Newfoundland cod stocks—after all, the same combination of high technology and economic imperatives apply here too—it is in fact relatively healthy. How did Bristol Bay escape the fate of so many other fisheries?
The couple I've come to visit, a pair of veteran fishermen named Tom and Cate Bursch, take me on an excursion up the Ugashik, one of the rivers that drains from the peninsula into the bay. It's as wide as the Hudson at its mouth, this shallow tidal flow, and in an aluminum skiff you can reach its source, Ugashik Lake, in a couple of hours. There, three young men—two college students and a ski bum—are spending the summer counting fish. Their work is one of the keys to the secret of Bristol Bay.
Every hour, one of them climbs a rickety scaffolding next to the river, sits down on a plank, and stares into the clear water. When he sees the flash of a salmon swimming upstream to spawn, he clicks the clicker in his hand, like the ticket-taker at a high school dance. After 10 minutes he climbs down, returns to his shack, and radios the numbers to Jeff Regnart, a fisheries biologist back in King Salmon.
Regnart's job is fairly simple: to see that enough salmon make it upstream past the fishermen to the spawning grounds to guarantee that there will be a good run when this class returns to spawn four years hence. You don't need all the fish, or even most of them, heading upstream. In a good year, 6 million fish might return to the Ugashik; 700,000 of them are needed for a successful spawn. Regnart and his colleagues derived this "escapement" number from almost a century of experience, and there's a different number for every river in the state. The rest of the fish can go to the boats working in the bay. They're "excess." They're money.
Regnart works out a complicated system of "openings," allowing an hour or two of fishing one day, maybe none the next, maybe six hours the day after that. His afternoon radio announcement of the next day's hours means literally everything to the fishermen waiting in their boats.
Last summer was slow in Bristol Bay. The fish weren't coming back in their expected abundance; the count at the tower was by ones and twos, not 10s and 20s, so the openings were few and far between. The captains who were deep in hock for their boats were getting ulcers. Regnart's job was not to care. 'Our commitment is to get escapement above all," he says. "There's no compromise."