Fishing Lines and Family Ties

The hook is out, but the gaff is in. Photo by Berett Wilber

I wake up groggy, almost hit my head on the fo'c's'le ceiling when I climb up the ladder into the pilot house. When Dad sees me, he says "Hey! Get your rain gear on! We need your help!"

And then ten minutes later, I'm out in the pit, my gloves wrist deep in the belly of a king salmon, no trace of breakfast in sight - not that I would be up for eating it if it was. The fish are pouring in over the side, and I think about my camera, laying abandoned in my bunk. Wasn't that supposed to be my tool here, not gaff hooks and knives? What was I doing covered in fish blood and salt water, in the exact place that, at the ripe old age of 14, I swore I would never come back to?

The Alexa K at anchor. Photo by Berett Wilber

My dad has been a commercial salmon troller out of Sitka, our small town in Southeast Alaska, for the last thirty-four years. Other fisherman recognize me around town sometimes, stop me and shake my hand: "You're Charlie's daughter," they say. "Man. Your dad knows how to catch a fish." The last time he wore a suit was at his own wedding, almost twenty-five years ago: and his tie was shaped like a fish. I did my first stint as a deckhand at age eleven: cleaning and icing before I was actually strong enough to haul a fish aboard myself. My friends from the Lower 48 love this story, impressed by the romance of it all: this makes me feel a lot like I am deceiving them.

I hated fishing. I alternated seasick or bored. And to clarify: there is little romance in being eleven, or setting up a steady rhythm of puking over the side in between cuts. I wanted to escape salmon entirely. I quit fishing, and got a job on dry land. When I left for a college on the other side of the country, I was certain that there was nothing I would miss less than fish, whether spawning in the forest, stacked in the fishold, or cooking on the barbecue.

And then the dreams started. I have always loved the visuals of Southeast Alaska: they're part of why I became a photographer in the first place, but this was overwhelming. Three or four times a week I would close my eyes and I would find the ocean stretching out from the bow of the boat, salmon swimming through the air around me. I doodled salmon in the margins of my notebooks, wrote poems about salmon running upstream, essays on deckhands and sea lions. When I came home, I found myself photographing spawning salmon; the shape of fishing boats; the different colors of the ocean: it all rattled around in my mind, requiring my attention.

It drove me crazy. What was happening? I hated fishing, so how did I feel such a strong connection to salmon? And how could I feel so attached to a community that was economically and environmentally dependent on salmon, especially when I had left it three thousand miles behind?

That question was the reason I found myself back on the deck of the F/V Alexa K, gutting fish before breakfast, back to the place where my grudge against salmon had been instilled in the first place. After eight days of work - cleaning, icing, photographing, and a lot of thinking - I still didn't like fishing. But I realized that just because I didn't want to slay salmon on the high seas, it didn't mean that I could get away from them. The more I thought about it, the easier it became to justify why salmon were important to me, even if I wasn't fishing for them: whether or not I had a gaff in hand, I was born locked in to the salmon cycle of Southeast Alaska.

A good haul. Photo by Berett Wilber

Salmon aren't just my family's livelihood. They're the backbone of our local economy. Southeast Alaska is the world's most productive and valuable salmon fishery in the world. If you were raised in the Tongass National Forest, chances are you're a newcomer to what has been the spawning ground of salmon ancestors for 50 million years. The influence of the salmon that die on the banks each year ranges so far it's impossible to trace them to an end. From fertilizing the forest, to feeding the wildlife, even changing the chemical composition of the soil, dead salmon help create one of the most unique and biodiverse biomes in the world - and they feed everything from Alaska's tourism industry to new generations of fish in the streams.

As a result, salmon are run deep in my conception of my community and my environment. There's a connection I have to the forest and the ocean that feels just as strong when I am thousands of miles away as when I am asleep in a bunk that rests below the waterline of the Pacific. So while my dad trolls for bites and poundage, I look for shots and frames. I can't make anything that would fill a freezer through the winter. But I can still have an affect on the resources on which we both depend: I can share the stories of people who make the Tongass their home, who make fishing their lifestyle. People like my parents. My dad will be the first to tell you - nobody gets rich trolling for salmon. You can only succeed at it if you love it, because otherwise it would drive you insane. But there's a reason that sustainable fisheries were written into Alaska's state constitution: not only do we care about catching fish this year, but we care about being able to catch fish twenty or fifty years from now.

Hauling a salmon aboard. Photo by Berett Wilber

The future of my family, and many families like mine, depend on the fisheries, which depend on the salmon, which depend on the forest. And it's only by making these connections visible to the rest of the world that we can help protect them - to sway federal management of public lands, to make sure logging doesn't ruin salmon habitat, to ensure sustainable catch practices. We're one piece in an environment that has been raising salmon, trees, and people in conjunction for longer than anyone can remember. And even if we seem small in the face of all that ecological history, the importance that comes with being a link in that chain is not one we can take lightly. If everyone made the mistake that I made, if we considered the forest, the fisheries, even our families, disparate parts, each part would suffer the consequences.

Which is why instead of struggling to get away from salmon, I now find myself arguing for them. I don't need to spend all my days on a boat to know that any chance we have to show the connection between the economy and the environment, the fisheries and the forest, is a chance to preserve the place that has always been home. In Southeast Alaska, the people, the fish, and the forest share a future. Just because I'm the world's worst deckhand doesn't mean that I can't help shape it.

Out on the ocean, where we're trolling past cliffs covered in trees, whose roots reach down to the rivers where the salmon spawn each summer, the sun is finally coming up. It's likely that no one has ever set a foot on land here, but it doesn't matter. Even without breakfast, even slightly nauseous, with water stretching to the horizon on three sides - it's impossible to feel isolated. Because that's what salmon do for the people of the Tongass: they make one the planet's most remote corners feel like a home.

Trollers at anchor before the opening. Photo by Berett Wilber

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.

Do your part to
protect
the Tongass

Take Action Become A Member