A new group formed by the Alaska Humanities Forum is looking to change the conversation about salmon. A group of 16 Salmon Fellows, who represent just about every kind of fishing interest from just about every part of the state, met in Kenai over the weekend for the first in a series of gatherings over next year and a half.
I met with a few of them out at the Cannery Lodge as they were wrapping up a second day of workshops. The goals of the group are a bit nebulous. There are no policy proposals, no action plans, no agendas. Just an opportunity for people who are connected to the state’s third largest industry to get together and talk...about why salmon are so essential to the culture, economy and families, of Alaska.
Jessica Black, Fort Yukon/Fairbanks
Shaylon Cochran How did you find out about this program and why did you want to be a part of it?
JB Some of my colleagues that I do research with and also just in the salmon world sent me the flier, and I was really intrigued because it was an opportunity to push the envelope of my own thinking with different people with different interests coming into one room for a good, substantial time together. That’s not something I would normally gravitate to and I thought in order to make good change in our state regarding salmon we have to enter into conversations that are sometimes hard to have and also with people that don’t always agree with our opinions.
As we have these conversations, I’m trying to stay open because I am really here to learn. But I come from a traditional hunting and fishing background. That is my passion and my background and my upbringing. It’s where I learned to be a Gwich’in person, so it’s all centered around values, sharing and caring and respect for elders. But here, my intention is not to advocate for my position as much as it is to just listen to other opinions and try to find shared understanding as we move forward.
SC What are you hoping to see at the end of a year and a half?
JB I’m hoping to see us come to a shared understanding on how to move forward with management that is responsive to everybody so there’s equity in management so we can sustain our salmon populations for eternity. So that’s what my goal is and I have a goal for the next seven generations and I hope that’s reflected in some of the decisions we make.
Christina Salmon, Igiugig
Whether you’re a sports fisherman, commercial fisherman, subsistence, even in our group visits today, a lot of our stories, probably 95 percent of our stories, went back to family and fish. We had to talk about our happiest moments that are fish related and almost all of us went back to commercial fishing or setnetting or subsistence with your entire family, there was never one (specific) favorite. They’re all kind of a favorite.
SC Everyone is here for the same reason.
CS We are. We all sat across the table from each other maybe at different times in our lives maybe for different reasons, but salmon has always been that focus. It’s the international language of Alaska. I know we’re not international, but it is the Alaska language and everyone has a way to relate to salmon. Whether you’re in the mining industry or the park service, everybody or most any position you have in this state, you can go back to salmon.
SC When you think about allocation issues, environmental issues, it can be easy to let yourself go down that dark road of “it’s not working so well.” Is it tough to stay positive and is that a key to success for this group, whatever success is?
CS I wouldn’t call it a challenge to stay positive, but salmon is so close to home to so many people. I find myself totally wrapped up emotionally in salmon and causes and beliefs that I have that I often times have to remove myself from a situation and step back and look at it because anything that you’re very passionate about, you know, tempers flare and there are things that you can’t control because they mean so much to you and your entire livelihood. I never feel negative about it, but I feel overwhelmed at times. Especially if you’re dealing with big issues, like in our region it’s the proposed Pebble Mine. It’s hard to keep yourself in check. If the salmon were to go away, we wouldn’t have a reason to live in Igiugig anymore.
Kevin Maier, Juneau
I teach English at the University of Alaska Southeast. In the summers I work as a fly-fishing guide at Bear Creek Outfitters.
I grew up in Washington state fishing with my grandparents as everyone sort of does in western Washington. I’m a child of the 80’s and that was a moment when the salmon stocks pretty rapidly declined in Washington and we lost them, basically. I didn’t fish for most of my teens and I found it again in college, but it’s been a sort of diminished thing, so I feel like I’ve spent my entire life thinking about why I didn’t get to go fishing with my grandparents, and doing everything I can to make sure my kids have an opportunity to fish. This seemed like a good opportunity to make that happen.
SC You go to meetings and there are forums and meetings about management, science, culture and history. These things all tend to exist separately, but here, they’re all together.
KM I think that one of the things I’m really excited about here is getting to know everyone here and realizing that in a lot of ways, I’m the outsider having grown up in Washington and having a narrative of loss when it comes to salmon, rather than one of abundance. Although, I’m finding that that’s even more common in Alaska that people are feeling a sense of anxiety and loss over their own relationship to salmon. But I love that there’s significant indigenous representation, significant representation from all those different elements. But everyone seems committed to story as a way to solve problems.
SC I have to imagine each one of these sessions and each day of these sessions is going to offer ample opportunities to learn. What have you learned?
KM The most important lesson from the first day and a half is that we all have a relationship to salmon. In almost every case, there’s an element of joy and respect for this wild animal that becomes food, that becomes culture, identity. Everybody sitting in that room has that relationship to salmon, although it’s from all different angles. So you get 16 perspectives circling in on one shared interest and one shared joy. That’s something I think I intuitively knew, but a wonderful thing to learn and realize. People just really care bout it.