A Sustainable Life
All the fishermen in Uganik Bay have a name for their fishing sites. We use the site names for hailing each other on the marine VHF radio and for referring to each other in conversation. Most names are geographically derived; we have East Point, West Point, Cape Uganik, and Broken Point (Tollef's fish site). Others are more whimsical, such as Valhalla (our off season home), Bear Garden, Surf City, Pilgrim, Bartenders, and Eskimo Pie. Instead of referring to each other by first name, we might say, “Hey, we’re having a beach fire with Bartenders and Surf City at Broken. Want to come?”
My site name is Trap Six. It doesn’t really fit the mold. New crew members and visitors always want to know where this odd name came from. My answer is that it’s a historic name that reminds us of the sustainability of our fishery every time we think of it.
Before Alaska became the 49th state, the salmon fishery was carried out, in large part, by out-of-state canneries and businesses that owned the boats and operated industrial fish traps. These traps were highly efficient methods of catching massive amounts of salmon and funneling the money to “outside” corporations. During that time, the place where I now fish was one of those major fish traps, Trap No. Six, in Uganik Bay.
When, in 1959, Alaskans voted for statehood, protection of our resources was a primary focus. Fish traps like Trap Six were outlawed. Alaskans wanted control over the resource and to ensure that individuals and families would be able to sustain themselves. So, in effect, they made salmon fishing inefficient, limiting the size of our boats and nets and the fishing time allowed each season. The state’s founders determined that managing fisheries for sustainability (not for profit, nor sport, nor for political reasons) was important enough to be enshrined in the constitution.
In order to carry out this mandate to manage for sustainability, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game actually counts every single salmon swimming upstream to spawn in our areas. We are not allowed to fish until they have the desired, biologically sustainable numbers of salmon upstream to spawn. Therefore, our fishing time every summer varies based on the numbers of salmon swimming upstream. Sometimes we’ll fish for 3 days on and have 4 days off. Other times we might fish for 40 or more days straight, depending on that season’s run strength. It’s a model for fisheries management that other areas of the world strive to emulate.
And what became of Trap Six after it was no longer legally allowed to operate? The fish trap was dismantled, but individual fishermen still fished by hand with nets and open skiffs off the same rocky spit that had once been covered in pilings and chicken wire. The old “trap shack” on shore was turned into a rough cabin for the fishermen. And the name stuck.
My parents briefly considered changing the name when they bought the site in 1986, but decided to honor its history. After all, the old frame of the trap shack was still part of the cobbled together, tarpaper-covered cabin that came with the site. I for one am so glad they kept the name, because it gives us reason to explain where the world-class fisheries management policies we are so proud of came from.
When we look out the window at Trap Six, we are reminded that, while the sustainability of our fishery is due in large part to the foresight of the state’s founders, our wild salmon stocks are also so healthy and abundant because of Alaska’s vast and pristine habitat. Most of the state is uninhabited and undeveloped. Where Tollef and I fish and live in the offseason, we are surrounded by National Wildlife Refuge lands. There are no roads, no power lines, no cell or telephone service. Above our doorsteps rise the green mountains lush with vegetation; bears, deer, foxes, whales and otters thrive against a backdrop of the ever-changing ocean.
Alaska’s salmon fisheries are world-class, and we are committed to doing everything in our power to keep them that way. It’s hard to imagine a more sustainable way living and of fishing.