Saturday, February 4, 2012

Living In The Sticks-Naknek River Subsistence Fishing

What do you do when there's no movie theater, few restaurants (two of which are only open in the summer) and just a grocery store where you live? You get creative, and you go outside and enjoy what nature has to offer. In King Salmon, Alaska that's the Naknek River. The Naknek River has five species of salmon that make an annual one way trip. The Naknek is the lifeblood of two communities; King Salmon and Naknek. In Naknek an enormous commercial fishing fleet harvests upwards of nine million Sockeye Salmon every year. Many locals are involved in the harvest, processing and logistics of this industry.

Along with the commercial harvest there is also subsistence harvest. For local bush residents this is means food for the winter. A winter that begins to show it's face in September and might be considered over some time in May. Some families put up and preserve a hundred salmon or more. The fish are harvested with a gill net, which is just as it sounds. Salmon swim into the net and are caught there by their gills. The whole process has become a form of community entertainment as much as it is work. Families and friends gather, working as a team to complete the task. The first thing you have to do is get your permit from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. With permit in hand, and your net in the back of the truck, you head for the fishing area on the Naknek River. The net is anchored perpendicular to the beach at low tide. While waiting for the tide and the fish some have a BBQ, others scurry about town running errands, and if it's an evening tide some just sleep. As fish hit the nets the wader-wearing fishermen gather them in totes. When people have enough fish for the day the net is pulled out of the water, and the work really starts. Fillet knives, knife sharpeners and vacuum packers come out. The Sockeye and King Salmon are preserved in a variety of ways. Some salmon are frozen whole, some are filleted and others are just headed and gutted. After the initial processing different products like smoked salmon are made. Another popular way to store fish is canning, some of which has been previously smoked. Everyone ends up with a diverse selection of products. When salmon makes up such a big part of your diet, variety is important. Many have their secret smoking recipe and with some it really is a guarded family secret. There are probably as many smoked fish recipes as there are people in the bush. Living in a place where groceries are expensive, it's nice to know you have all this high quality fish at home. When I say groceries are expensive I'm talking about $9.00 a gallon milk. A loaf of bread is $5.00 or $6.00 and it's not some fancy artisan bread. I'm talking about run of the mill white bread. When all the the smoking, canning, and freezing is done you can relax knowing you are not going to starve. You might get tired of salmon, but you're not going to starve.

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