Archive for August, 2011

Commercial fishing and Pebble

Tuesday, August 16th, 2011
Commercial fishing and Pebble

The latest article in the Anchorage Daily News about the Pebble Mine controversy focuses on an advertising war going on between the people of the region and the Pebble Limited Partnership, a joint venture between a Canadian company, Northern Dynasty, and a British company, Anglo-American, that hopes to build a large copper and gold mine at the headwaters of two of the river systems that feeds into Bristol Bay.  The article discusses radio and television advertising from both sides, which features a young Alaska Native woman from Iliamna on one side, and a whole bunch of people in the region speaking out against her message.

The young woman is a paid spokesman working for Pebble, with family ties to Iliamna Natives Limited, one of the Native corporations that currently enjoys lucrative contracts for support services related to the Pebble exploration.  There are two series of commercials featuring her: one where she shows, by “backpacking,” how far it is from Iliamna to Bristol Bay; the other where she discusses how the Pebble mine would improve the regional economy.  In the economics commercials, she states that while fishing is important to the region, the season only lasts a “few weeks” and discusses how half of the commercial fishing permits belong to outsiders.

In response, opponents of Pebble have put together a series of commercials focusing on how “the Pebble Lady” doesn’t speak for them.  These commercials feature Alaska Natives from various communities in the Bristol Bay region, and focus on either how misleading she is or misinformed she is; or simply, she must be getting paid good money to say what she does.

But the thing I find interesting about the article is how it seems to suggest that the war about Pebble is a war among and between Alaska Natives who live in the region.  On one hand, there are the Alaska Natives who, like the “Pebble Lady,” receive direct, personal financial benefit from the existence of the Pebble project.  On the other hand, there are those Alaska Natives who rely on fish to survive.  The article, and the advertisements themselves, overly simplify who is involved in the dispute.  In all reality, it is not just Natives vs. Natives.  Any visit out to the Bristol Bay region will show that a vast majority of those involved in commercial fishing are against it.

Everett Thompson is a third-generation commercial fisherman and skipper of the F/V Chuleyn.  Of Aleut descent, Everett has lived in Naknek his entire life.  He spent his first season on a drift net boat when he was 7 years old, and has been a skipper for the last 11 years.  He first learned of the Pebble project when he attended a public meeting in Iliamna in 2003.  After attending the presentation, he was open-minded about the project, but decided he needed to learn more.  In the following year while on vacation in Australia, he tried to learn more about how large scale, open pit metals mines operate.  He continued his research in 2005 by researching more about open pit metals mines in North America.  What he learned turned him against the project so much, that by 2007, he was staffing an anti-Pebble booth at the Alaska State Fair in Palmer.  And when he is not conducting public presentations, he is a living spokesperson for the anti-Pebble effort, flying a “No Pebble” flag from his boat while out catching sockeye salmon and passing out anti-Pebble stickers to other fishermen and helping them to be informed about the issues.

Everett is just one specific example; a careful eye will see anti-Pebble stickers all over the place in the Bristol Bay region, on boat masts, cargo containers, and even fish processing facilities.  I spoke to three brothers who each own their own boat, and they are all against the mine.  On my flight back from King Salmon to Anchorage, I sat next to a boat owner on his way home to Seattle.  He, too, was against the mine.  When asked why they are against Pebble, the fishermen, processors, and boat crew members all discuss the type of chemical processes involved in extracting gold and copper, the location of the mine, the sensitivity of the salmon to changes in habitat, and a variety of other issues grounded in science and history.  And while there is definitely emotion behind their answers, that emotion seems to be grounded in informed opinion.  My own observations about the opposition of commercial fisherman to the Pebble Mine development is reflected in a Craciun Research poll that concluded 85% of set netters and drift boat operators were against the mine.

And it is not just commercial fisherman operating in the Bristol Bay region who are against development of the mine.  When I was in Cordova last year, I saw anti-Pebble stickers everywhere, on cars and buildings, even on the front doors to main street businesses.  When I asked one fisherman why so many were against the mine in Cordova, he responded that there is a relationship between the Bristol Bay and Copper River fishermen, that they share in marketing and economic strategies, and that they are each attuned to what affects the other.  And, he responded, if something is bad for one fishery, it is likely bad for another.  If the State of Alaska would permit a massive mine at the headwaters of the Bristol Bay fishery, it would permit anything, anywhere.

From even my own limited experience in the commercial fishing world, I could tell that there were a few things that the “Pebble Lady” had wrong about commercial fishing.  For one thing, she dismisses the value of the fishing season by saying that it only lasts a “few weeks.”  When I was out in Naknek, they were only about halfway through a six-week fishing season.  In any given season, a drift net boat could expect to haul in about 120,000 pounds of sockeye salmon.  When I was out there, the processors had not yet announced what they would pay for a pound.  But, for sake of argument, let’s say the processors had set the rate at $1.20 per pound.  Most processors offered incentives for chilling and bleeding fish, offering as much as an extra ten cents per pound.  That means, the processors would be paying $1.30 per pound.  From the various skippers I spoke to, the cost of operating for a season, including fuel and maintenance, was around $30,000.  Most boats had two crewmen, being paid a percentage based on their years of experience.  Most of the crewmen I encountered were young or in college, working as crewmen only as a summer job.  Thus, in an average year, a boat captain could clear around $80,000 in a typical season, after paying for expenses and crew wages.  While it may only be a “few weeks,” I am sure that most Americans would not consider $80,000 a miniscule amount for an income.  And that is just from fishing for sockeye salmon.  Many skippers capture other species of fish in other fishing seasons throughout the year.

The other thing I learned that provided insight into one of the Pebble Lady’s claims related to the number of drift permits held by outsiders; that is, those from outside of Alaska.  For one thing, it is quite true that many permits are held by people from outside of Alaska, from Seattle to even Boston.  I encountered several boat skippers who were from the Seattle area in particular.  But I asked around and I learned why this was.  After statehood, a certain number of permits were issued to area residents, providing them economic opportunity and a means of providing for their families and communities.  But not everyone is a fisherman, and not everyone is a business man.  Many of these area residents took the opportunity to make some money by selling their permits.  The value of the permit depends on the perceived and projected value of the fishery going into the season.  In a good year, a drift permit could be worth as much as $150,000.  Thus, these local residents merely did what many people would do: liquidate a valuable asset to provide cash for the family, either to reinvest or use as income for the family.  And while many drift permits may be held by outsiders, that does not mean that all drift boat jobs go to outsiders.  It merely means that the business owners themselves are outsiders.   And that is no different from the Pebble Partnership, owned by Canadian and British companies.


What does it take?

Thursday, August 11th, 2011

I have to thank Art Wolfe for sharing the following quotation today on his Facebook page:

“A photographer went to a socialite party in New York. As he entered the front door, the host said ‘I love your pictures – they’re wonderful; you must have a fantastic camera.’ He said nothing until dinner was finished, then: ‘That was a wonderful dinner; you must have a terrific stove.'”  –Sam Haskins

This quotation says a great deal about how little people understand what it takes to “get the shot” or to even be a good photographer in general.  Whenever I teach a class or conduct a workshop, one of the things that I frequently stress is that it really does not matter what sort of camera you own; taking good photos requires being able to see and understand how cameras see light.  But this understanding is only the bare basics of how one can create good compositions and capture the correct exposure.

Creating a good photo requires yet even more.  It is one thing to learn how to visualize the world around you and understand how our eyes see light differently than cameras.  It is another thing to actually be out there, to be out on location at the right time to actually create a strong image.

For example, I would like to tell the story of my photo, “Wolf Tracks on Ice.”  The photo was captured on the North Fork of the Koyukuk River in Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve.  To get there, I drove to Fairbanks, which, in the winter, is about an eight hour drive.  From there, I flew in a Cessna 185 to the remote town of Bettles, which is only accessible by river or air; there is no road into the town.  The morning after I arrived, we loaded up the base camp equipment into the plane so it could be flown out to the base camp location on a sheet of auf eis on the North Fork of the Koyukuk.  When the pilot, Park Ranger Seth McMillan, returned, we loaded up the dog team, and the park ranger who was also the team musher, Zak Richter, headed out with his team to set them up at camp.  Once those two flights were completed, there was no more flying for the day; winter days are short in the Arctic.

The next day, I waited most of the day for the fierce winds to calm down so Seth could take me out to the base camp.  Winds finally calmed down enough to allow us to take off, but on the way there, we hit several wind pockets that made me, for the first time, put down my camera and simply hold on.  We arrived only an hour or so before sunset.  The next day, Zak and I headed out with the team to scout the river and break some trail.  We stopped to give the team a break on an open patch of ice on the river.  I was deep in the midst of a 9.4 million acre wilderness, and probably, along with Zak, one of only two people in the park that day.  It was during this break that I found the pattern of wolf tracks imprinted in snow on the sheer ice as I wandered around, exploring the frozen river.  And I only found them because of extraordinary logistical convergences and my ability to see compositions.

But the ability to see and capture images by being out on location is only one part of how photographers are simply not understood, or appreciated.  People generally lack an understanding about the business of photography.  That is, people do not generally understand what lays behind the prices that photographers place on their finished product.

To illustrate this point, I will share a story about an older woman who came into my gallery one day a few years back.  She came into the gallery, I greeted her, and she proceeded to browse the flip bin containing some matted, but not framed, prints.  She pulled out a photo of a bear fishing for sockeye salmon at Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park & Preserve, examined it, looked at the price, and then turned to me and stated: “Fifty dollars.  That’s too much.”  Responding with perhaps what was not the most customer-service-oriented assertion, I said, “Well ma’am, if you can fly out to Katmai National Park and take that photo for less than fifty dollars, more power to ya.”

The most common way to get to Katmai’s Brooks Camp is via King Salmon.  Air fare from Anchorage to King Salmon is about $580.  Yes, that’s $580 for a 40-minute flight.  Then, you need to catch an air taxi out to Naknek Lake, which runs about another $200.  While you can just do a day trip out there, it makes little sense to spend that much money and only stay an afternoon.  It also decreases your chances of actually capturing a satisfying image.  So, let’s say you might stay for three nights.  You have two lodging options.  You can stay at the Brooks Lodge or you can tent camp.  Rates at the lodge run $1,600 for three nights’ minimum for double occupancy.   Of course, I always stay at the tent camping area, which is only $15 per night, but puts you out in the open with nothing separating you from the bears but a vinyl wall and an electric fence surrounding the camp area.

And let’s not forget that I actually had a camera that captured the photo.  I used a Nikon F100 with Provia 100F film and my Nikon 500mm f/4.0 lens for the shot in question.  Luckily for me, I purchased the equipment used from another photographer, but it still cost me $3,000.  Then there were the actual costs of creating the print and matting it, but also the regular ongoing overhead that any photographer experiences in a business.  Fortunately, at the time, my gallery location had some rather low rent compared to other downtown locations.

Yet, I doubt that any of this occurred to the woman when she commented on my pricing.  It’s not her fault, though; I think it is fair to say that very few of us ever think of what it takes to create any given type of product, whether artistic or otherwise.  But, perhaps we should think more about what it takes.


A fishing family

Tuesday, August 9th, 2011
A fishing family

When you enter the home of Violet Willson in Naknek, you feel like you are visiting your own grandmother.  At least, that is how I felt, and suspect many other visitors to her home feel; especially if you are one of her 21 grandchildren.  Even though I was a guest at her B&B, the A Little House Bed & Breakfast, I was treated more like family.  She regularly offered her freshly baked bread to me, invited me to join the family in meals, and shared freely with me stories about her life in the Bristol Bay region.  A fisherman for 51 years before she finally stopped fishing, Violet has created a legacy that has left its mark on the fishing community in Naknek.

In the winter of 1955, as delegates were gathering in Fairbanks to craft the constitution for Alaska, Violet was working as a winter watchman for Columbia Ward Fisheries at the Bumblebee Cannery in Naknek. After marrying Guy Groat, Jr., she lived near the Branch River.  The family moved later to South Naknek, and eventually over to Naknek.  She raised her family on fishing, earning a living as a commercial fisherman, ultimately working for Ocean Beauty for the last twenty years of her career, and bringing in additional fish to feed her family through a subsistence lifestyle.

I met several of her grandchildren while in Naknek, and saw how her legacy has lived on in their lives.  Her granddaughter, Carmill, and her husband, LouDell, were my first introduction.  Carmill works part-time at the small processing company Naknek Family Fisheries, which was established five years ago by yet another of Violet’s granddaughters, Izetta.  Carmill was “teethed on salmon jerky,” and started to learn about fishing as far back as she can remember, and still learns to this day from her grandmother.  LouDell works on two set net sites in Naknek, at the mouth of the river, that belong to other family members.

Rhonda, another of Violet’s granddaughters, is one of those family members.  I caught a ride with LouDell on my first evening in Naknek to go down to the beach cabin to meet Rhonda and wait for time to head out to pick the set nets.  Rhonda started fishing on the west side of the Bay, the Kvichak side, when she was seven years old, and fished there until she was fifteen.  She, along with her husband Paul and son, work two set net sites in the summer, contributing some of their catch to Ocean Beauty and some to Naknek Family Fisheries, where she, along with her brother and mother, is an investor.

Rhonda’s brother, Everett, is a drift boat captain.  The skipper of the Chulyen (Athabaskan for “raven”) for eleven years, Everett has been fishing since he was 7 years old, when he spent his first season on a drift boat.  He had a set net permit in his name by the time he was 11, was running his own set net operation as a teenager, and owned his own drift net permit by the time he was 21.  Working early in the fishing industry allowed him to pay for his own braces, four wheelers, and other needs and amenities while growing up in Naknek.

Everett’s sister Izetta is the mastermind behind the Naknek Family Fisheries.  A law school graduate and associate professor for the University of Alaska in Dillingham, Izetta founded Naknek Family Fisheries in 2006 and began processing a year later.  She and her husband Chet work side by side processing and preparing orders.  Exposure to her grandmother’s work as a fisherman and at the cannery got her interested in the work and exposed her to the idea that there could be a market for an independent processor.  Her vision for the family fishery is to provide an alternative marketing method for area fisherman, so that they are not all beholden to the large processors.  She noticed growing up that fisherman always treated the fish for their family better than what was heading to the commercial processors, and wanted to preserve that sense of quality.  Another goal is to ensure that all parts of the fish are used.  Once the filets are cut, the spine meat is trimmed out to be turned into jerky and salmon burger, and the trimmed-out bellies are kept and marketed as a separate, niche product.  Whatever waste is left over is ground up and used as fertilizer at the family farm.

The more time I spent out in Naknek, the more I came to realize that this multi-generational aspect of fishing is part of the lifestyle.  I spent time on two other boats, the N20 and Curragh, that are two of three boats owned by brothers, who came into the business because of their father’s work at a processor.  A Digital Observer (quality control specialist) I spoke to from Ocean Beauty was out there because of her sister.  Pretty much everyone I spoke to was there because of influence of a family member – they were raised in the fishing life or introduced to it by someone else in the family.

And while the Groat family (Violet raised five of her seven children with her first husband) may not be unusual in that fishing is part of the family life, it is certainly extraordinary in the breadth and depth of its involvement in fishing.  Four generations of fisherman, a drift boat captain, set nets, and a family processing facility certainly makes the Groat family stand out in the Naknek community.