This past April, I gave a talk about salmon at the annual Slow Fish Event. It tells the story of how I came to be a fisherman and what Bristol Bay means to me. Here’s a loose transcript:
I’ve been a fisher person in Bristol Bay since 2006 and also have a company called The Gypsy Fish Company with which I am lucky enough to be able to bring salmon from Bristol Bay directly to customers in California. It’s amazing stuff and I feel so lucky to share this with my community at large.
Unlike my friend, Melanie, who was born into a fishing tradition. I was born in Central New York to immigrant Chinese parents and, like any good Chinese family, I was good at math, played the piano and my parents fully expected myself and my brothers to become a doctor, lawyer or an engineer like my father.
I first found myself in Alaska when I was nineteen years old. It was the summer after my first year at some la dee dah college and I had passed on the summer job that my scholarship afforded me and had journeyed up to Alaska to see if I could find my way onto a boat. I knew nothing but had read a heavy dose of Jack London when I was in junior high and maybe needed to experience life beyond the shadow of familial expectations. I hitchhiked until I reached Seward, Alaska. I had very little money. Maybe I was shoplifting cheese from the Eagle grocery store to fancy up the black bean burritos which I made for myself every day in my tent where I hid out from the rain.
Twice a day I would walk into town and approach fishing boats asking for work. My Carhaarts were still brown and stiff and I could grow even less facial hair than I can now but I had no choice but to persist and eventually I got hired on a seiner that fished in Lower Cook Inlet and then jumped to another boat that fished in Prince William Sound.
It was a summer of firsts. The first time that I had worked aboard a boat. The first time that I had a seen a man the day after he was hit in the face with an axe. The first time I had a gun pointed at me with intent. The first time that I had ever shot a gun (without intent).
Most importantly, it was the first time that I had done something beyond what my parents could have ever imagined. Most of my experiences that summer, I couldn’t even tell my parents about.
What did you do this summer, Chris? I hitchhiked until I ran out of money, got a job, it was on a fishing boat. Made some money. Oh, you must have had to work hard. Did you make sure you got enough to eat and sleep? Yeah. Ok, good.
I kept going back to Alaska every summer after that and it was while there that I started to hear about Bristol Bay.
But, anytime folks would talk about how hot the fishing was up there, it’d be quickly followed by – yeah, but those guys are animals. So I avoided the Bay and kept seining around PWS, Lower Cook Inlet and Kodiak.
After college, I moved on to working on traditional rigged sailboats, became a chef, worked in social justice and environmental issues. My mom still looks at me funny sometimes and wonders where she could have gone so wrong.
I was somewhere in the tropics after private chef gig on a yacht and I ran into a fellow in the surf who told me that he was a fisherman in Alaska. Oh cool, I used to do that. Where do you fish? Bristol Bay.
Oh man, I heard you guys are animals.
Yeah. And my boats pretty small too.
Tyone Raymond is one of the toughest guys that I know. He has since upgraded but his boat the Cash Flow was notorious for both it’s productivity and how spartan the living conditions were. The Flowie was pretty much an open skiff with a tiny compartment with enough headroom for one person to be sitting up in. You were either lying down in there or making food. Sometimes we would deliver our fish and the tendermen would look over at our boat and be like, where do you guys sleep? Well, we kind of don’t.
I’m sure you’ve heard that Bristol Bay is home to the largest wild salmon run in the world. The thing that they don’t say is that that salmon run usually hits in a peak of about 10 – 18 days. Most of those 50 million fish are caught within a very small window of time. And, because of that concentration, there’s a point in the summer where one weighs sleep against the mint of fish that is swimming by your hull. They are not waiting for you to rest. So you push.
That first summer fishing with Tyone, I had never spent a sustained period of time colder or wetter than then. To be on deck was to be exposed the elements. I can remember being soggy and clinging to the line that ran into the expansions tank trying to draw warmth from the coolant that ran through the line. When we finished the season, I felt that I had never pushed myself farther mentally or physically. It was almost as if I had been through a rite of purification.
When 8 months later, he asked me if I wanted to do it again. I said, YES. And I’ve been going back ever since. I’m fully aligned with the quality of the management strategy that have been used to keep this resource sustainable. The salmon coming out of the region is nutrient dense and incredibly delicious.
Because of the brevity of the season, there’s so much
Move with the salmon. Every summer, just as the salmon come home, we return from far a field and join them in some sort of rite of purification. We follow that rhythm and move with the tides and this resource provides nourishment for us for the rest of the year. I mean how lucky are we.
When you take a bite of Bristol Bay salmon, you are taking a communion with the wild. This animal that was born in a pure stream, ranged widely through the vast Pacific, harvested ocean proteins and then returned to shore to push up these rivers and spawn. Like the salmon, we fisherfolk return to Bristol Bay each year and partake in this ritual where the salmon gives it body to recreate and also to provide sustenance for the earth.
I first went to Alaska when I was 19 years old. I had grown up in Central New York, still wet behind the ears, followed a deep yearning for something other than the suburbs. I hitchhiked until I ran dangerous low on money and ended up in Seward, Alaska where I walked the docks looking for deckhand work amongst the commercial fleet.
It was a summer of firsts. My first job on a boat, the first extended trip away from home, the first time I saw someone who had gotten struck in the face with the business end of an axe, the first time I shot a gun, the first time I had a gun pointed at me with intent….
Most of all it was the first time that I had done something so beyond my immigrant parents scope of understanding or imagination that I no longer expected them to understand me. I had become an adult.
This first taste kept me coming back for more and I returned to Alaska every summer until I finished college.
After college, I kept going back to sea but this time on traditional rigged sail boats. Tall ships. I became a chef and then started working on yachts. Clients picked me up and I started to travel and live with them as a private chef.
It was on a respite from one of these private jobs that I met an interesting fellow in the surf in Mexico. He told me he was a fisherman in Bristol Bay and offered me a job. Bristol Bay had always had a mystique about it when I was fishing. The fishing up there was legendary both for abundance and how intensely grueling it was.
I considered myself pretty salty by then. I had sailed throughout the North Atlantic and Caribbean and covered the Pacific from Alaska to Tahiti. I knew how to work hard so how hard could it be?
Tyone’s boat The Cash Flow was a tiny little thing. A converted herring skiff, the three of us slept in the bow of the boat which was barely tall enough for one person to sit upright in. On deck, there was no where to get out of the elements. It was the coldest, wettest summer that I had ever spent. But Tyone, born and bred into the fishery was both a tough bastard and really fishy. We caught a lot of fish.
When people talk about salmon from Bristol Bay, they often will talk about the abundance. It’s massive. What they don’t always mention is how this abundance pours up into the rivers in such a concentrated period of time. At peak production, as fisherfolk, you really have to manage your sleep carefully or else you will miss out.
I had never spent a summer colder or wetter or more tired than that summer. So, eight months later, when Tyone asked me if I wanted to come back. I said, “Of course!”.
As I chef, I had become turned on the ideas of food security and sustainability and fishing in Bristol Bay aligned perfectly with my belief system. The management strategy is the gold standard for a sustainable managed, wild fishery. If we don’t fuck it up, these salmon will continue to feed us and the natural environs for generations to come.
So we move with the salmon. Every summer, just as the salmon come home, we return from far afield and join them in some sort of rite of purification. We follow that rhythm and move with the tides and work ourselves beyond exhaustion just as those salmon are exhausting themselves to spawn. We know that this resource provides nourishment for us for the rest of the year.
When you take a bite of Bristol Bay salmon, you are taking a communion with the wild. This animal that was born in a pure stream, ranged widely through the vast Pacific, harvested ocean proteins and then returned to shore to push up these rivers and spawn. Like the salmon, we fisherfolk return to Bristol Bay each year and partake in this ritual where, in the true sense of communion, the salmon gives it body to procreate and also to provide sustenance for the ecosystem.