I’ve been working on a long-term photo documentary of the commercial fishery in Bristol Bay since 2007. This year will be my sixth year to return to the Bristol Bay watershed to both photograph and work as a commercial fisherman. It is by far one of the most intense fisheries I have had the pleasure to both photograph and work in. The level of camaraderie in the drift gillnet fleet is anything but friendly most of the time. It is such a high stakes bravado style fishery that few friendships are formed over the course of a season. If anything, more notes are being taken on who just corked you, than who gave you a few extra feet or seconds in your hook for that open line shot. Code groups, groups of fishermen who talk to each other using scrambled radio transceivers, are the closest thing the drift fleet has to friendly exchanges between boats. All the while as the drift fleet battles out each set; setnetters, or as we refer to them Mud People, have a true sense of community and a shared experience in their day-to-day fishing.
Commercial setnet sites dot the shorelines throughout Bristol Bay, from the mouth of Ugashik to the banks of the Nushagak. Their existence can certainly be a lonely and cold endeavor in some of the more remote areas of the region. However, a number of smaller collectives of fishermen exist throughout the watershed. In 2009 I had the great fortune to spend a little over a week with Jon Broderick and his boys at Nushagak Point documenting the beginning of their fishing season. Jon is one of the founders of the Fisherpoet festival in Astoria, OR (http://www.clatsopcc.edu/community/fisherpoets-gathering) and a longtime Alaskan gillnetter.
Jon’s existence is a seasonal one that yo-yos between being a teacher and a fisherman, and I think at all times he’s singing and writing fishing ditties in his head. His normally clean-shaven jaw line makes way to perpetual stubble, which eventually settles its way into a beard as the season wears to a close. His moderate build and height disguises a very certain temerity that only years of experience fishing in Alaskan waters can instill. His four boys Peter, Max, Perry, and Henry have been steeped in the summer salt mist and mud of Nushagak Point from their earliest years. Each has their own distinctive attitude about fishing and the time that they spend there. To quote a longtime Nushgak Point fisherman, and self-proclaimed mayor of that stretch of beach, Curt “Ole” Olson, “Jon isn’t fishing with four crewmembers… he’s fishing with four captains. Each of his boys could run their own operation.”
My time with Jon and his boys was bitter sweet. They completely endeared me to the setnetting existence in the mud. They have vast land and waters to explore, and cabins to return to at the end of their long days. Their cabins are simple affairs of 2×4 and plywood construction, the region’s notorious winter storms can drag a cabin miles down the beach; only to have to be drug back the next season. They work long days in open skiffs, returning to the same stretch of beach day-after-day. Some of their sites require the near constant moving of the net to anticipate the ebb and flow of the colossal tidal swings. It is a tough and at times dismal reality, which harkens back to the more romantic and less technologically developed fisheries of the past, albeit no less rewarding or challenging in the endeavor of harvesting fish from the sea.
The experience I had at Nushagak Point is by far one of my fondest memories of the Bristol Bay commercial fishery, and will forever endear me to Mud People.