Yesterday’s topic of the day was fish, which only seems appropriate, considering the people in Bethel live off of fish.
I mean that quite literally. We’ve seen this theme, living off of the fish one works hard to catch, in many of our interviews. In fact, subsistence and the king salmon fishing restrictions are the main focus of our documentary.
I heard the impact of the fishing restrictions on subsistence lifestyles today at a town hall-style meeting. It was hosted by the Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group, a group that makes recommendations about fishing and listens to villagers’ and city residents’ issues caused by the restrictions.
I heard lots of comments about fear of starvation and eventual death because of the restrictions. Villagers, who live both upstream and downstream, are concerned that there are no fish on their drying racks. (After a fish is caught, it is cut and then hung to dry.) One man started to yell, accusing the members that they have fish on their racks but they don’t seem to care about those who have caught nothing.
One man went so far to “guarantee” that if the restrictions continue, lives will be in danger. He stated that people were going out with riffles. (We think he means people are attempting to shoot at Alaska State Troopers who patrol and see what people are catching, making sure they are not catching king salmon.)
We stayed for three hours of the discussion, and none of us knew how long the meeting actually lasted. We had to leave because we had a potluck dinner at the church.
Yesterday morning, the C-team got to go out on a boat with a true fisherman (it was arranged because we didn’t get to go on other adventures earlier in our trip). I was freezing. I had five sweatshirts, two layers of socks, a hat and gloves on, but my toes and fingers were still frozen by the end.
Despite the cold, it was a really cool experience. Tad, the fisherman, was going out to check his net as well as his brother-in-law’s nets. He checks them twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening.
He probably caught between a dozen to 20 fish in his nets. The majority of them were red salmon.
He pulled his net out of the water little by little. When he came across a fish, he untangled the fish from the net. (I tried to suppress my squeals as I saw a fin or gill move.) As the fish fell to the ground of the boat, he put his pointer and middle fingers in the gills of the fish and broke them, causing the fish to bleed out of its gills. He threw them one by one in a bucket full of water.
He threw two fish on top of the bucket, explaining he would feed those fish to the dogs. These fish were rotten; they were previously caught in a net and had escaped only to run into his net.
I have to admit seeing a bucket full of fish and blood was pretty gross at times, but seeing part of the process of preparing fish is probably something I won’t ever see again.
I think back to yesterday, to the fisherman, to the commitment and effort he has to put in in order to catch food for himself and his family and how he goes through that process twice a day. It certainly made me appreciate the fish I was fed at the potluck. (The hard work the fishermen put in definitely pays off; the salmon here is absolutely amazing, by the way.) It also makes me fearful that I’m going to have a hard time going back to eating my mom’s salmon, which is bought at the grocery store.