Capturing the Essence of Bristol Bay, Alaska: One Photographer’s Journey
This is me as a little girl, making a frame or viewfinder with my fingers. Every time I see this photo I wonder if I was somehow destined to become a photographer.
Photo courtesy Bri Dwyer.
I first picked up a camera as a teenager, shooting portraits and weddings in Portland, Oregon, where I grew up. But it wasn’t until I moved to Alaska and later began working in the Bristol Bay area that I really took notice of my own skills and the visual storytelling power of photography.
Despite growing up not far from the Pacific coast, I didn’t fully understand the economic and cultural importance of the commercial fishing industry in the Northwest until I lived in Dutch Harbor, Alaska. I quickly became completely immersed in the commercial fishing culture—and the more I became aware of it, the more I wanted to learn, see and understand. I wrote about the brown and tan Xtratuf® boots everyone wore as they sloshed through the gray mud that covers Unalaska. I photographed Captains Bay where the humpback whales shared the water with fishing vessels and cargo ships. And I discovered my completely debilitating seasickness (a misfortune that will haunt me forever as a photographer in this industry).
Dutch Harbor was not only my introduction to commercial fishing—it was where I met my future husband, who encouraged me to adventure further as a photographer. It was also a stepping stone to explore other fishing regions of Alaska, and ultimately led me to Bristol Bay.
The F/V Northwestern loading crab pots in Dutch Harbor, Alaska. Photo by Bri Dwyer.
Gillnet boats drifting for salmon on the Johnson Hill line at the mouth of the Naknek River in Bristol Bay. Photo by Bri Dwyer.
In 2017, I signed up to work for my husband, who was my boyfriend at the time, as a deckhand on the F/V Brenna A for the summer salmon tendering season. I packed up my camera gear without any expectations, and we took the boat from Dutch Harbor to Naknek, Alaska, to tender salmon in Bristol Bay. Working in Bristol Bay—whether you’re a tenderman, fisherman or processor—is a grind. The season is fast and furious, with round-the-clock hours at its peak.
I found small windows of time to pull out my camera between the demanding work and little amount of sleep. The subject in Bristol Bay that truly captivated my attention the most was the people. The sleep deprived, chain smoking “salty dogs.” The young, bubbly, ass-kicking all-female crew. The animated, boisterous Italians who communicate more with hand gestures than words. Then there were the Alaska Native people, whose history and knowledge of this region is invaluable.
The salty crew of the F/V Lady Rose, pulling salmon from their net. Photo by Bri Dwyer.
Reba Temple skippers the F/V Cloud 9 with her all-female crew. Photo by Bri Dwyer.
Three brothers work the deck of the F/V JJ. Their Italian family members and rivals shout and wave from the boat behind. Photo by Bri Dwyer.
The Alaska Native people in Bristol Bayhave deep roots in the commercial fishing community. Photo by Bri Dwyer.
There is a camaraderie rooted in competition that is electric. It’s about money, but more importantly it’s about bragging rights. Significant others operate separate vessels; siblings who work together but also against each other; and parents who pass down wisdom to their children, but who refuse to be outdone by the younger generation. This region and the salmon bring all these people with juxtaposed personalities and diverse backgrounds to this little corner of the world to harvest the wild salmon that return year after year.
Connecting to the salmon is connecting to the heart of Bristol Bay. The fish directly and indirectly feed and nourish the entire region and beyond. From the bears, wolves and eagles to the plants and the local communities—they have all relied on this wild protein for generations. The robust runs have seen returns of 60+ million fish in recent years, accounting for more than 40% of world’s wild sockeye salmon harvest and a fishery valued at over $1.5 billion.
While these numbers are impressive, they aren’t the only reason we should protect Bristol Bay. The value of salmon fishing in Bristol Bay cannot only be measured in pounds and dollars, but also in the quality of human connection. This beautiful and wild place plays host to some of the most genuine, kind and passionate people I have ever met. That’s why I return as a photographer, along with the salmon, every year. I want people to look at my images of these folks and see that for themselves. I want people who will never have the opportunity to visit the Bay to feel connected to the community in some way and to celebrate the season of the salmon the way Alaskans do.
Until recently, I had never experienced the Bay outside of commercial fishing, so learning about this region from a new perspective connected me to more people who call it home for the summer. Once the salmon have skated past the commercial nets, they continue upstream, where they are met by the sport fishing industry. You’ll find hundreds of lodges nested on the banks of the rivers hosting people from around the globe eager to partake in the world-class fishing Bristol Bay has to offer. I was lucky enough to spend time with Kate and Justin Crump who own Frigate Adventure Travel and have recently acquired a lodge of their own, situated on the bank of the Naknek River. Their passion for Bristol Bay is inspiring, and my love for this region was only deepened by their generosity and hospitality. It was my time with them that opened my eyes to the life cycle of the salmon and how important their role is in this ecosystem.
Bay Brooks Lodge. Photo by Bri Dwyer.
When I heard about The Conservation Fund working with the Pedro Bay Corporation, the Bristol Bay Native Corporation and the Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust to protect at-risk land that would impede a road critical to the progress of Pebble Mine, I wanted to get involved and learn more. If Pebble Mine were to become a reality, its footprint would leave a permanent scar on the landscape and there would be an ever-present risk of a mining disaster that would pollute the watershed forever. We can’t let this happen. The Pedro Bay Rivers project, along with federal legislation and Environnmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulatory action, will ensure permanent protection for the land, salmon and other wildlife in the Bristol Bay region, as well as the deeply rooted fishing culture of Alaska.
I want my daughter, born in August 2021, to experience the magic of the bears of Katmai National Park at Brooks Lodge. I want her to fly over the pristine landscape of Bristol Bay in a float plane and land in the river where she can catch her first salmon. I want her to belly laugh with the Italians and learn how to cure salmon in salt while taking part in the largest commercial harvest of sockeye salmon left in the world. I want her to learn from Alaska Natives and honor their amazing history. I want all of these things for her, but they will only happen if we take action now to protect Bristol Bay.
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We have launched a $20 million fundraising effort to make this critical conservation effort a reality.
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In May 2022, the EPA published a Clean Water Act Section 404(c) Proposed Determination to prohibit and restrict the use of certain waters in the Bristol Bay watershed as disposal sites for the discharge of dredged or fill material associated with mining the Pebble Deposit. If finalized, EPA’s Section 404(c) determination would help protect the Bristol Bay watershed’s rivers, streams, and wetlands that support the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery and a subsistence-based way of life that has sustained Alaska Native communities for millennia.
Safeguarding the World’s Most Productive Salmon Fishery by Tim Troll
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