At once routine and astonishing, and even more astonishing for being routine, the summer sockeye run has started. Monitors at Port Moller, out on the Alaska Peninsula, have sent word that the initial numbers are in keeping with those of past seasons—and increasing steadily. From Naknek, south of the Kvichak River, to Dillingham, at the mouth of the Nushagak, all of coastal Bristol Bay is high on anticipation.
Among the first to get their nets wet are the subsistence fishers who live on and near the bay. For thousands of years the indigenous Yupik have depended on salmon, along with pike, whitefish, beavers, caribou, moose, berries, and plants such as wild rhubarb. "We share with the whole village," says Luki Akelkok, Sr., a 72-year-old Yupik patriarch. Yes, adds Bobby Andrew, who's in his late 60s, "we give away our first big game. It always comes back."
Akelkok and Andrew are escorting me by jet boat to Lewis Point, a long gravel beach that salmon swim past on their way upstream. Close enough to the bay to lie within the tidal zone, the river here is broad, muddy, and in places dangerously shallow, so Akelkok approaches gingerly. Every summer people from nearby villages gather at this spot to fish for sockeye and, more important, for kings, the largest of the salmon and the first to return to Bristol Bay, in early June. The men anchor one end of a setnet onshore, pull the other end into the water, allowing the current to lift and unfold it, then wait until the fish swim into the webbing, which catches their gills. Arrayed along the riverbank are wooden sheds where women fillet the salmon and hang the narrow strips to dry in preparation for smoking. Since long before statehood and oil royalties, long before Russian explorers introduced Christianity to Alaska, this scene has played out in this place. But now the two elders believe the threat the Pebble mine poses to the creeks, rivers, and lakes where salmon spawn also endangers the culture the fish have sustained for centuries. "Once that's gone," Akelkok says, referring to the region's biological vitality, "you can't get it back."
Nothing about the condition of other once robust salmon fisheries in the lower 48 contradicts Akelkok's view. In the Columbia River Basin the four horsemen of fisheries collapse—habitat degradation, dams, weakening of the genetic pool through the use of hatcheries, and overharvesting—have destroyed the salmon stock in dozens of places and reduced the rest to remnants. That's the grim backdrop for the increasingly contentious debate in Bristol Bay, one of the few places left where the condition of the fish can be discussed without using the word recovery. Bristol Bay still possesses what has been squandered elsewhere—abundance.