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What It's Like to Move to Alaska and Become a Fisherman

By Chandra Ram
Plate Magazine
What It's Like to Move to Alaska and Become a Fisherman

Dave Salmon

I first came to Alaska while in school at Humboldt College in Northern California. I came up here with my brother and a childhood friend to work in a cannery on Kodiak Island in Bristol Bay, the largest wild salmon run on planet Earth, which is now in danger of being destroyed by a copper mine. We had a big summer adventure. Dillingham felt like we were in the past, not the modern world. Every night, a fisherman would come into a bar, ring the bell (to celebrate a great day fishing) and buy drinks for 500 people.

We worked for six weeks, then hitch-hiked across the state and back to California. People were so friendly and outgoing and giving—they let us camp out on their land, they gave us food, they partied with us. It was so much fun. Before I left, I told my brother and my friend that I would live here.

I ended up coming back to go to graduate school in Fairbanks. In 1989, the (Exxon Valdez) oil spill happened, and I came to Prince William Sound for the first time with the university to document the damage. It was my first trip to Cordova, and I liked it here—it reminded me of the Pacific Northwest coast. I got a job as an oil spill research scientist.

I graduated with my PhD in oceanography in 1992, and I moved to Cordova in 1993 to study the ecological aftermath of the Exxon Valdez crash. We started these programs on the ecological aftermath of the oil spill, and I got an opportunity to go commercial fishing. After that, I knew had to become a fisherman. Fishing was in my blood; when I was a kid, I was the one they had to drag out of the fishing hole at the end of the day.

And, I was ready for a change. I had written some very controversial articles about the oil spill, and the oil companies didn’t like what I had to say. Some guys sold their souls to write what the oil companies wanted. It was such a farce; guys were claiming that oil was good for the environment. It was empowering to be pushed out for doing the right thing. If you do the right thing, you can never feel bad about what you think.

I bought my gillnet permit and a boat in 1995, and here I am. It’s been the best move I’ve made in my life. Being a fisherman has made me a better person, able to face the challenges life throws me. As a fisherman, you have to be self-sufficient—there’s no one to blame other than yourself. People think commercial fishing is fun and dramatic. But it’s not if you have a jellyfish stuck on your face. It gets ugly. It’s almost debilitating.

I’m a better person than I would be if I were still a scientist. Fishing has made me healthier, given me freedom, helped me stick to my principles. I’ve learned problem solving for positive change. I learn something huge every year. There are guys who’ve been going out decades longer than me. There’s always something to learn.

The beauty for me is that I do it for just five months. You cannot put a price on the value of the freedom this gives me. I’ve had the 50-hour a week respectable job, but this is better. There are certain things that have value beyond the economic.

I go out in mid-May, when they let us start fishing king salmon and sockeye. In the early season, we fish for 12 hours, twice a week. Later in the season, we fish longer. We fish as hard as they let us—108 to 140 hours per week.

It’s my favorite time of the year. I work 21 to 24 hours a day, depending on the fishing. This year, I went out on June 1 and got back July 26. I relaxed and worked only 20 or 21 hours a day, and slept 3 hours a night. I love it—standing on the bow of my boat at 2:30 or 3 in the morning, drinking a coffee and hearing the salmon hit the nets. For me, there’s nothing better.

Dave Salmon is a salmon fisherman in Cordova, Alaska.

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