AD Header Dropdowns

AD Main Menu

The Salmon Project: Youth of Bristol Bay doing their part to protect their fishery

Verner Wilson III
I feel like I would not be able to live with myself if I wasn't helping protect our salmon. I know that is how many of my peers feel. As a result, the younger generations of Bristol Bay have become activists. Courtesy Misty Nielsen

(Thirteenth of 15 parts)

Every summer, after school was out, my friends and I prepared. The trees and plants flourished, the days grew long. Excitement was in the air and all around. We knew life was coming back to our region, in all shapes and sizes. Whether a bear or a fox coming out of its den, an eagle building a nest, a beluga whale splashing around, or one of thousands of fishermen, we all awaited one thing: the return of a keystone fish.

This is the magic that the young people of Bristol Bay witness year after year: millions of sockeye salmon bringing us together. We mend nets, get all of the equipment and supplies ready. The beginning of summer is a time of family, friends, and fish camp; of sharing, community, hard work and great reward. Freezers fill for the winter, money is earned. Our Yup’ik, Aleut, Dena’ina and other cultural traditions are fulfilled with our family and fish camp friends.

One of my first memories was when I was around 5 years old at fish camp in Clark’s Point of Nushagak Bay. I pulled a salmon from our setnet and tried to save it by throwing it back in the water, but my Grandma stopped me. She said, this is our food and our way of life. This is how we survive year after year, and how our ancestors fed their children in a tradition that has continued for thousands of years.

During my young years, I didn’t know that where we came from had the largest wild sockeye salmon fishery in the world. Thousands of fish caught in our nets during a summer day was normal to me. But after I learned, I was thankful. Thankful not just for the resources it gives to us, the healthy nourishment and hard-earned cash, but for the time spent with my parents, grandma, siblings, aunts, uncles and friends. I really got to know my dad and brother while on the boat. From them I learned the value of teamwork and the virtues of patience and determination. Fishing also gave me childhood friends and memories that can never be taken away.

After working hard on the boats and the beach, toward the end of the summer we would travel up to the beautiful freshwater lakes that dot the Bristol Bay region. The spawning salmon swam about under the crisp clear water, along with pike, trout, dolly varden and other prized fish. In my second-ever cast of a sport fishing rod, I caught a prized rainbow trout. I remember my dad being so proud.

Growing up, we thought our commercial, subsistence and sport fisheries, and everything that came with them, could never be taken away from us.

Or so we thought. While leaving high school in 2004, my friends and I learned of a potentially large gold and copper prospect nearby. Many people thought that this was an additional resource blessing; the mine could be worth billions of dollars and bring full-time jobs. Little did we know the proposed Pebble Mine would turn into a test for us.

Our elders did a lot of work for all of us to understand what a major mine in the region meant. We heard from the mining company and from biologists, geologists, and other experts in different fields. The more we heard of the Pebble prospect, though, the more concerned we became for our most valued treasures -- our clean water and our red gold. Large-scale mines inevitably pollute.

We learned of other parts of the world. How they used to have huge salmon runs that are now diminished and gone. Even my Grandpa traveled across the world to follow the fish, from Finland to Astoria, Ore., to Alaska. Habitat degradation and poor management practices decimated fisheries across Europe, along the East Coast of North America, through the Pacific Northwest.

The more we learned about Pebble, the more it became unacceptable to us. The elders taught us youth to cherish our traditions and to keep them alive. My friends and I felt that it was up to us to make sure our culture and livelihoods are passed on for the future. Perhaps that is why the youth have been some of the most ardent opponents of Pebble and any industrial mining district in Bristol Bay. We see our future and our people at stake.

This danger to our fishery has awoken a young giant. When we first heard about the proposed mine a little less than a decade ago as college students spread across the country, a group of us immediately organized via phone. We asked what we could do to understand the issue and to make sure our voices were heard. Our desire to influence our future has encouraged many of us to dedicate our lives to the protection of our fishery. For me personally, I feel like I would not be able to live with myself if I wasn't involved for the protection of our salmon. I know that is how many of my peers feel.

As a result, the younger generations of Bristol Bay have become activists. Young people have already run for office and have won leadership posts on the platform to protect our way of life. Middle and high school students have led pep-rallies, marches, and demonstrations to protect Bristol Bay. They even organized a group called “Rebels to Pebble.” One of my dear friends, Apayo Moore, has been using her passion to protect our fishery through the creation of beautiful salmon art, inspiring everyone so much that she won the Bristol Bay Native Corporation’s Citizen of the Year award. Others are creating beautiful salmon clothing and regalia that are worn by young people across the region. Some are dedicating their lives to conservation by going to college and getting degrees for sustainable careers -- their educations funded by commercial fishing. Others are passing on the tradition of fishing, taking over boats and permits themselves in their teens and early twenties to start their own businesses. A few are doing a combination of fishing in the summer and campaigning to protect Bristol Bay in the winter.

I am proud to say that I am a member of the younger generation of Bristol Bay that is passionate, motivated and dedicated.

Our youth-led movement has even grown around the state. Youth from villages and towns across coastal Alaska have been signing petitions and taking action. Protecting our salmon was recently the campaign of choice by the Alaska Youth for Environmental Action that has chapters and thousands of members across the state. It’s inspiring to see the future leaders of Alaska stepping up for our wild salmon.

In my former job at the World Wildlife Fund, I traveled across the nation to get our message across. I talked with people from Dutch Harbor to New Stuyahok, from Seattle to Washington, D.C., Now I tell our story while striving for my Master’s degree in Environmental Management at Yale University. When people ask where I’m from, I tell them amazing facts about Bristol Bay. I tell them of the strength of the king salmon run in the Nushagak River. I tell them our wild salmon fed America’s victorious Army during World War II. I tell them of the healthy omega-3 fatty acids that are good for their hearts. I tell them that nearly half of all wild sockeye salmon in the world come from my region. I tell them of the thousands of young people from across America who depend on the region’s fisheries to get through college themselves.

During my work, I was even able to discuss these facts with influential people like former Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar when he visited Dillingham in 2009. After the trip, the Secretary proclaimed that “Bristol Bay is a national treasure that we must protect for future generations” before placing protections against offshore drilling there. I also talked with hundreds of staffers in the legislature and Congress about why protecting the region is important. I am just one young person from Bristol Bay who has gotten over our fears of public speaking to tell our story. Our hard work has made a difference. Our leaders are listening and taking steps to protect Bristol Bay.

It has been inspiring to work with my peers to make such a difference. I know that moving forward, we will teach the young leaders of tomorrow to carry the torch. Bristol Bay’s rich fisheries can be here for thousands of more years if we take care of them. The youth of the future can continue rich traditions as they carry forth their legacy.

Verner Wilson III was born and raised in Dillingham. As a Bristol Bay salmon fisherman his entire life, he's been inspired to be active in the region's pressing environmental issues. He graduated with a degree in Environmental Studies from Brown University in 2008. He's dedicated to helping protect his Yup’ik Eskimo cultural traditions, and is currently attending Yale University as a candidate for a Masters in Environmental Management degree in 2015.

The Salmon Voices Series is supported by The Salmon Project, an experiment in telling and hearing the stories of Alaskans and our salmon. The project hopes to highlight and deepen Alaskans' strong personal relationships with salmon as food, a source of income, and a way of life. Support for the project is provided by the Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.