Killing salmon

killing salmon

A dipnetter takes the billy to a sockeye salmon along the Copper River/Craig Medred

CHITINA – On the beach here in the dim light of the midnight sun at 3 a.m. with the sand spotted with the blood and scales of sockeye salmon bludgeoned to death by a cluster of people with dipnets and billies, it is hard to miss how little has changed in thousands of years and how almost everything has changed.

The Ahtna Indians who used wooden-handled dipnets with spruce- or willow-root baskets to pull salmon from these waters hundreds of years ago would readily recognize the modern-day scene.

And they would be surely envious of the equipment in use now by a predominately Asian crowd wading the shoreline equipped with lightweight, 20- to 30-foot aircraft aluminum poles attached to baskets woven of even lighter-weight monofilament thread.

No one could manage a net of such length in the thumping, fast, glacial current when the handles were made of spruce and the baskets woven of tree roots. The drag of the current on the thicker material of those old baskets would have swung the net so fast downstream a dipnetter would have needed to jog, maybe run, the beach to catch up.

Nineteenth-century Ahtna fishing technology varied with location and environmental conditions,” write Alaska Department of Fish and Game anthropologists William E. Simeone and James Fall. “Because of the strong current in the main stem of the Copper River, Ahtna fished with long-handled dip nets. Fishers stood on rock outcroppings that extended into the river or on platforms built out over the water.”

“Long-handled” is a relative term. A widely circulated photo from the start of the 20th Century shows a young woman identified only as “native girl” standing on a platform out in the river using a net with a pole maybe 8-feet-long, maybe even shorter.

And she is making use of only about half its length.

The nets were dipped in the water upstream from the platform, pushed down past the fishing station by the current and then, hopefully, pulled up with a fish. Swinging a dipnet like this for hours is backbreaking work.


National Park Service

Technological change

But that is the way it was. The platforms were then a necessity. They were built both to get out to where the fish were in the river and to make the net manageable. Today they are gone.

Those fishing from the shores upstream from Wood Canyon wade out into the river in chest waders or drysuits often made of miracle fabrics both waterproof and breathable, deploy their nets far out into the river, and walk them downstream with the current until they feel a fish hit the bag.

Shifting the workload from the smaller muscles of the upper body to the bigger muscles of the lower body makes life easier, though this form of fishing is nowhere as easy as it looks. For some on the beaches, it is clear this is likely to be the hardest workout they get all year.

Downstream in the canyon, the fishing is different. Dipnetters sit there on rock outcrops with their nets held in position in eddies and wait for fish to swim into them. It would have been difficult if not impossible to hold the old nets of the Ahtna in place in these swirling waters, but modern materials long ago altered fishing techniques.

The canyon fishing is generally easy until it comes time to haul the catch up steep, 100-foot rock walls to the old railbed for the long-gone Copper River and Northwestern Railroad and then transport them miles back to a parking lot at O’Brien Creek.

The smart people generally hire a charter at O’Brien and pay for a ride to and from fishing sites. But Alaska being a place of independent spirits, there are still plenty who hike the railbed to fishing sites in the canyon or spend hundreds to thousands of dollars on mountain bikes and trailers to get them there and back or invest thousands and thousands in e-bikes, trail bikes, all-terrain vehicles, jet boats and the trailers needed to reach favored fishing sites so they can kill a winter supply of sockeye.

And that aspect of the Copper fishery hasn’t changed in almost forever.

Killing grounds

This river has been feeding Alaskans of all sorts for a long, long time. All indications are it helped nourish waves of immigrants coming from Asia in the west over the Bering Land Bridge on a journey that started more than 16,000 years ago and didn’t end until the Atlantic Ocean was reached and the North American continent peopled for the first time.

Thousands of years later came another invasion of people across the Atlantic from Europe to sweep west across the continent and eventually north to Alaska, and what had been for thousands of years was disrupted, reordered and changed dramatically in the space of a couple hundred years.

By the start of the 20th Century, commercial fishing was established off the mouth of the river near what it is today the community of Cordova and people began to fish for money as well as for food.

Dipnetting became, for a time, a commercial activity as well as a means of subsistence.

Not long after the start of the 20th Century, “the Copper River Packing Co. built a cannery on the Copper River at Mile 55 and put up a successful pack the same year,” according to a history compiled by Lewis G. MacDonald from records of the federal Bureau of Fisheries, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and others. “The cannery used no run boats, but it had an arrangement with the Copper River and Northwestern Railroad Co. to haul fish from the fishing stations to the cannery and to bring the finished product to Cordova for shipment by steamer.”

“Before 1915, the average commercial harvest was approximately 250,000 sockeye and had little effect on the runs,” an Alaska Department of Fish and Game history records. “In 1915 commercial fish traps were introduced into the river, and a year later a cannery was constructed at Abercrombie, located at Mile 55 on the Copper River and Northwestern Railroad. 

“Fishermen, using dip nets and gill nets, from this and several Cordova canneries, were stationed in Abercrombie Canyon and at Miles
Lake. As a result, the commercial harvest jumped to 653,402 in
1915, and rose to 1,253,129 by 1919.

“There was an almost immediate effect on salmon abundance up river, and by 1916 the situation for Ahtna fishermen was critical. According to reports from the Copper Basin, the local population faced starvation because of the depleted runs. In addition, the health of the runs themselves was in danger from over harvest.”

No one is starving in these times, and the fishery itself is generally well managed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

But the human passions that drove people in the early 1900s and before haven’t changed. Whether for food or money, there remains an ancient blood lust to make food of the sleek and silvery bodies of the fish returning from the sea with their only desire an urge to reach spawning grounds and reproduce.

Thousands of salmon will die at the hands of humans on the Copper this week with nary a soul giving the killing much thought. One might think it different in these days of COVID-19 with so many frightened by thoughts of their own mortality.

But our relationship with nature and the other creatures of the planet is complicated in so many ways. If wolves were killed with the nonchalance with which we beat in the brains of salmon, there would be outrage.

And it wasn’t that long ago that wolves – like the COVID-causing SARS-CoV-2 virus of today – were thought of as a threat to human survival that would best be eliminated.

The species was wiped out in most of the Lower 48 states and on the path toward extinction when that view changed. Now the wolf is considered an iconic symbol of the wilderness that once covered most of the continent although nothing about the wolf itself has changed.

It was a wonderfully evolved killing machine when humans tried to exterminate it, and it remains a wonderfully evolved killing machine today.

And the salmon?

The salmon always has been and might always be simply food. Almost no one thinks twice about killing one or asking someone to do that killing. No one is going to mourn the death of a salmon.  We see its role in nature as dying to satiate us.

It is salmon’s place in the prism through which we view the world, and we do view it through a prism.



3 replies »

  1. One thing has changed since the species was decimated in the 20th century by over harvest…today the majority of Sockeye caught in the Copper River are Hatchery Stock.
    “The Gulkana Hatchery has a Garden-of-Eden feel, which is fitting since millions of sockeye salmon begin life here each year…On most days of the summer, dozens of fishermen heading to the Copper River to scoop up salmon pass this cluster of small buildings tucked in a shallow valley, but few realize that many of the fish they will catch are born here.”

    Can you say “Artifishal” in Alaska?

    • “majority of Sockeye caught in the CR are Hatchery stock”? Do you have the data to support or back up this statement?
      The Gulkana hatchery is permitted for a 37 million egg take, in any given year, this hatchery stock (run timing 6/15-7/31) return is between 150-300K, certainly not a majority of the total CR sockeye run. This hatchery stock run coincides with the CR Delta stock return.
      During an average year the comm fleet, fishes twice a week, with no more than 24 hour openers, so 5 days a week the salmon returning, are able to head upstream, for upriver users to harvest.
      Takes a biologist, with Otolith sampling, to determine origin of the fish. The majority of PU fishers, would not be able to identify a sockeye from Gulkana or wild stock Delta. The Gulkana hatchery was actually started by FRED (as part of ADF&G), then later leased out to PWSAC, in early ’90s. This hatchery is 100% supported financially by the comm fish fleet, majority based out of Cordova, with a tax on their landings.

  2. Kept waiting for a section on how the Copper River kills dipnetters, maybe no data?

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