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Doing What We Love: Stories from an all-Female Gillnetter in Bristol Bay, Alaska

By: Lillian Saul, Graduate student researcher, OFI Module I


Part II: Unexpected Community

*This piece is dedicated to the two missing fishermen from Mary's Harbour, Labrador. May their families and community feel supported during this incredibly difficult time.


Communities come in many forms and are constantly adapting. Some communities take hundreds of years to build, others just one moment. Communities make us feel whole, loved and supported. They connect us to other humans. They make us feel validated. Being outcasted by a community, if you have ever experienced it, is one of the most socially painful experiences. Finding a community where we feel unconditionally loved and accepted—one of the most fulfilling. 


For small-scale fishers, communities make our livelihoods possible. Small-scale fishing does not happen in a vacuum. Local governance institutions extend onshore fishing communities into the water. Fishing people cooperatively allocate resources and territories to provide safe and viable fisheries which support families and community structures and businesses on land. Who will be there on the water when the boat is in trouble and needs assistance or a tow? These situations can be life threatening. It is fellow community members who will arrive for the rescue. It is the community that shares and builds on knowledge which is necessary for making a living from constantly changing natural environments and ecosystems. It is these social and economic networks which allow this way of life to continue from one generation to the next.


It is not always easy to fit into communities, especially close-knit ones. It can take years to become accepted and gain trust. Often, this is the case with fishing communities. Living in a rural fishing community can be incredibly fulfilling, and also at times incredibly lonely. We engage with our ocean environment, learning and negotiating these spaces together. When the price drops or rises, we are in it together. Our days off are often the same, due to the weather. But also, we live under a microscope. Everyone knows our mistakes, missteps. And we are often harshly judged for these.


Vinalhaven, my home fishing port in Maine, is a remote island 15 miles off the coast. It takes an hour and 15-minute ferry ride to get there, and though it can seem bustling at points in the summer, in the off-season, the small island might as well be at the end of the earth. Its remote location, which is southerly facing towards the open ocean, has always made it ideal for the fisheries. It was used as an outport by the Penobscot and Pessamaquody Indians for its abundance of resources in the warm seasons. In its early days of European settlement, the island and surrounding islands were clear-cut for timber. Later, it was one of the largest producers of granite in the world. Throughout this resource-based history, fishing has always been embedded in the social, cultural and economic fabric of the community. On an isolated island, the relationship between community and fishing is more than apparent. Locals have defended fishing territories and cooperatively governed local resources for hundreds of years. Fishing defines the rhythms of life and the social and familial relationships and interactions which shape that life. Many of the fishers there now can trace their lineage to the first white settlers.

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Map of Vinalhaven Island, a small fishing island off the coast of Maine

In Alaska, the story is much different. Nearly everyone is “from away.” I had been conditioned to believe through my experiences fishing in Maine that only those living through the worst of times, through the dark and dismal winters and eternal April snows, should have a license which gives them the rights and access to surrounding resources. In Newfoundland and Labrador, they call this “adjacency”—those living closest to the resource should benefit. On Vinalhaven, a person has to be “born and bred” on the island to fish (there are exceptions). In Alaska, few fishers live in the state, and even less live in the area where the fishery takes place. In Alaska, much of the fisheries have been privatized. Only in recent years have governments taken action to actively buy back quota which can then be allocated for Indigenous communities. There are other programs and policies which give Alaskan residents a slight advantage when it comes to accessing the fisheries. For example, in the Bristol Bay fishery, Alaskan residents are the only fishers permitted to take out a loan to purchase a license. The market value for a Bristol Bay sockeye salmon drift net license is $170,000 USD and rising. Consequently, non-Alaskans generally require family or outside financial support to enter the fishery, but even Alaskans are hard pressed to enter “on their own.”

However—a person can’t just enter the Bristol Bay driftnet fishery with money alone. Fishers need a group which will support them while they are on and off the water. We call this the “radio group.” Because the fishery is so remote with little outside resources, the radio group is everything. We rescue each other in mechanical break downs or dangerous scenarios on the water, help each other find fish, provide the tools and the knowledge to get the boat and gear ready and put away before and after the season, and provide vital social community. In Maine, when we have a break down, we can get towed in by someone who lives in our community and is fishing nearby and then call a local mechanic. In Alaska, there is no mechanic; there is no onshore community. We are the mechanics; we are the community. There is only the radio group. All the knowledge and tools to get us through a season of fishing extend from that group. The radio group is there for safety and sanity, and ultimately determines our success as a fishing operation. We are only as good as our group.

Ultimately, in Maine and Alaska, fishers are there for and because of our communities. Fishers do not fish just for the money. It is the social and cultural aspects of fishing which provide us with the reasons to keep going back. It is also the food-connection to the salmon, which fishers in Bristol Bay believe whole-heartedly in. Fishers order the frozen packaged product from the processors and spend the rest of the year peddling and eating it! I, myself, carried a 40-pound box of frozen fish on 3 planes and a boat from Alaska to Maine to bring the fish home to share with my family and


community. Writing of it now, I can taste the nutty, rich super food, deep pink in color. Caring for this wild fish product and our livelihood is the reason we fishers decry corporate farmed salmon operations which due to salmon die-offs and harmful pollutants leave areas of the ocean barren of life in their wakes.


Fishing is our identity because we put our lives at risk and, somehow, love every minute of doing it, because we are doing it together. It is these bonds which are significant in the long run. In Maine, skippers and crew are often family. Fishing groups are made up of those who are blood related. In Alaska, many deckhands return to work for their skippers for over ten years because the skipper and the crew are as good as blood-family. Fishers structure their entire lives to fish in Bristol Bay for just a few months of the year. Fishers sacrifice love, friendships, other jobs to return and make a living from the sea each year. Crew use their life savings to move into the skipper position—obtain permits, licenses, boat, gear, to live in brutally small spaces for two months on a “shit-starter” boat. Why? Because of the community and the love which that community brings us in our hearts.


The fishing community in Alaska is perhaps more transient than the one in Maine. However, both are communities full of misfits, many of us feeling most accepted and supported in these ocean spaces. We return to fish year after year, not because it makes life easier, or because we are there to become rich, or famous, but because it is the place we feel most at home and also the freest to be ourselves.


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Written by Lillian Saul

Lillian Saul is a Master's student in the Geography Department at Memorial University, funded by the Ocean Frontier Institute's Module I. She works in sub-module I-3 investigating 'Perceptions, Values and Knowledge' of small-scale fisheries in Newfoundland and Labrador. She has a background in commercial fisheries and is interested in studying governance in Newfoundland fisheries, specifically as it relates to the interaction between law and policy and coastal fishing communities. 

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