Creating a Way of Life: Interviews with Cordova’s Fishermen

Music by Galen Fehring 

Salmon run through the heart of Cordova. Whether fishing commercially or for subsistence, salmon are vital to both the industry and the identity of the region. There are good years and there are bad years; Each generation of fishermen faces change. As waters warm, changes in climate are perched to become the metaphorical albatross to these literal mariners forced to battle the consequences of human actions. Fishermen are among the first to feel these changes, and it will not be the first time they have felt a disruption in their ecosystem.

In 1989 when the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground, the fisheries were devastated. Still the fishermen returned, unlike the herring that disappeared in the spill. Nature is resilient, but the impacts of this man-made disaster are still felt decades later.

While they prepare their boats for the opening of the season, some fishermen are doubtful towards this years catch, but most are optimistic. The ups and downs are fresh in their memories. There are scarce years full of worry, and flush years full of fish. For these fishermen, whether this summer is their first or their fiftieth, salmon create more than an opportunity. The salmon create a way of life.

 

“I got a job on a seine boat on the first all-girl crew on a seine boat in southeast Alaska in 1978 and so I had to learn how to do nets then. (Basically) how I got into it is, I got a job on a boat and then I was forced to learn all the stuff that went with it... Well on a day like this, there's nothing better. I mean look at it, it's absolutely gorgeous... But you know yesterday, I worked for nine hours in the rain, so yesterday didn't rock. But today I'm happy." 
Monica Caulfield

“I started coming up to Alaska when I was fifteen. First year on a seiner out of Valdez. I was around when the fishing was poor afterwards. When I first got here it wasn't real good after the oil spill... The fishery has their little estimates for when the fish will come back, but you just don't know. It's just always a gamble.” 
Ryan Deming

“Well I'm a water person and I love being on the water. There's an insane amount of natural beauty around. I'm on a boat with some good dudes which is always a plus. I mean, look where we are, we're in Alaska. Fuck dude. I'm from Hawaii.” 
Galen Fairing

“Our herring still hasn't recovered. (The Exxon Valdez Spill) wasn't a good deal. But time heals everything. That's the other thing. It will all come back... Maybe not in your lifetime or our lifetime, but it will come back.” 
Jim Johnson

“For me, it's I'm scratching. But if I can keep this pace, I'll make it. I believe the water's too warm. The fish are down going below the nets. Like 16,000 (fish) went over the counter yesterday and that's like at the peak, and that should have been 3 weeks ago.” 
John Graham

“You can't explain it, it's something you have to live and see. It's not a place where I've ever been. You know (for) everyone here this is their livelihood, I mean, people put their lives into this...it's not only their job, it's their pride, it's their passion, and it's crazy. They live this stuff.” 
Daniel McDonough

“[The price of] everything’s going up–all the nets we buy and all the lines we buy and all the hooks we buy…but we've been getting a buck and a half a pound for reds for thirty years. The price of fish doesn't go up…What you get paid makes a difference.” 
Paul Saunders