The Changing Tides of Bristol Bay: Salmon, Sovereignty, and Bristol Bay Natives

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Located in Southwest Alaska on the Bering Sea, Bristol Bay covers the area of land and water that lies north of the Alaska Peninsula. The Bristol Bay region consists of

Located in Southwest Alaska on the Bering Sea, Bristol Bay covers the area of land and water that lies north of the Alaska Peninsula. The Bristol Bay region consists of more than 40 million acres and is home to approximately 7,400 people of mostly Alaska Native descent. Many Natives still maintain a subsistence lifestyle. The region’s Indigenous inhabitants include Aleuts, Eskimos, and Indians. Bristol Bay’s Indigenous cultures developed around the abundant salmon runs. The Bristol Bay watershed, with its extensive lake and river systems, provides the ideal breeding grounds for all five species of Pacific salmon. As a keystone species, salmon directly or indirectly impact many species in the ecosystem. This dissertation focuses on the ecology and environment, culture, and economy in the Bristol Bay salmon fishery from its beginnings in 1884 until the present. The arrival of Euro-Americans altered the human/salmon relationship as Alaska Natives entered the commercial salmon fishery. The commercial fishery largely marginalized Alaska Natives and they struggle to remain relevant in the fishery. Participation in the subsistence fishery remains strong and allows Bristol Bay Natives to continue their cultural traditions. On a global scale, the sustainable Bristol Bay’s salmon harvest provides over half of the world’s wild sockeye salmon. Salmon cultures once existed throughout the Atlantic and Pacific. With the decline of salmon, few viable salmon cultures remain today. I argue that because of the ecological, cultural, and economic factors, salmon in Bristol Bay deserve protection from competing resource development and other factors that threaten the valuable fishery. The unique ecology of Bristol Bay needs clean water to continue its bountiful production. As a member of the Bristol Bay community, I include my own experiences in the salmon fishery, incorporating “writing from home” as one of my primary methodologies. I also include ethnohistory and oral history methodologies. I conducted interviews with elders in the Bristol Bay community to incorporate Indigenous experiences as Natives faced changes brought on by the commercial salmon fishery.