Bristol Bay Alaska: 1875 small business owners feeding the world!

May 17, 2013 - An interview with fisherman and filmmaker Elijah Lawson by Amy Grondin

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In June, fisherman Elijah Lawson will return to Alaska. 2013 will be the 31st year he has fished for salmon in Bristol Bay. This year, Elijah will be arriving earlier than usual. In addition to the preseason work to get his own boat ready for the coming fishing season, he’ll be capturing on film the story of three multigenerational fishing families. The film will document what it takes to prepare for and fish the largest run of salmon in the world. The words and actions of each person filmed will complete the phrase “I fish because…”        

What inspired you to take on this film project?

To date I have not seen a film that documents the multigenerational fishing families of Bristol Bay and the pride they take in their work. We take care of the fish and fish take care of us. In the end of May I will fly to Alaska to begin making three short films that will profile three different families that run Bristol Bay operations. These films will focus on some very interesting people who work in this beautiful but sensitive environment. If we share the personal stories of our fishermen, people who eat salmon will better understand what fishermen do for a living and reconnect with the sources of their food. Now, more than ever, the importance of where our food comes is something we need to recognize.

Fishing in Bristol Bay is big business but the boats catching the fish are small, right?

Boats fishing Bristol Bay by law must be 32ft feet long. This has been the tradition since the early 1800's.  Just about every fishing boat on the water in Bristol Bay is a family owned and operated small business. The faces of the fishermen and the names of their boats make up each family run business’ brand. Together these 1875 small businesses provide valuable and sustainable Bristol Bay salmon for the entire world.

What do you hope to show people who aren’t fishermen about fishing?

Most people will never get the chance to experience Bristol Bay from a fishing boat. These films will offer an insider’s look at life on and off the water. They will see the wilderness as well as meet some of the individuals who fish the Bay each year. The goal is to capture what it takes to prepare for each fishing season and what happens once you are on the water. At the same time we'll be giving people who eat salmon insight to what fishermen do and how we do it. These films will help brand who we are as fishermen.

What is it like to be a fisherman working on a small boat with only a few people as crew?

Fishing affects each fisherman in a unique way. There are incredible responsibilities that come with owning and running a small fishing boat. These responsibilities help forge the individuals we are in the Bay. On any given day you will be the captain, first mate, cook, fish picker, skipper, mechanic, councilor and problem solver. This work has many challenges but it also offers opportunities that build an individual’s life skills. Not just the skills used while in Bristol Bay but ones also used once you are at home after the fishing season is done. The skills that you develop while fishing are part of the person you become. If you can work on a fishing boat during a storm while you are seasick, you can do anything in your life on and off the boat.

When did you start fishing in Bristol Bay?

I started fishing Bristol Bay with my Dad in 1982 when I was 10. Our boat was called the F/V Potential. F/V stands for fishing vessel. Growing up summers on a boat taught me a lot. I knew fishing wages fed our family. Later on fishing paid for me to travel the world, see amazing places, and go to film school. Now fishing Bristol Bay on F/V Potential feeds my family and pays the bills. Hopefully when my kids are old enough they’ll be fishing with me like I did with my Dad. My wife Gail and I have a one-year-old boy and a five-year-old boy. I'm hoping that both boys will be fishing with me in the future.

What is people’s first response when you tell them you are an Alaska fisherman?

When I tell people I am a commercial fisherman working in Bristol Bay, Alaska, usually the first two words out of their mouths are “Deadliest Catch”. This is not the image I want used to promote the work that fishermen do in Bristol Bay. We fish in a beautiful, majestic, and unique place. This is what I want people to know about fishing. My films won’t highlight crewmen fighting on the boat, or skippers yelling at their crew. There are plenty of less than perfect days but that is life. I am more interested in showing people the Bristol Bay watershed they might never get to see and the families who work together to earn a living while feeding people all over the world.

How will your film series help address this generalized idea about commercial fishing?

These short films will give people who eat wild salmon a window into the world of fishing in Bristol Bay. They will offer an insightful view into a complex and fast paced industry that employs thousands of people from all over the country.

I want to show this by profiling three families with multi-generations as their crew. The films will reveal a cross section of families from Alaska and from other parts of the country. The films may be as short at two minutes but no longer than longer five. Some sequences will be shot in slow motion to show the skill in picking fish, working on nets, and scenes of the Bay. As to the narrative, I’m not interested in talking head interviews. Each story will be driven by the voices of the families. Footage will be shot as they go about their work on the boat or around the boatyard and conversations with the characters will be relaxed. I see some stylized shots of families sitting in front of their boats as the camera pans slowly past them. Time lapse footage of our gorgeous Alaska sunsets would be great to have if the weather cooperates. We have such nice light in the summers, using it to our advantage will allow us to shoot some amazing scenic footage.

Who are the families you will feature in your films?

I’ve spoken with three different Bristol Bay fishing families who have agreed to participate in this film project. We will be filming while everyone is trying to prep their boats for the fishing season. I want to film during this time but I am aware of the time it takes to get your boat ready for the season. Luckily, these are people I have known and worked with on the water with for years.

Guy Piercy on the F/V Catherine B has fished in Bristol Bay for over 35 years. He started fishing in 1978 with his girlfriend, now wife, in a skiff. Katherine, his daughter, started fishing when she was 9, and has fished almost every year since. Now she’s 29.  She worked her way through college fishing on her dad’s boat. Katherine’s fiancé also has been a crew member in past seasons. Guy lives in Washington State in the winter.

Megan and Tim Gervais own and fish two boats in Bristol Bay, the F/V Sea King and F/V Dream Boat. They have two kids with a third on the way. I’ve seen Megan in the boat yard the last two years with an infant strapped to her while she works hanging gear.  Megan started fishing in Prince William Sound in 2000 then moved to the Bay in 2006.  Megan and Tim own a house in Ruby on the Yukon River. Ruby is also the name of their two year old daughter. Gus is their ten year old son. Gus started fishing when he was five.

Gusty Tungning is from Koliganek and he fishes on the David Genevieve. Gusty fishes with his sons Dusty and Travis. Dusty has a five year old boy who also fishes on the boat. Gusty's dad gave him the permit. We will also try to film with him. Their short film will have four generations of family fishermen.

Do you think the films will benefits to other fishermen and the fishing fleet?

Yes. Definitely. The benefits to the fleet will be the recognition they get from the salmon eating public. I hope people will buy more of our fish because they care about what we do and want to support small family run businesses. We work very hard to fish responsibly and make sure that each year there are enough fish to spawn the next generation of Bristol Bay salmon. It is a story worth sharing.

How are you funding this project? 

I applied for and received a grant from the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association (BBRSDA). BBRSDA works to market and promote the region’s seafood, seek improvements to the area’s fishery-related infrastructure, and work to raise quality of the salmon caught by fishermen in Bristol Bay. They conduct market and industry research and work on marketing that promotes Bristol Bay salmon.

After you are back from fishing and have time to edit your film, what comes next?

I’m hoping that these films we will be seen by thousands of people around the world. I want people to understand what fishermen do and how we do it. I’m interested in showing people our process and role in bringing this amazing wild product to their table. While showing the fishing process, I want to personalize the fishermen’s involvement in our industry and how we act as stewards to the annually renewable natural resource that is called wild salmon.

It is a national trend to support sustainable food, and it makes sense. I want these films to show our Triple Bottom Line. Once the public sees what we do and really understands our work, people will start to care about the individuals that we film and our fishing fleet as a whole. We are proud of the work we do. Right now some friends and I are talking with organizations and businesses that we feel would be interested in the films as educational tools to help people understand where their food comes from and just how it gets to their plates.

In addition, I envision these films being used by the BBRSDA as promotional tools to educate and inform people about fishing. The films will be shown on the BBRSDA website and hopefully other websites related to Bristol Bay and commercial fishing.

How can people learn more about your film project and follow your progress?

Gail and I just built and launched a website for this purpose. It is called Tails from Bristol Bay. I’ll be taking pictures and blogging from Bristol Bay. Initially the pictures and posts will all be about the preseason work it takes to get your fishing boat, gear and crew ready for the first fishing opening. Once the commercial salmon fishing season opens my blogs may be fewer but the pictures of the action on the water and salmon coming on board the boat will make it worth the wait! Here is a link to Tails from Bristol Bay: http://tailsfrombristolbay.com

Any last thoughts you would like to share?

Bristol Bay could really use some films that highlight the positive impacts commercial fishing has offered to the people that fish. These are the same people that work hard to keep the salmon fishery sustainable and protect the Bristol Bay watershed. I’m really looking forward to combining my skills from two careers I love - commercial fishing and film making - to produce a project that could have a positive effect on Bristol Bay and the families who are part of this place. I grew up fishing and some day want to have my kids on my boat fishing with me on Bristol Bay.