Ah, life on the high seas. A small trawler making its way through the open waters of the Gulf of Alaska.
Ah, life on the high seas. A small trawler making its way through the open waters of the Gulf of Alaska.
Narrative and photography by Mihael Blikshteyn for Fishermen’s News (October 2016). Reprinted with permission.
Sakhalin Island Salmon Fishery
Roughly half of global Pacific salmon harvest comes from Russia. The majority of it is pink salmon, accounting for 60 to 70% of the global supply. Chum, sockeye and coho salmon each make up about 30%, according to the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership website. However, these numbers vary from year to year and accurate numbers are difficult to obtain. Much of Russia’s domestic salmon production stays in the country. Some of it is sent to China or Korea for further processing before being exported to foreign markets, adding another layer of obscurity.
Russia’s Pacific salmon comes from the country’s Far East region. The region is divided into three primary areas – the Kamchatka Peninsula, Sakhalin Island and the mainland. Kamchatka and Sakhalin supply the majority of salmon. In 2014, 139,300t of salmon came from Kamchatka and 105,800t from Sakhalin, according to the Undercurrent News. The remaining four Russian Far East mainland regions and the Kuril Islands, which are part of the greater Sakhalin region, produced a total of 95,400t.
Sakhalin fishermen rely primarily on coastal trap nets to harvest their salmon. It consists of a guiding mesh fence set perpendicularly to shore. The fence forms a long floating curtain more than 30 feet deep and stretching over a mile to sea, anchored to remain stationary. Floats hold it at the surface and weights stretch the curtain down, forming a fence that guides salmon into the traps.
Several floating wing-style fyke traps attach to the central lead line supporting the curtain. Returning salmon encounter the guiding curtain and follow it into the traps.
Rows of trap nets are placed on both sides of salmon-bearing streams to catch the fish approaching from either direction. By regulation, the nets cannot be closer than 1 km (0.6 mi) from the stream mouths and must be spaced at least 2 km (1.2 mi) apart.
Three or four fishermen in skiffs tend to the traps daily, emptying the fish from the traps by hand. It is a labor-intensive job, requiring pulling the trap mesh out of the water to concentrate the fish and emptying the fish into the boat. The fish are then transported a short distance to shore, where they are offloaded by crane at the beach and taken to a nearby fish-processing plant.
Many problems face these small, independent commercial fishery operations. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, poaching became a rampant problem. Fishery research, monitoring and management are still severally underfunded and understaffed. Decisions by local and national government officials that affect these fisheries are often made through opaque processes with little input from their constituents or independent specialists.
To take control of their natural resources, a breed of local conservation organizations, local councils and community leaders and advocates sprang up in the region in the past decade. One of them is Vladimir Smirnov, a Sakhalin Island pink salmon commercial fishery operator and an advocate for wild, sustainable fisheries.
A Fishery Advocate
Smirnov’s remote commercial fishing camp, Plavnik (The Fin in Russian), is an outpost of half a dozen single-story wooden houses. Huddled together at the mouth of Langeri River in the northeastern corner of Sakhalin Island, the camp is rather an exception to the ones that dot the coastline. Perched on the remote section of the island’s coastline, the tiny, wind-swept community has all the amenities you might expect from a rustic bed and breakfast – running water, high-tech Japanese toilets with heated seats, a sauna and a large communal banya.
The owner and founder of Plavnik, Smirnov, is a savvy businessman and an entrepreneur. He runs his fishing camp of a dozen people as if it were a big family – the crew is well paid, respected and generally taken care of.
Smirnov is also an outspoken conservationist. His priorities are healthy, sustainable, wild salmon fisheries and the environment that supports them. In 2012 he made headlines with a presentation at a Russian fisheries symposium. He spoke up about the potential negative effects of an increasing number of Sakhalin salmon hatcheries on local, healthy, wild salmon runs. His was a dissenting voice among the Russians pushing for more hatcheries.
A salmon hatchery is a profitable enterprise. It can be built on any Sakhalin stream, according to Smirnov. Old Soviet hatcheries are being privatized and there is a push to increase the number of new hatcheries by several orders of magnitude. Although hatcheries themselves may not be profitable, hatchery owners get an exclusive claim to the returning salmon in that stream. By building new hatcheries, even on rivers with healthy salmon runs, entrepreneurs can effectively monopolize returning salmon stocks and fishing grounds.
Several hatcheries are currently being proposed to produce chum salmon on streams that now support only wild pink salmon runs. Once the hatchery is operational, the owner then sets up a commercial fishing operation in and around that stream with little monitoring or oversight from fishery scientists.
Government officials were not happy with Smirnov’s presentation. He was voted out of a regional salmon fishermen’s association over which he presided. The officials publicly lashed out at him, going as far as to accuse him of treason and collaboration with anti-Russian outside interests. Smirnov was in hot water, but far from giving up. He beefed up his private patrol that monitors and protects the nearby rivers from poaching. He deepened his ties to local conservation organizations.
One of these organizations was the Sakhalin Environment Watch (SEW). Together with the SEW, Smirnov began tackling the three main threats to the wild salmon stocks on Sakhalin Island – poaching, proposed proliferation of salmon hatcheries and the blocking of salmon streams with fishing weirs.
At that time, a new in-river fishing method was becoming popular. Until the late 2000s, there was no large-scale in-river fishing on Sakhalin Island. Against a wave of protests, the regional government changed the rules to allow the use of temporary weirs.
Commercial fishermen were allowed to set weirs across the full width of salmon streams to prevent the “over-escapement” of fish to the spawning grounds. Government officials declared that letting more than two salmon per square meter of the spawning ground pass would result in lower egg and salmon fry survival. This thinking was based on an obscure Russian report from the 1960s.
Once a stream’s mouth was blocked with a weir, the fish were scooped out with a bailer and sold for profit. In theory, companies who were permitted to do that were supposed to keep track of the number of salmon allowed to pass to fulfill the escapement goals. In practice, there was little independent oversight and enforcement and hardly any stream-specific data were available to set the escapement goals.
According to the SEW website, there were 79 of these weirs on Sakhalin Island in 2009. The nonprofit organization along with Vladimir Smirnov and other groups energized a strong opposition to this practice. Sakhalin residents and advocates mounted a vocal campaign. Under pressure and scrutiny, the practice became less acceptable. In 2012, there were 51 such weirs, in 2015 – 23. According to Smirnov, the weirs can now be used only on streams with hatcheries, although the problem of letting the wild salmon stocks pass remains. Still, Smirnov says, it’s a victory for the wild salmon as temporary weirs is no longer an acceptable form of fishing.
When Smirnov started fishing on Langeri River, poaching was a big issue in the region. Caviar is big money. Groups of people would fly in on helicopters or drive to the spawning areas, cut salmon for roe and leave hundreds or thousands of dead fish behind to rot. With official wildlife enforcement badly understaffed and underfunded, Smirnov created his own anti-poaching patrol troops.
Each of Smirnov’s patrols is accompanied by a policeman or a wildlife officer. The patrols provide transportation and manpower to help apprehend violators and destroy their gear. The enforcement writes citations and apprehends serious violators.
This year alone, Smirnov’s regional fishery association allocated 12.5 million rubles ($194,000) to protect from poaching 11 salmon rivers along 110 km (68 mi) of the coastline. They also collaborated with the fishermen from the north to protect an additional 100 km (62 mi) of the coastline and are working to get the fishermen from the more southern region to join in as well.
The citizen anti-poaching efforts are very successful. Smirnov said they don’t find any big poaching operations anymore. Although they find poachers almost every day, those are small groups of people who kill 20 or 30 fish at a time, instead of the hundreds or thousands a decade ago.
Smirnov also led the way to have his fishery certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), only the second such fishery in the Russian Far East. When he successfully underwent the certification, a lengthy and expensive process, he could not reap any of its benefits. He does not own his own fish-processing plant and the one he uses is not MSC certified. Without this certification, he cannot market his fish with the eco-label.
Then why did he go through the certification? For Smirnov, the process, and the press he received from it, was a way to attract attention to the problems facing the wild salmon stocks on Sakhalin Island. Perhaps, with greater demand for sustainable seafood and the appreciation of all of its challenges, it would take the Smirnovs of the world to effect the needed change
Surrounded by flat, low-lying lands, punctured by numerous lakes and intertwining streams, Naknek River feeds into Kvichak Bay, an arm of Bristol Bay, supporting the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world. It’s tundra – vast, flat and mostly treeless.
“The tundra environment is so special, chugging across the tundra, the wonderful smell, the berries”, reminisces Melanie. Now living in the rainforest of Southeast Alaska, Melanie Brown grew up commercial fishing with her family on Naknek River.
“Even when I was small, I was taller than most of the trees. And now the alders have taken off, they block your view, generally, where there is a disturbance, like buildings or roads… but you walk away from the roads, and it’s open tundra. You can see forever.”
Naknek is a small fishing village, sitting on the north bank of the Naknek River. It boasts a few hundred permanent residents, but swells to thousands in mid-June, when fishermen arrive in anticipation of returning sockeye salmon, the gold stream of the region.
One of Naknek’s long-term residents was Melanie’s great-grandfather. An Aleut who spoke Yupik, Paul Chukan was born in 1901. Fishing was his way of life, his life in Naknek.
“When I first started fishing, my great-grandpa, Paul Chukan, was still part of our family operation. We didn’t fish out of a skiff at the time because I was too small to be effective out on the water, my [great]-grandpa’s eyes were too weak to be out in the boat safely, and my mom knew she would not be able to keep him off of the water if we had a skiff ready for picking.”
Using set gill nets, they caught sockeye salmon charging up the river along the river bank or rolling downstream with receding tide. Paul would set the net at low tide, perpendicular to the river bank, carrying it on his shoulders through the mud of the river bank, anchoring it above the water level. He would walk back, feeding the mesh off his fingers, laying the net in wait of the incoming tide.
With tide fish would come in, salmon going upstream, smelling their way to their natal spawning grounds, waters they left as tiny fry several years ago. Some would avoid the nets, reaching the lake and its tributaries, where they would spawn and die protecting their eggs. Others would get caught in Paul’s net or the nets of the other fishermen.
When Melanie turned 10, the legal age to start helping, Melanie’s mom said it was time for her to join the family fishing operation. It was exciting, to be old enough to be part of the family operation, to officially join the famed Bristol Bay sockeye salmon fishery.
“Because I was little I got eased into it.”
Her first job was to haul fish picked from the set net up the beach to be delivered. A fish truck would drive down to the river bank to pick up the fish. It would collect freshly-caught salmon and take them for processing to the nearby fish-processing plants.
“Sometimes I had to haul the fish by hand. Just string them on [my] fingers, hook the fingers into the gills and walk up with them in [my] hands.”
“When I first started fishing, I didn’t know how to pick fish yet – that’s a task onto itself. [That] job was important, to get the fish up to be delivered, so that was my job.”
“We had some mechanical aid, too, a Ranger. It was like a small tractor, it had a box built onto the back… so when the fish were picked, we would put them in the back of that Ranger and then haul them up the beach. [But we] only used it when dealing with really high volume, pile them up and then they get delivered.”
“It was not until my second or third season that I was given the opportunity to help pick fish. Up until that point I was only responsible for making sure that the fish made it up the beach where they would be picked up for delivery.”
“One time my [great]-grandpa and I were left to pick a piece of gear after it had been floated up the beach and the rest of our crew went on down to pick our other site. We had a lot of fish to get out of the gear, but my young and awkward hands kept working through it as my [great]-grandpa and I worked side by side. I was happy to be doing something other than hauling and happy to be with my [great]-grandpa. Although he could not see the fish very well with his old eyes, his hands knew how to get through the gear. The longer we picked, the less clumsy my hands felt. As I felt my skill growing, next to me I could feel my great-grandpa’s strength waning and I could not help but have mixed feelings. Those feelings quickly subsided when I sensed my great-grandpa’s pride. It was as if I could feel him passing a torch of sorts.”
“My [great]-grandpa had a generosity of spirit that made him a truly great [Great]-Grandfather.”
I never got a chance to photograph the historic landmark that was the Fulton Fish Market on the East River in Lower Manhattan, a short walk from Brooklyn Bridge. The market moved to its current location at Hunts Point in the Bronx in November 2005, when I was just discovering photography. While visiting my family in NYC last week, I decided to remedy this situation and photograph its latest reincarnation.
The Fulton Fish Market opened in its original location on South Street in 1822. At first it just sold retail, catering to the locals in Brooklyn and the surrounding areas. By 1850, it became primarily a wholesale market, the most important East Coast fish market in the USA, selling to restaurants and seafood retailers. In its first 100 years, fishing boats along the Atlantic Ocean came to the market docks to offload their catch. However, by the 1950s, most of the fish were brought in by trucks rather than directly from the fishermen. Now the fish are flown or trucked in from all over the world.
Dubbed “the New York stock exchange of seafood”, “New York City built the $86 million state-of-the-art New Fulton Fish Market to retain the region’s valuable wholesale seafood industry. The Fulton Fish Market handles about one-third of the New York’s total seafood demand. The [m]arket is second in size worldwide only to Tokyo’s Tsukiji wholesale seafood market. [It] handles millions of pounds of seafood daily and annual sales exceed one billion dollars”. ¹
Even the trip to the market was an interesting affair. It took me over a week of phone calls to get to the right person to get a press pass. The Fulton Fish Market is a private building with entrance fees and own security, so it was important to secure proper authorization before heading there in the middle of the night. The market is open from 1 am to 7 am, with much of the activity happening around 4. I was told Thursdays were the busiest days, so I decided to arrive there by 3 am on a Thursday. My sister graciously lent me her car and a GPS-enabled phone, so I could find my way to the market and back in the middle of night, an hour of driving each way. New Yorkers like to dig up streets and do what seems like a never-ending street construction, so being navigated by a GPS device saved me from being hopelessly lost in Manhattan and the Bronx. It was interesting driving from the southern tip of Brooklyn through Manhattan and into the Bronx. It was also a treat to drive over the Manhattan Bridge on the way to the market and the Brooklyn Bridge on the way back, something I’ve never done before.
References: ¹ http://www.newfultonfishmarket.com/history.html and ² http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fulton_Fish_Market
We reached Plavnik just before the sunset. The remote commercial fishing camp looked like the Russian version of an intentional community. Half a dozen wooden buildings huddled together at the mouth of Langeri River, tucked away in the northeastern corner of Sakhalin Island.
Well-built and maintained, the remote camp is rather an exception to the ones that dot the coastline of Sakhalin Island. Perched on the remote section of the island’s coastline, the tiny, wind-swept community has all the amenities you might expect from a rustic bed and breakfast – running water, high-tech Japanese toilets with heated seats, a sauna and a large communal banya. As we arrived, two cooks, both women, as is typical of these camps, toiled in the kitchen. They were preparing a three-course hearty meal for a dozen or so fishermen who were about to arrive for dinner after a long day of fishing.
After a 10-hour car ride from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, the region’s largest city, we covered most of the length of Sakhalin Island. Sakhalin is Russia’s largest island and part of the remote Russian Far East. Stretching close to 600 miles, it is merely 25 miles across at its narrowest part. Shaped like a hanging hand, the island’s fingers stretch south, lightly tapping Japan’s northern Sappo Island.
Vladimir Smirnov was already waiting for us in his office. The owner and founder of Plavnik, Smirnov is a fisherman unlike any other. A savvy businessman and an entrepreneur by heart, Smirnov tried a number of other businesses before settling on a commercial pink salmon fishery. He runs his business as if it were a big family – his crew is well paid, respected and generally taken care of.
Smirnov is also an outspoken conservationist. His priorities are healthy, sustainable fisheries and the environment that supports them. Last year, he made the headlines in the Russian press with a presentation at a scientific symposium. He spoke up about the dangers and potential ill effects of salmon hatcheries on the wild, local salmon stocks. His was a dissenting voice among the Russians pushing for more salmon hatcheries.
The regional fishery managers were not at all happy about this presentation. As hatcheries are being privatized and becoming a profitable business model, many in the Russian Far East are pushing to increase the number of hatcheries by several orders of magnitude. Although hatcheries themselves may not be profitable, the current Russian rules allow hatchery owners an exclusive claim to returning salmon. And salmon can mean big money. By building new hatcheries, even on rivers with healthy salmon runs, entrepreneurs can effectively monopolize returning salmon stocks and fishing grounds.
After his presentation, Smirnov was kicked out from a regional salmon fishermen association over which he presided. The regional government publicly lashed out at him, accusing him of treason and collaboration with anti-Russian outside interests. Smirnov was in hot water, but far from giving up. He beefed up his private patrol that monitors and protects nearby rivers for poaching activity. He deepened his ties to local conservation organizations.
When fisheries go through the voluntary Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification, they do so for one of several reasons. They might want to increase their market share in the global economy. Some European countries, for example, require that fish sold in within their markets are MSC certified. Other fishermen are intrigued by the potential premium price they can get for sustainably-certified fish. Or, their fish buyers might be demanding a proof of sustainability of their operations. A growing number of large American retail chains have sustainability policies, which dictate that all or some of the fish and shellfish sold in their stores must be certified as sustainable. These chains, like Target, Walmart, Safeway, Whole Foods and others, are putting a meaningful emphasis on the sustainability of global fisheries.
When Vladimir Smirnov went through the MSC certification, a lengthy and expensive process, he could not reap any of those benefits for one simple reason. He does not own a fish-processing plant. For years, he’s been trying to raise the funds to build one. “When I build it, I want it to be done right from the beginning”. Without his own plant, he sends his fish to be processed at third-party processing plants that are not MSC certified. Without the MSC certification of the processing plants, called the chain of custody certification, he cannot affix the blue MSC check-mark and thus market his fish with the eco-label. The chain of custody certification insures that the sustainably-certified fish are kept separate from the fish that might not be as they travel from the fishing company to a processing plant to a wholesale buyer and then their final market.
So why did he go through the trouble of a sustainability certification? For Smirnov, the process and the press he got from the certification was another tool in his conservation toolbox to attract attention to the problems facing wild salmon stocks on Sakhalin Island, and in the Russian Far East in general. Perhaps, with a greater demand for seafood and a greater appreciation of what it takes to have fish last for generations, it would take the Smirnovs of the world to effect the needed change.
Sakhalin Island Salmon Fisheries
Most of the commercial salmon fishing in the Russian Far East occurs on the Kamchatka Peninsula and Sakhalin Island. Fish are caught with stationary traps along the coast and with weirs and beach-seining in the the lower reaches of salmon-bearing rivers.
There are a few differences between the fishing practices on the Kamchatka Peninsula and Sakhalin Island. In both regions, salmon returning along the coast to their natal streams are caught with traps. Long curtains of nets are set perpendicularly to the coastline. Several of these nets are set at intervals on either side of a salmon-bearing river. The nets float at the surface, held up by floats and weighted down on the bottom.
Schools of salmon, returning to their streams, swim parallel to the coast. They encounter the leading nets and follow them into the attached traps. The traps are made of two chambers connected by funnels in the middle. With every passing school, the traps aggregate the salmon into thick, jumping, silvery masses of bodies, tails and snouts poking here and there from the surface.
Fishermen on the Kamchatka Peninsula normally attach one trap at the end of the leading net. See “Kamchatka: Coastal sockeye salmon fishery” for an in-depth look at commercial salmon fishing on Kamchatka.
On Sakhalin Island, typically several traps are attached along the length of the leading net. Several fishermen in small wooden boats with outboard motors tend to them every day. The fish from the traps are emptied by hand into these boats and transported to shore.
Interestingly, until recently, there was no commercial large-scale in-river fishing on Sakhalin Island. In the past several years, the regional government changed the rules, against a wave of protests and people’s outcry, to allow blocking salmon rivers with weirs. The weirs are set across the length of the whole stream to prevent “over-escapement” to the spawning grounds. It is now often assumed by the Russian government officials and some fishery managers that letting more than two salmon per square meter of the spawning ground pass to headwaters will result in lower egg and salmon fry survival. This thinking is based on an obscure Russian 1960s report. The new practice of blocking rivers on Sakhalin is something akin to the “scientific” whaling by the Japanese, where whale meat is sold for consumption. On Sakhalin, fish passages are blocked at the river mouths by weirs and scooped out for commercial sale. In theory, companies who are permitted to do that are supposed to keep track of the numbers of fish removed and allowed to pass. They are also supposed to ensure that enough fish pass to allow for long-term sustainability of those stocks. In practice, there is little monitoring and enforcement, and hardly any stream-specific data are available on the number of fish that should be allowed to pass.
On Kamchatka, on the other hand, the weirs are used strictly for scientific purposes, to keep track of the number of returning salmon. The in-river fishing is done with beach seines and could be easily monitored and regulated, at least in theory (see “Kamchatka: the in-river sockeye salmon fishery“).
To see more photos of these and other fisheries, please visit my Commercial & Artisanal Fisheries Portfolio.