Bristol Bay's 2022 Year in Review
The new year has arrived! In our 2022 review we look back on many extremes and firsts for Bristol Bay, from fish and fires to elections and education.
Alaska debuted ranked-choice voting in statewide elections this August and November. Democrat Mary Peltola was elected to serve the remainder of the late Congressman Don Young’s term after he passed away in March.
Democratic candidate for governor Les Gara traveled to Dillingham in August, and a couple statewide candidates visited Bristol Bay just ahead of the Nov. 4 election. Both U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski and House Rep. Mary Peltola came to Dillingham at the end of October and ended up giving a crash course in government to a high school class.
During the election, the region swung toward incumbents, with 64% for Murkowski, 62% for Peltola and 44% for Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy. Following statewide trends, 69% of the region’s voters were against holding a constitutional convention.
There was a lot of turnover in Bristol Bay’s schools this year. Most of the Dillingham City School District’s administration was new, including Superintendent Amy Brower. A housing shortage meant some of the new teachers and staff lived at the school for weeks.
“We're sleeping in a classroom," said teacher Dan Bonser, referring to himself and his wife and daughter, who also teach. "Luckily, you know, it's a sizable room, and that kind of stuff. But you know, we have to pack up everything every morning to make sure there's room for the class. It's taking its toll. There's no ifs, ands or buts about it.”
In New Stuyahok, longtime principal Robin Jones left this spring after almost a decade in the community. The Bristol Bay Borough’s Bill Hill was named superintendent of the year by the Alaska Superintendents Association.
The Village of Igiugig received the Contributions to Literacy in Alaska Award from the Alaska Center for the Book for the work it has pursued from its library. Igiugig Village Council President AlexAnna Salmon said the library is a cornerstone of learning in the community.
“This has brought in relationships with researchers in a way where our village controls the research happening, and we use the library as a forum to gather and have dialog, conversations or feedback on some of the research being done,” she said.
Three Dillingham students have worked for over a year to rename a Dillingham creek marked with a derogatory word. Those efforts finally came to fruition this year. The Curyung Tribal Council held a community listening session this spring to gather feedback on different names for the creek. This fall, the federal government finalized nearly 650 new names across the country, including in Dillingham.
“It feels good because we worked on it for so long, and it finally got changed and we just feel relieved. We felt accomplished,” said senth grader Alora Wassily, who pushed for this change.
The school year started off with a scare for a Dillingham fifth grade class, when the class pet snake Thomas escaped – twice. But the students have learned a lot about Thomas since then, like John Henry Timmerman.
“All I so far know is that he’s de-fanged. And he’s pretty much a nice snake that likes to randomly, at random times, climb — slither not climb; they don’t have arms or legs — onto his box, his little log," Timmerman said.
Bristol Bay’s largest sockeye run on record returned this summer: about 80 million fish came back to the bay.
University of Washington Biologist Daniel Schindler said even with commercial exploitation of the sockeye populations, the recent runs have returned at higher rates than when there was no commercial fishery at all.
“If you add up the catch and escapement that we've observed in the last 25 or 30 years, the sum of those two numbers appears to be higher than the number of fish that ever returned to these lakes in the last 500 to 1,000 years," Schindler said. "And while that might seem surprising, it really does support what we've seen with our real time data over the last 50 or 60 years that climate warming has actually made these lakes more productive than they were 100, 200, and 300 and longer — 400 years in the past.”
The commercial harvest was also the highest on record, at 60 million. That huge haul was apparent throughout the season, like when Nushagak’s fleet broke its single-day harvest record on June 30, catching 2.4 million sockeye.
Fish and Game Area Management Biologist Tim Sands said the trend for runs like this is relatively recent, but now it’s a regular occurrence.
"It wasn't until 2017 that we even really broke a million sockeye salmon harvest in a day and that was amazing," he said. "And then it was happening every year, now to break two million is just — wow."
Meanwhile, the king and chum salmon runs to the Nushagak were far lower than average, as was the commercial harvest of those species, and this fall the state designated Nushagak kings as a stock of concern.
Those big sockeye runs also fueled discussions about local permit ownership, which has declined drastically since the state implemented the system of limited entry in the early 1970s. Dillingham’s William P. Johnson captained his own boat for the 62nd season this summer.
“In the early years, there were many people who were participating in a fishery,” said Johnson, who lives in Dillingham and is a member of the Curyung Tribe. “They hired their local people from their village to participate with them. And with the out-migration, you can see the effect that it has on the monetary return to individual village people through their commercial fishermen.”
Meanwhile, the state designated Chignik’s early run as a stock of concern in the spring as part of a compromise between the Chignik Intertribal Coalition and the Area M Seiners Association. And both of Chignik’s sockeye runs met their escapement for the first time since they crashed in 2018.
The historic wooden sailboat Libby McNeill Libby 76 made the 300-mile journey from Homer to Naknek this summer, where people celebrated its arrival with sea shanties at the 40th annual Fishtival.
This year was also marked by efforts to donate Bristol Bay’s salmon to people in need. A new offshoot of the Alaska Longliners Association, Fish for Families, shipped salmon to communities along the Chignik, Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers. This fall, Dillingham volunteers organized a “fish drive” for people in Chevak who were affected by ex-Typhoon Merbok.
Board of Fisheries Bristol Bay meeting
The state Board of Fisheries held its Bristol Bay meeting at the end of the year to consider 52 proposals to change the region’s fishing regulations. It delayed making a decision on how to address management of the Nushagak’s king salmon runs until its statewide meeting in March. But it did pass several proposals to reduce the size and number of kings sport fishermen can catch and double down on reporting requirements for kings in both the commercial and sport fisheries.
Pebble opponents have cheered several moves by the Environmental Protection Agency this year, while the project’s supporters have been disappointed. The agency proposed a veto of mining the deposit in May and heard public comments over the summer. In December it recommended that veto — the last step before its final decision on whether and how to restrict or completely ban mining at the site. The Pebble company has called the action unprecedented and said it is considering legal action against the agency.
The City of Dillingham
The last of Dillingham’s COVID regulations expired in March after three city council members skipped a meeting to vote on renewing them. The City of Dillingham hired Robert Mawson as its permanent city manager after more than a year of searching. Mawson said in May that the city's budget was on track to finish the fiscal year in the black and laid out some financial strategies moving forward. Dillingham Police Chief Dan Pasquariello retired in May, and the department closed its jail due to short-staffing this fall.
Health and safety
Two of Dillingham's COVID-19 testing sites shut down this spring, but free COVID tests are still available at the public health clinic and the and vaccines are available at Kanakanak Hospital in Dillingham.
In the face of rising opioid drug overdoses, health officials in Naknek handed out opioid overdose emergency kits this summer to prevent deaths.
“The majority of those that have fentanyl-laced products, one — don't know it. And two — it's so prevalent in their drugs that they're overdosing without even knowing it," said Mary Swain, executive director of Camai Community Health Center in Naknek.
Those kits are available in Dillingham at the public health clinic and the Curyung Tribal Council building and in Naknek at the Camai Community Health Center.
When the U.S. Supreme Court voted to overturn Roe v. Wade in June it didn’t affect Alaska directly, where abortion is protected under the state’s privacy clause. But in rural areas like Bristol Bay, abortions are difficult to navigate, even when it comes to receiving abortion pills in the mail. Local health care providers couldn’t provide detailed information on how people should access abortions. A director with the Alaska State Medical Board, Sara Chambers, said that in Alaska it’s legal for patients to be prescribed abortion pills via telehealth appointment and then receive the pills by mail. And they won’t be penalized for obtaining pills without a legal prescription.
“There’s no law penalizing a person for receiving a prescription that has been shipped to them illegally," Chambers said. "The penalty would come to the person or the company who is either providing a false prescription or the company that's shipping illegally without a prescription."
For Domestic Violence Awareness month, Christina Love, a senior specialist with the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, shared some ways to recognize and address domestic violence. Love also shared local, state and national resources, which you can find along with this interview..
The summer started out with a rash of fires across the region, including a 40-acre fire on the walrus sanctuary Round Island and an inferno at the Dillingham landfill metal pile.
Several wildfires started by an unusual lightning storm also raged across the tundra near Dillingham, Naknek and Iliamna, blanketing the region in heavy smoke for weeks. University of Alaska climate specialist Rick Thoman said more land burned in Bristol Bay this summer than the past 72 years combined
“In Bristol Bay, of course there is nothing like this year," he said. "To get fire on the ground, you need a whole bunch of great ingredients to come together. And having fuels is just one of them. So clearly, in this region, everything came together this year in a way that is never done in the last 70 years.”
Bad weather didn't stop Togiak's basketball team from playing this winter. The 10 student athletes, coaches and chaperones traveled 70 miles over frozen tundra to compete in its first tournament since the pandemic began.
Bristol Bay’s wrestlers finished this year with a flourish and a few excellent pins. Kiley Clouse became Dillingham’s first girls statewide wrestling champion, Tristan Goodell was Koliganek’s first wrestling champion and Aileen Lester won her third state title wrestling for Newhalen.
Celebration and reflection
There was much to celebrate and reflect on this year.
Dillingham hair stylist Bristy Larsen continues to run a "free store" for the community from her salon. Students from across western Alaska filled Dillingham with song when the Region I music festival returned after a three-year hiatus. Dillingham held its second annual Pride parade in June. Community member Maria Dosal organized a dance group for women and two-spirit people to practice yuraq this summer, and the Inuit-soul band Pamyua came to Dillingham to perform a concert in September, where Dillingham's dance group was a big part of the show.
Artist Amber Webb continues to use her art to document the toll of the missing and murdered Indigenous peoples' epidemic, and the oversized qaspeq she created was featured in museums around the state and the country. On May 5, people gathered at Kanakanak Hospital and students danced at the Curyung Tribal Council to recognize and remember to remember those lost to violence.
This fall, Bailey Olson of Dillingham and Mai Webb of Aleknagik represented the region at the 2022 Elders and Youth conference.
KDLG's Izzy Ross won second place for best sports coverage at the 2022 Alaska Press Club for the story 'I felt like I needed it'; Dillingham athletes say this year's NYO Games more important than ever, which featured students and coaches talking about the role of the Native Youth Olympics in their lives during the pandemic and the 2021 season.
The KDLG team would like to extend its heartfelt thanks to the journalists at radio stations around the state who collaborated on coverage this year. Our stories aired on Alaska Public Media's statewide news programs throughout the year and several were republished in the Anchorage Daily News.
Two KDLG stories on national news also bookended the year. NPR’s Here & Now aired a feature on Dillingham student Tracen Wassily’s rap about the Epic of Gilgamesh in January, and National Native News aired a story on students’ efforts to rename a Dillingham creek marked with a derogatory word in December.
A special thanks to all the reporters and staff who contributed to KDLG this year: Tyler Thompson, Avery Lill, Kendra Kapotak, Brian Venua, Corinne Smith, Katherine Moncure, Mackenzie Mancuso, our summer interns Alex Buholm and Sarah Fuller and last but not least General Manager Sam Gardner.
Have a safe and happy new year!
Get in touch with the author at email@example.com or 907-842-2200.