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Kings from test fishing boats go to Curyung elders

Robin Samuelson with a truckload of fish.
Meg Duff
Robin Samuelson with a truckload of fish.

“Our cultural value is, we share our catch.”

Before commercial salmon fishing opened in Bristol Bay’s thriving Nushagak District on June 26, test fishing boats were out a few days earlier to help provide information about when commercial fishing should begin. And, as it turned out, this year’s sockeye season was delayed to give chinook more time to escape upriver.

But some of the fish those test boats caught were chinook. This year, those king salmon will go to local elders.

Robin Samuelson and Kim Johnson from the Curyung tribe are driving a big white pickup truck back and forth around Dillingham. A blue tote in the truck bed is filled to the brim with king salmon, and the fish are nearly sloshing out. Johnson’s grandkids watch from the back seat.

For the second day in a row, Samuelson and Johnson are delivering king salmon to local Curyung elders. They started with Marie Tenneson, age 94. Now, they are working down their list to folks in their sixties, seventies, and eighties.

The Nushagak District Test Fishery is run by the Bristol Bay Science and Research Institute, or BBSRI, which also runs the Port Moller Test Fishery farther out in Bristol Bay. This year, BBSRI sold its Nushagak district kings to Northline, which is donating them in partnership with the Curyung Tribal Council.

For those doing the delivering, Janice and Butch Bergloff are next.

In the Bergloff’s backyard, two rows of fish are already hanging to dry over the cutting table. It’s a sunny evening, and the strips sparkle in the light.

“I brine them in salt and brown sugar," Janice Bergloff said. "And then Butch usually smokes them."

Fresh strips of salmon hanging to dry.
Meg Duff
Fresh strips of salmon hanging to dry.

But none of those fish are king salmon, or chinook salmon, the traditional favorite for smoking. Then, Robin flops six kings into a tub next to the table.

“Oh man alive is the best thing that ever happened to us. It's almost as good as free health care,” Bergloff said.

King salmon are in decline around Alaska. Elsewhere in the state, even subsistence fishing for kings is banned. That’s not true here in Bristol Bay, but many elders can no longer fish for themselves, including the Bergloffs. And a couple who used to share kings with them moved away.

“Yeah, so this is a real treat for Butch and I, we won't forget this,” Bergloff said.

Looking down at the tub, Janice is most excited about one part of the fish.

“Yeah, best thing with these, the big king heads," Bergloff said. "I’ll cut right here just below the first fin and then I'll salt them. First time I’ll have salted heads in quite a few years. Yeah this is a very good thing for us, extremely good thing. Quyana to the tribe. And quyana to whoever thought about this idea. This is a damn good idea."

These kings come from the Nushagak district test fishery, which is operated by BBSRI. Institute director Jordan Head says usually, the kings they catch to predict salmon runs each season are sold, to help the test fishery cover its costs.

Test fisher Katherine Cascallen and Curyung member chief Robin Samuelson hatched the plan to get those kings to local elders.

“It's just a win-win situation for everybody all around,” Samuelson said.

Johnson, the Curyung tribal administrator, says she’s excited to see everyone involved coming together to care for elders.

“Our cultural value is, we share our catch," said Johnson. "It's harder and harder for elders in our community to get any taste of a king salmon."

Elsewhere in Alaska, test fisheries also bring in kings, even in places where subsistence fishing is not allowed. According to BBSRI, other test fisheries are also donating their kings to elders.

According to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, salmon bycatch from trawlers is also often donated, through a Seattle-based nonprofit called SeaShare. SeaShare distributes fish to food banks in Dillingham, Bethel, Kodiak, Juneau, St. Paul and in the Lower 48.

Processors in Bristol Bay also donate kings through the program, according to SeaShare. Last year, some of those kings went to rural villages in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region. Others went to elders in the Interior through the Tanana Chiefs Conference, according to their website.

Johnson says this is the first year that kings specifically from the Nushagak District test fishery have been donated to local community members. She says the idea of donating fish in Dillingham is not new.

“We just then expanded that to our elders,” Johnson said.

In Dillingham, Johnson says the test fish giveaway was possible because so many elders lived nearby. Getting kings to elders in more rural locations is more challenging.

“It's possible to do it. … It just becomes logistically, imagine that 10 times more difficult than just in Dillingham,” Johnson said.

Samuelson says, in Dillingham, the logistics involve coordinating with a long list of elders, lots of driving and quite a workout hopping in and out of a tall truck bed.

“This elder got pooped delivering fish! It's a lot of work. But it's well worth it," Samuelson said. "It really sparked my heart to work harder at it and get them more fish. And they were just really appreciative."

Samuelson and Johnson dropped off more than 250 pounds of king salmon to dozens of elders.

Correction July 3, 2024: The web version of this story originally stated that fish came from test boats at Clark's Point. The fish came from boats that fish around the Nushagak District, including at Clark's Point.

Meg Duff is a fisheries reporter for KDLG's Bristol Bay Fisheries Report. She is also a freelance journalist, writing and making audio stories for publications like Scientific American, MIT Technology Review, Outside, Slate and Yale Climate Connections. Meg has a master's in journalism from New York University.