Truths and clarifications about Alaska’s Bristol Bay salmon fishery

In January, Discovery/Animal Planet debuted a new “reality TV” show that follows five of the 1,747 Bristol Bay salmon permit holders that fished during the 2014 season. The Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association (BBRSDA), which represents all the Bay’s salmon driftnet fishermen, would like to set the record straight on a few things.


•   Math: Discovery/Animal Planet’s press release about Battle on the Bay (BOTB) refers to Bristol Bay’s 2014 salmon run as having numbered 44 million, which is roughly accurate and represents another great season for the largest sockeye salmon run on the planet. In the same paragraph however, they refer to this as representing “half a billion salmon.” Since half of a billion is 500 million, their press release is off by some 456 million salmon. This creates confusion among the public about the actual size of Bristol Bay’s salmon fishery. The 2015 run forecast for Bristol Bay is approximately 53 million salmon; the largest in the world by far, but still not half a billion.

•   Environmental damage (not!): The BOTB news release and the program itself make repeated references to a necessity to fish for salmon in Bristol Bay because they may “poison the ecosystem” or “wreak havoc on Alaska’s waterways” if not caught. This is false. Fishermen fish in Bristol Bay because it is a great way to make a living and supply our nation – and the world – with delicious, healthful, abundant seafood. We are particularly fortunate in Bristol Bay because we harvest from such a well-managed sustainable resource. While “overescapement” (upstream migration of salmon in excess of spawning goals set by state biologists that manage the fishery) poses lost harvest opportunity for fishermen, it does not damage the ecosystem.

•   Safety: In its premier episode, BOTB said of the Bristol Bay fishery, “Drowning is the number one cause of death, and ramming is the number one cause of drownings.” This is false. From 2000-2013, there were 11 deaths in the driftnet fleet, with 10 of those from drowning and one from burns: According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH), those drowning deaths were due to one vessel sinking, eight falls overboard, and one that resulted from a fall from a dock into the water. None of those deaths involved rammings, which are illegal and unacceptable. The vast majority of Bristol Bay skippers operate at all times with safety as their number one priority.

•   Fishing grounds: BOTB leaves viewers with the impression that most, if not all, Bristol Bay salmon fishing occurs on “the lines,” i.e., boundaries where fish enter terminal fishing districts around the Bay. Although they make for dramatic television, the lines comprise a tiny percentage of overall fishing area in the Bay. Excellent fishing occurs throughout the districts and most fishermen do not identify as “line fishermen.”

•   Fish quality: Most Bristol Bay fishermen are more interested in the quality of their product – which competes on the global salmon market – than they are with competition on the fishing grounds. Many successful efforts and significant investments made by fishermen, managers, policy makers, and processors have advanced the quality and value of Bristol Bay’s salmon products. Forward-thinking Bay fishermen take extra care to bleed and chill their fish, choosing to focus as much on the quality of their catch as its quantity. Seafood processors have encouraged this progress in quality-improvement by offering bonuses and incentives for fishermen to treat their catch with the utmost care and attention.


•   History and culture of a national treasure: Bristol Bay is one of the last, best places on the planet for wild salmon. Pristine, remote, and recently described by President Obama as “a national treasure,” it exists today just as it has for hundreds of generations. Home to a three thousand year-old culture that blends Yup’ik, and Alutiq traditions, it is an exceptional place even by Alaska standards. Battle on the Bay has the potential to share timeless stories of massive salmon runs, cultural continuity and stunning natural beauty with viewers around the country.

•   Salmon quality and the global market: In recent years, fishermen and seafood processors have invested millions of dollars and made great strides in improving the quality of Bristol Bay’s salmon products. Thanks to these improvements in processing and chilling technologies, Bristol Bay produces a tremendous amount of high quality, sustainable sockeye salmon – nearly 50% of total world supply. These improvements have also resulted in higher prices paid to fishermen, which in turn helps ensure the long-term economic sustainability of Bristol Bay’s salmon fishery.

•   Independent family businesses: Each Bristol Bay fishing vessel represents a small, independent business, often a family operation with multiple generations working together. For most, fishing in Bristol Bay is a tradition, and the fishing season a time of renewed family values, dedication, and hard work.

•   Proud stewards of a remarkable natural resource: Bristol Bay fishermen help ensure that salmon spawning goals are met even when they have to suspend their fishing to do so. The recent 130th anniversary of Bristol Bay’s commercial fishery is a testament to sustainable fishery management and cooperation between fishermen, fishery managers, and law enforcement. Bristol Bay’s fishermen are proud of their roles in ensuring the long-term health and productivity of Bristol Bay’s salmon runs.

On February 4th, BBRSDA Executive Director Sue Aspelund sent a letter to Marjorie Kaplan, Group President, Discovery Channel, TLC, and Animal Planet. The letter outlined many of the above concerns, as well as others that members have expressed about Battle on the Bay. You can download that letter here: 2-4-15-Letter-Battle on the Bay

Almost immediately after receiving the letter, Ms. Kaplan replied as follows:

Dear Ms Aspelund,

Thank you so much for reaching out to me.  Our intention in the series is to celebrate the fishermen and the way of life in Bristol Bay.  So we are particularly interested to hear your point of view. 

I’ve shared your letter and will get back to you once we’ve had an chance to look into the points you made. 

Thank you again. M

We encourage fishermen who wish to provide feedback about Battle on the Bay to do so by contacting Chris Finnegan, Senior Vice President for Communications at Animal Planet: Needless to say, it is important to maintain civility and mutual respect in communications of all kinds, including email.

For questions and/or for more information about Bristol Bay’s sustainable salmon fishery, please contact:

Sue Aspelund, Executive Director                 Elizabeth Herendeen, Marketing Director – (360) 927-4295     – (970) 889-1440