Bristol Bay Fishermen Welcome President to Southwest Alaska


Bristol Bay fish harvesters gave President Barack Obama a hands-on education in what it takes to commercial and subsistence fish in the world's largest sockeye salmon fishery. Commercial harvester Alannah Hurley, left, with Mae Olson, offered the president a silver salmon fresh out of the set net, as they explained how the set net fisheries work. Photo by Bob Waldrop.

Sept. 2 in Dillingham, Alaska, in the words of veteran commercial fisherman and business leader Robin Samuelsen, "was like a make believe world."

President Barack Obama had come to town and the residents of this Yupik Eskimo fishing community at the confluence of the Nushagak River were ecstatic. His visit came on the third day of the president's trip to Alaska, after a major speech on climate change in Anchorage, and a visit to the Seward area on the Kenai Peninsula.

Samuelsen, who rode with Obama in a limousine from the airport into town, said "Mr. President, the whole town turned out for you."

When the president's plane landed on the tarmac at Dillingham, "I thought of my father, Harvey, who spent his whole life fighting for Bristol Bay," Samuelsen said. "I said I wish you were here. This is history in the making."

One big reason for the huge welcome was that last Dec. 16, Obama permanently withdrew the waters of Bristol Bay from oil and gas development.

Bristol Bay, said Obama, in announcing his decision, is "one of America's greatest natural resources and a massive economic engine, not only for Alaska but for America." He said he would "make sure that it is preserved into the future.

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"Bristol Bay has supported Native Americans in the Alaska region for centuries," the president said in a video message. "It supports $2 billion in the commercial fishing industry. It supplies America with 40 percent of its wild-caught seafood. It is a natural wonder, and it's something that's just too precious to be putting out to the highest bidder."

Words like that bring smiles to Bristol Bay fish harvesters, who came out in droves from Dillingham and surrounding communities to welcome the president.

Icicle Seafoods opened up its bunkhouse for the advance team from the Secret Service and White House staff, as hotel and bed and breakfast facilities are somewhat limited in Dillingham.

"There was no question in my mind that he was very knowledgeable, that he was very informed about the fisheries," said Norm Van Vactor, executive director of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp. in Dillingham.

A visit like this, Van Vactor said he told the president, "gives us hope. It will change other people's lives.

"The way he engaged the kids, the young people, the dancers," said Van Vactor. "He sat down on the floor taking pictures with the kids ... and then he said 'who's going to help me up?' The youngsters surrounded him, lifting the president to his feet.

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The president's first stop was to speak with fish harvesters on the beach, in the rain, to talk about harvesting, and all the products produced from Bristol Bay's salmon.

"My Aunt Rose Loera talked to the president about how we split fish, and he asked if she could fillet the fish, but the Secret Service wouldn't let anyone have a knife," said Kim Williams, executive director of Nunumta Alukestai, "Caretakers of the Land."

"So he moved up the line and I was the next stop," Williams said.

"I had all the different fish that we process and I explained that every household in Bristol Bay had these fish in our freezers."

The women gave him a jar of smoked king salmon, which he handed off to a Secret Service agent, telling the agent "I want this back," Williams said.

Then he moved on to commercial fish harvester Kathryn Carscallen, who had processed Peter Pan Seafoods and Ocean Beauty Seafoods sockeye salmon fillets, frozen on ice in the round. She handed the president a can of Bristol Bay red salmon and the president recalled how his grandmother used to buy that product in Hawaii when he was a boy, to make fish cakes for the family.

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From there the president moved on to the fish rack, on which Loera had placed fresh cohos, with strips of smoked king and sockeye salmon and flatfish on the bottom.

The president also took a group photo with the beach crew, and made a statement about the importance of the commercial fishery and the responsibility to protect it, Williams said. "He said there are other threats that we have to be aware of and have to watch, and be vigilant," she said. "He didn't have to say Pebble, but we all knew what he was talking about. We all clapped."

Everyone, it appeared, was struck by how friendly Obama was.

"He was shaking everybody's hand, and if people wanted to give him a kiss, he bent over for a kiss," said Judy Samuelsen, Robin's wife, who worked with Williams and Lynn Van Vactor, wife of Norman Van Vactor, to prepare food for Obama and his entourage. The dishes ranged from barbequed salmon to salmon caviar, smoked salmon, traditional jerky, cod, black cod, king crab, and Agutuk, Eskimo ice cream, a traditional dish made with wild berries and seal oil. "They were really, really appreciative," she said.

And just about everywhere Obama went in Dillingham, Robin Samuelsen was at his side, to remind the president of the importance of salmon to Bristol Bay residents.


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