Rapid erosion threatens Ekuk's unique set net fishery
Ekuk operates differently than other set net beaches in the bay; fishers rely on trucks to carry their catch to the local processor. As fishing in the village evolved with technology and product demands, so has the coastline. Rapid erosion threatens structures and setnet sites across the beach.
It’s midmorning in Ekuk, as people get ready to pull nets from the beach and pick fish. Kay Andrews, an Aleknagik resident, is cutting a Chinook salmon for dinner later.
“I think what makes us unique is, we have Ekuk fisheries," Andrews said. "They support their fishermen by providing eyes and we deliver by vehicles, trucks.”
Ekuk is different from many other beaches in Bristol Bay. Fishers are able to set nets by truck, and the local processor collects catches from truck beds rather than a tender collecting fish from skiffs. The beach acts as natural infrastructure for the fishery. But the rapidly eroding coastline takes away a top layer of gravel. That causes weight issues for the trucks delivering large catches to the processor, about a mile away.
The village is southeast of Dillingham, and two winter watchmen live there year round. Andrews and her family have a long history of set-netting in the village. Her grandfather ran Columbia Ward Fisheries for over 20 years, and her grandmother has sites along the bluff where her cousin fishes. She says set-netting by truck gives Ekuk fishers a slight advantage over those that transport their catch by boat.
“I think we can get our fish processed quicker versus getting it into a holding cell, in a processor, then getting it barged to the cannery sight," Andrews said. "So we pick the fish out of the net, place it in the slush water or ice water, then we deliver it to the cannery.”
That advantage has waned in recent years, with the introduction of ice and refrigerated seawater systems to chill fish on boats.
“You know, I think days are different now, compared to what my grandfather used to do," she said. "They used to pick fish one by one with a pick on the beach. With no ice, but that was all canned back then.”
Further down the beach, another set netter, Julie Wiss, is picking fish with her son Ryan. Wiss grew up fishing in Ekuk and each season they return to work on the family site. She says some of that change is due to a demand for higher-quality salmon.
“Now there’s a lot of fillets and people want pretty stuff and everyone’s aware of it," Wiss said. "You know people pick their nets and clean them, much more; the ropes; the nets; the lead lines; all much better. So in that way it’s changed a lot but, same concept.”
Beyond new tech and products, the rapidly eroding coastline looms over the fishers. The village is losing about five feet of coastline per year, a rate that’s doubled over the last century. Set-netter Jamie O’Connor grew up in Ekuk. As a kid, O’Connor would play and climb the bluffs.
“It’s been really interesting to look at it through that lens and see how the changing shore ice conditions in the winter are impacting how quickly the bluff is eroding," O'Connor said. "It’s made of silt and composite rock that is vulnerable to the ocean.”
Weather events like severe wind storms rip away large chunks of the coastline.
Each season, Fish and Game sets regulations for how big or wide a site can be. O’Connor says they have to make constant adjustments to their sites.
“We’re happy to do that, but it makes you a little more aware of how the coast is changing," she said. "But at the same time it’s been changing my whole life and my great-grandparents’. I mean my great-great grandmother had a wall tent at first creek and she would stay there and watch the net. That’s the site people in our family still fish but it looks very, very different.”
Researchers from the University of Alaska Fairbanks traveled to the region this summer to install new erosion monitoring equipment. Ekuk’s Village Council also recently applied for a climate change and resiliency grant.
Kay Andrews hopes to see a long term solution for the village.
“I could tell this year the tides, are a lot higher. I’ve never really witnessed 24-foot tides as much as we have this season," Andrews said. "And I think it’s our grandmother’s prayers that are still being answered, that our cabin is still up cause we’re right on the beach here. I think, in all, we need to have a sea wall that starts at the cannery.”
Despite the threat of rapid erosion, optimism thrives in Ekuk.
People are happy to return to their sites with family and friends, like the Andrews, Wiss and O’Connor families. And a surge of salmon is providing hope for a bountiful season; that morning was the start of a record-setting push of sockeye up the Nushagak. While some people said it was a slow morning for most camps, the trucks never stopped hauling fish.
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