A third of the state’s subsistence salmon harvest was caught in Bristol Bay in 2017, according to a McKinley Research Group report. Critical to Bristol Bay’s culture, the subsistence economy is remains the oldest and most continuous use of salmon.
The report, “The Economic Benefits of Bristol Bay," attempts to quantify what it would cost to replace subsistence salmon with other protein sources from stores in the region.
Bristol Bay subsistence fishers caught over 500,000 pounds of salmon in 2017, according to the latest data available. The research group estimates that it would cost $5-$10 million to replace that catch with other sources of protein. Rebecca Braun is one of the researchers who worked on the report.
“Because the world speaks in dollars, we tried to translate the subsistence harvest into dollars," Braun said. "And it’s kind of an inherently impossible exercise, because subsistence values goes beyond economics.”
Braun and her colleagues recorded meat prices from six different stores. They found that meats like chicken and ground beef are about $6 a pound, and steak was projected as high as $18 a pound.
Two of those stores also sell salmon. One imports farmed salmon for $17 a pound and another offers smoked Alaska salmon for $25.
“We called grocery stores and it’s funny," she said. "We asked, ’What would it cost to buy salmon local, wild caught?’ They laughed and said, ‘Why would anyone do that?’ Because people catch their own out there. We discovered it would be quite difficult to replace it in a grocery store.”
More than 750 residents in Bristol Bay reported a subsistence harvest in 2017. Artist Apay’uq Moore lives in Aleknagik, a small community north of Dillingham. She grew up in the region and participates in the subsistence fishery each summer.
“Yeah I’ve done it for five years now as the head of my smokehouse -- well, my mom helped me out for the first few years," Moore said. "I’ve put a net out in Aleknagik, I’ve gone down the Wood River a little bit and I’ve worked with my friend Suzie a lot at her sight down on Scandinavian [Beach].”
Moore agrees that the value of subsistence fishing goes beyond protein replacement and dollar figures. She says it’s a generational practice and provides a mental getaway from day-to-day stress.
“It shares a little bit of the values that we have here as Indigenous people," she said. "And that there isn’t just one economy out there; we have our spiritual economy and emotional economy. Those are the returns and gains that we’re looking for when we’re subsisting, practicing our humble beginnings and sort of connecting with our ancestors through that emotional and spiritual space.”
Alaskans elsewhere harvested just under a quarter of Bristol Bay's subsistence catch. Half those residents came from Anchorage and the remainder were from 26 communities across the state.