Bristol Bay, Alaska

By Nancy Stoner

As I flew over Alaska, I was struck by the vast beauty of this pristine and unspoiled land. From my perch in the helicopter, looking over the complex waterscape of lakes, wetlands, winding rivers and streams, I encountered a unique ecosystem that led to an equally unique way of life among the people who inhabit this vast and wild land. This was my trip to Bristol Bay, Alaska, a place far removed from the rush of life in Washington, D.C.

The raw nature of this place inspired me. I traveled by boat over water that was remarkably clear and clean, and stretched endlessly before us – as far as the eye could see. On land, I saw tundra brimming with blooming wildflowers and snowcapped mountains in the distance.

Bristol Bay is home to sockeye salmon, rainbow trout, moose, caribou and countless other aquatic and land life. At least 20 of the Bay’s Native American communities rely on its natural resources for subsistence living and traditional use, and the Bay holds the most productive sockeye salmon fishery in the world worth hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

Through my visits in several native communities, I saw and heard the stories of people and their way of life in Bristol Bay. On Bristol Bay, I saw offshore canneries and fishing boats lined up to harvest the sockeye salmon spawning run. On the rivers that flow into the Bay, I saw riverfront homes and heard from people that caught and ate from what the river held. I saw huge king salmon that had just begun to swim upstream through these communities. I met many subsistence fishers, who divide their catch among elders and others who cannot catch fish, and prepare a winter’s supply of food for their families.

This incredible trip to Alaska and observation of the daily lives of people who fully depend on clean water for food and life left an indelible impression and a deepened respect for the people and their way of life, as well as the pristine beauty of Alaska’s waterways.

About the author: Nancy Stoner is Acting Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Water. The trip included meetings with the public as EPA conducts scientific assessments of the watershed and considers the effects of large-scale development (www.epa.gov/Region10/bristolbay/).

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