Divisions Among Alaskan Salmon Fishing Groups

Ethnic and geographic divisions

Fishing groups tend to be distinguished and stereotyped within the fishing community according to ethnic and geographic affiliations. In Bristol Bay, non-resident fishers (those not from Alaska) come from Puget Sound, the Columbia River and Astoria. Ethnic and kinship groups of Italians come from Pittsburg, Monterey and San Francisco, California. Yugoslavian fishing groups are further divided by religious and political beliefs. Norwegians come from Seattle and are known as "squareheads." Local fishers are divided into social groups of Eskimos, Aleuts and Athabascans. Little social interaction or occupational communication occurs between these groups and racial slurs and stereotypes are frequent, especially between local (often Native American subsistence fishers) and non-resident (often White commercial) fishers (Miller and Johnson, 1981).

Conflict between native Tlingit and White fishers

In southeastern Alaskan salmon fisheries, ethnic divisions among fishers have reached a climax between White and native Tlingit fishers. The Tlingit have a traditionally maritime culture and are known for their potlatches and totem poles. The descendants of Norwegian and Finnish immigrant fishers have come to resent the return of Tlingit fishers to the Alsek and East River fisheries after their 20 year absence following a devastating earthquake. Tlingit fisher camps have been shot at thirteen times by non-natives in an attempt to scare them away from the fishery. Permits are required to fish the rivers, but permit prices have become too high for many Tlingit to afford to buy or keep. These high prices do not allow young Tlingit to be able to fish like their ancestors and maintain their lifestyles according to cultural traditions. This causes resentment against the White fishers with enough money to purchase permits. Additionally, the Tlingit communal sense of ownership conflicts with the Western sense of private ownership, and the techniques of Native Americans and Whites to manage the fishery reflect this contradiction. The Tlingit operate on a first-come, first-serve basis and race their boats for the most favorable sites, while Whites establish monopolistic rights to fish the water near their camps (Gmelch 1988).

Other divisive issues

The fishing community is further divided by competence and experience of the fishers. New fishers, particularly women, are resented and their reliance on older fishers is found annoying. Doctors, lawyers, Oregon farmers and other "non-committed" fishing groups are disdained for fishing as a hobby or side-job by "professional fishermen". Competition and the conflicting interests of dipnetters, sports anglers and commercial fishers also create social divisions and tensions between those groups. Fishers are additionally distinguished by the salmon cannery for which they fish. Canning companies foster competition between fishing fleets by offering cash incentives for biggest catches (Miller and Johnson 1981). The short salmon season creates temporal divisions among fishers because they do not interact with each other at all during the winter, but belong to seasonal micro-communities that emerge at canning firms during the fishing season. The advent of salmon canneries has completely changed village life for local native fishers by switching economic focus from the fishermen at sea to the workers in the canneries (often women and children) in the village (Dombrowski 1995).

Return to Sociological Aspects of Alaskan Salmon Fisheries