Last updated: 29 october, 2010 - 07:49 GMT

The Americas

The Battle of King Salmon

The wild salmon run in Alaska is the biggest of its kind.

Each year over 40 million fish leave the Pacific Ocean and fight their way up to the headwaters of mighty river systems where they mate, spawn and die.

The young salmon make their way out to sea again and, year after year, as the fish swim back to their birthplace, fishermen are there waiting for them.

For this two-part documentary, the BBC's Nick Rankin reports from Alaska during the wild salmon run and joins commercial and subsistence fishermen who live off this natural resource.

Part one

  • Commercial ships waiting in the water at dawn
    Hundreds of small commercial fishing vessels await daybreak. Crews get a few hours sleep whilst the salmon escape upriver to spawn before the start of the fishing ‘opening’ on 4 July
  • Manowar commercial ship waiting in the water
    They are part of the world’s last great combat fishery, in Bristol Bay, where crews fight it out in a restricted area for the biggest wild salmon catches
  • Bobby Andrew, a native subsistence fisherman, sails out to sea for the salmon run
    Subsistence fishing is also crucial to local Alaskans. Bobby Andrew is a Yupik Eskimo seeking salmon
  • Nick Rankin eats porridge aboard the Chulyen commercial fishing boat
    Presenter Nick Rankin has a bowl of porridge before the nets have to be hauled in. When the salmon run reaches its peak, crews can be fishing 10 or 12 hours without a break
  • Commercial fishermen prepare salmon catch
    The gill nets spread out on the river as the salmon splash into the sides and get caught. The skipper Everett Thompson has to both manoeuvre the boat and assist with the catch.
  • Crew of the Chulyen "pick fish" from the nets
    Crewman Dan Ondersma quickly picks fish from the nets. He’ll get a percentage of every pound of fish caught. The crew will spend a month at sea during the salmon run.
  • Bobby Andrew, a native subsistence fisherman, hauls in the net
    Bobby Andrew single-handedly lays and pulls in his net. He also can only fish during restricted times
  • Bobby Andrew's catch of salmon
    These red or sockeye salmon have had an incredible journey, starting off in mountain streams, growing in lakes and then swimming out to sea to develop
  • Crewmen Lance Underwood and Dan Ondersma hold their catch of sockeye salmon
    Commercial fisherman will catch approximately 30 million out of the 40 million fish which make up the run. But still the salmon come back the next year in similar numbers.
  • Lakota Thompson, daughter of the captain of the Chulyen, waters the sockeye salmon
    Lakota Thompson, daughter of the captain and youngest crewmember, washes down the catch which will be taken to the canneries for processing and export
  • Bobby Andrew processes the salmon
    For the subsistence fisherman, processing takes place at home. Every part of the salmon – eggs, heart, meat, head, bones, liver, milk is kept. Only the guts are discarded
  • Smoking the salmon
    Finally the strips of silver skinned red meat are left to hang in smoke houses where they slowly cure over burning cotton wood. This highly nutritious food is kept for the winter.

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Nick Rankin travels to the Bristol Bay area in Alaska to see how humans are exploiting the greatest wild salmon run on earth.

He joins a commercial fishing boat at the mouth of the Egigik River to find a strictly regulated fishery and hardened crews who fight it out to get the best spots and the biggest catches.

Nick also throws the net out on the Wood River with a native Yupik man whose people have subsistence fished the Alaskan salmon for millennia.

Produced by Neil McCarthy and first broadcast on 29 October, 2010

Download other documentaries

More from this series

  • Is Alaska’s wild fish at risk from a copper mine?

  • Fighting the waves - and nets - on board an Alaskan commerical fishing boat during the greatest wild salmon run on earth

    WatchDuration: 03:42

  • The production challenges faced in making this series

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