Last updated: 29 october, 2010 - 13:52 GMT

The Battle of King Salmon

Alaska’s wild salmon run – the biggest in the world – may be under threat, as a two-part BBC World Service documentary investigates. Producer Neil McCarthy explores the challenges in making the series, The Battle of King Salmon

Presenter Nick Rankin (left) and Producer Neil McCarthy await a light aircract at the South Naknek Airport, Bristol Bay.

Unconventional assignment: Presenter Nick Rankin (left) and Producer Neil McCarthy

South West Alaska has the biggest wild salmon run in the world. We wanted to see how people catch this remarkable fish, which lives in both freshwater and the ocean, and to consider the future of the fishery and of the salmon itself.

It turned into quite an unconventional assignment. Presenter Nick Rankin and I seemed to spend more time up in the air and on the water than on dry land.

Clean recording

Flying around in float planes offers a bird’s eye view of the dramatic Alaskan landscape – spongy tundra extends for hundreds of miles and rivers wind their way up to volcanic mountains – but recording inside the planes has its own difficulties.

The deafening engine noise is cancelled by headsets and communication between passengers is through mouthpieces. Only by tucking a clip microphone into the earpiece could we record everything as we heard it through the communications feed.

Nick Rankin enjoys a birds eye view as this float plane takes him over the Nushugak River, following the salmon

Nick Rankin flying over the Nushugak River, in search of salmon

Then the presenter was able to give a running commentary of the unfolding landscape and the upriver journey of the salmon from this unique perspective.

Recording on the boats also had its complications. The three man crew of the ‘Chulyen’ out in Bristol Bay worked fast and furiously, constantly on the move around the small boat, laying and pulling in nets and picking out the sockeye salmon.

The only way to capture the dialogue was to use radio mics so that the captain, Everett Thompson, and the presenter could move freely and would always be recorded clean; then I used a stereo microphone to record the general action and atmosphere on the boat. Later, when editing, they all needed to be synched together.

Best 'catch'

Bobby Andrew, Yupik subsistence fisherman

Contrast to commercial fishery: Bobby Andrew, Yupik subsistence fisherman

Bristol Bay is one of the remaining ‘combat fisheries’ where boats fish right alongside each other in a very confined fishing zone – all vying to get to the best spots to catch the most salmon.

Tempers fly and the action gets very heated with so much fish, therefore money, at stake. The advantage was that because the boat was quite small and other boats were nearby, a rich sound picture emerged.

Away from the commercial fishery we also spent time with native Yupik people at their fish camp in a place called Lewis Point on the Nushugak River. This was very much a quiet contrast and this group of subsistence fishing families were keen to talk to us.

They fear a proposed giant copper and gold mine at the headwaters of their rivers, where the salmon spawn, will bring an end to their lifestyle which has supported them for 9,000 years.

Knife edge

One of about 800 boats which fight it out for the salmon in restricted waters. This is one of the world's last 'combat fisheries'

One of about 800 boats which battle for the salmon in restricted waters

However, the picture is not black and white. Other native people who live close to the proposed mine site see opportunities for their failing local economies.

The eco-story of the series, away from the fishing practice, considers the implications of this mine and what it would mean for the water and by extension the salmon, if it was ever contaminated.

Copper makes salmon lose their sense of smell and they cannot find their way back to the rivers they were born in to spawn.

Bristol Bay, the last remaining wild salmon run in the world, is on a knife edge as a choice has to be made between our demand for non-renewable metals and the sustainable fishery.

  • The Battle of King Salmon broadcasts on BBC World Service from 29 October. To listen to the documentary,click click here.

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