Sept. 2 in Dillingham, Alaska, in the words of veteran commercial fisherman and business leader Robin Samuelsen, “was like a make believe world.”
President Barack Obama had come to town and the residents of this Yupik Eskimo fishing community at the confluence of the Nushagak River were ecstatic.
Samuelsen, who rode with Obama in a limousine from the airport into town, said “Mr. President, the whole town turned out for you.”
One big reason for the huge welcome was that last Dec. 16, Obama permanently withdrew the waters of Bristol Bay from oil and gas development.
Bristol Bay, said Obama, in announcing his decision, is “one of America’s greatest natural resources and a massive economic engine, not only for Alaska but for America.” He said he would “make sure that it is preserved into the future.
Words like that bring smiles to Bristol Bay fish harvesters, who came out in droves from Dillingham and surrounding communities to welcome the president.
Icicle Seafoods, in fact, opened up their bunkhouse for the advance team from the Secret Service and White House staff, as hotel and bed and breakfast facilities are somewhat limited in Dillingham.
“There was no question in my mind that he was very knowledgeable, that he was very informed about the fisheries,” said Norm Van Vactor, executive director of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp. in Dillingham. “Nobody had to write any scripts about it; he knew his stuff. It couldn’t have gone any better.”
A visit like this, Van Vactor said he told the president, “gives us hope. It will change other people’s lives.”
The president’s first stop was to speak with fish harvesters on the beach, in the rain, to hear about set netting, harvesting, and the many products produced from Bristol Bay’s wild salmon.
“My Aunt Rose Loera talked to the president about how we split fish, and he asked if she could fillet the fish, but the Secret Service wouldn’t let anyone have a knife,” said Kim Williams, executive director of Nunumta Alukestai, “Caretakers of the Land.”
Williams herself had on display different fish that is processed locally, and she explained that every household in Bristol Bay had these fish in their freezers.
The women gave Obama a jar of smoked king salmon, which he handed off to a Secret Service agent, and he told the agent “I want this back,” Williams said.
Then he moved on to commercial fish harvester Kathryn Carscallen, who had processed Peter Pan Seafoods and Ocean Beauty Seafoods sockeye salmon fillets, frozen on ice in the round. “She talked about the importance of this resource and protecting it, and it being sustainable,” Williams said.
Carscallen also showed the president a can of Bristol Bay red salmon, one he said he recognized because his grandmother would buy them in Hawaii to make fish cakes with crumbled up Ritz crackers.