Features & Images » Feature Story

feature 240

Robin Allen has her own fair share of fish stories. But the stories she gained during five years of setting nets in pursuit of salmon in the waters of Halibut Cove off Alaska's West Coast have come to an end. In 1989, Allen decided to try her hand at commercial fishing. She returned to the cove on Cook Inlet every year that followed. But this year was her last. Every year she set three 100-foot gillnets from her 22-foot skiff and waited for the fish to come. The giant runs of King and sockeye salmon that used to amaze fishers are seemingly dwindling — the majestic fish which came to personify North America's untamed West Coast are vanishing into thin air — or are they? While officials from the Alaskan government maintain the state hosts one of the healthiest salmon fisheries on the West Coast, Allen saw the fish numbers dropping before her very eyes. A soft spoken native of Colorado, Allen has called Whistler home for the past three years. Like a number of Whistlerites, Allen made her living on the sea. She spends her winters here skiing and photographing Whistler's beauty and her summers on the water selling her catch to the local restaurants. Now she's looking to immigrate to Canada and find a new profession — the thought of taking any more salmon from visibly declining stocks was too daunting for the earth-conscious Allen. "My operation was really small, it was very low key and very low overhead," she says. "When I think about it now it's just amazing the amount of fish being harvested every year. There's no way the levels could be sustainable. Personally, it was time for me to say ‘I've taken enough.’" Allen purchased a permit for $35,000 U.S. in 1988 which gave her a right to fish in Halibut Cove. She invested another $70,000 in her skiff and the hardware she headed for the sea with: three 100-foot gillnets. The permit has recorded previous harvests of up to 75,000 pounds of fish in one season, while a "bad summer" would net around 20,000 pounds of mostly sockeye salmon — pulled in from the ocean by hand. This year Allen says she worked just as hard and got between 5,000 and 6,000 pounds of salmon. It was too much to bear. International politics hit the calm waters of Halibut Cove as the American and Canadian governments faced off over who was taking too much of whose salmon. Harsh words were exchanged over the summer as Allen harvested a pitifully low number of fish for her permit. "All this talk about Canadian salmon and Alaskan salmon… they're Mother Nature's salmon," she says. "I don't check their passport when I take them out of my net. It just makes what I was trying to do — fishing with as little impact as possible — feel like a waste of time." Allen says she believes fishing is a natural thing to do, as humans are part of the food chain. But as soon as the salmon start being treated like a commodity or a stock to be harvested and sold to the highest bidder things get weird. Although she says she doesn't think all fishers should follow her lead and quit to save salmon — she may hold on to her permit and not fish — the time has come where a serious re-evaluation of the commercial fishery has to be undertaken. "Right now people are saying there are no fish. There's no fish and then there's no fish," she says emphasizing the second no. "When they are all gone it's too late for everybody and that will be a sad day."