Willliam and Mary Ann Johnson and their daughter, Kim Williams were interviewed on December 10, 2015 by Karen Hebert at the Johnson's home in Dillingham, Alaska. In this interview, they talk about the importance of fishing in Bristol Bay and their family's fishing activities. They discuss their roles in local advocacy and Native organizations, and changes in fishery management and the Limited Entry permit system. They also talk about the importance of leadership, the Pebble Mine debate and impacts from development, and give advice to the next generation.
Digital Asset Information
Project: Fishing and Natural Resources in Bristol Bay
Date of Interview: Dec 10, 2015
Narrator(s): Kimberly Williams, William Johnson, Mary Ann Johnson
Interviewer(s): Karen Hebert
Transcriber: Landmark Associates, Inc.
After clicking play, click on a section to navigate the audio or video clip.
William Johnson's childhood and starting to fish
William Johnson's involvement in the Western Alaska Cooperative Marketing Association (WACMA), and Native land claims
Mary Ann Johnson's family background
Kim Williams' personal background and education
Concerns about price of the fish harvested
Development of local organizations and Native land claims
Changes in the fishery and organization of the fishermen
Changes in the permit system and introduction of the Limited Entry program
Local control of land, resource development, and large-scale mining
Changes in perspective on effects of mining
Conflicts between types of fishermen
Interaction with environmental organizations, and preservation of the salmon
The family's fishing permits and fishing activity
Women in the fishery
Changes in transportation and types of fishing boats used
Vision for the future, and importance of the legacy of leadership from the previous generation
Fur trapping, and change to the Limited Entry program
Advice to the next generation
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After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.
KAREN HEBERT: My name is Karen Hébert, and I am here today with Kim Williams and William Johnson and Mary Ann Johnson at their home in Dillingham, Alaska. And I'm going to have them each introduce themselves, giving me their full name, the year and place they were born.
And then we can go around and hear a little about where they spent their early years, before -- before learning more about their experiences here in Bristol Bay.
WILLIAM JOHNSON: My name's William Johnson. I was born in Igushik, Alaska, which is a summer fishing camp.
My father was a Swede from Sweden. And my mother was from Nelson Island, so she's a Yupik Eskimo. So I'm a Swede-Eskimo.
And I grew up here in Dillingham. The year that I was born in Igushik, my family moved up Dillingham here, and we had a home over here, which is gone now. And, oh, today's December 10th (2015). I don't think she mentioned that. KAREN HEBERT: I should have.
WILLIAM JOHNSON: And in my formative years, I grew up in a family which was commercial fishing. My father set netted early, but he also fished in a boat. And my mother was a set netter.
So I grew up set netting every summer. And we also put up fish in the fish -- during the season, too. We smoked fish, and we salted fish.
And my dad, he had many gardens, and we grew potatoes and -- and rutabagas and turnips and whatever. Mostly all vegetables. Because he was -- being a Swede, they grew their own foods in Sweden.
In -- in the middle '40s, I started school here in Dillingham. My father had held -- held me back. So when I started school, I think I was seven years old.
And in the wintertime, we went to school in a dogteam, and everybody had dogteams. So I remember going to school in the wintertime, and at 30 below, it was a miserable trip. About a two-mile trip to the school, and it was miserable cold.
And the roads we had weren’t maintained. It was a gravel road, and every spring it -- when the snow melted, then we had transportation on the road. And thinking back, I think being --
I -- I packed water. I cut wood. Just like my dad did. He taught us how. He took us out into the woods and we cut wood. So we knew how to keep the family warm.
We had a wood stove in the house. And in those years, houses weren't very big. Because if you had a big house, it took a lot of wood to keep warm.
So, later on, I was the first one to graduate from high school in our family. Everybody else quit to go to work, make money, and support the family.
But in those days, salmon was an important resource. Both for monetary purposes, and also it was the gasoline for our transportation. It fed the dogs.
And my wife and I, we both grew up cookin' for dogs. My dad's dogteam. And she cooked for her dad's dogteam.
And they -- they split fish. Caught fish, split fish, and hung 'em up on a rack. And then they put them in bundles, and stored 'em in the -- the dog fish shack. That's where you kept the dog food.
And I graduated from a Territorial high school. 1958. The next year, in '59, Alaska became a state.
In the mid-'60s, we started organizing. Prior to that, in the early -- late '50s, I got involved with a fishing organization called the Western Alaska Cooperative Marketing Association (WACMA), and where I also met people that were leaders in our community and the fishing -- especially in the fishing industry.
I met all the cannery superintendents, 'cause I got elected to the board of WACMA. And I knew Winn Brindle. All the pioneers in the fishing industry.
And I also met most of the people who are involved in that, were the leaders in our community. Namely Harvey Samuelsen, Herman Schroeder, and Jim Brandon. Jim was an Eskimo from Nome. And he was the first one that I ever heard say, "if you want something, you gotta organize."
And that's how I became involved in organization through WACMA. And then later on, we started with the Johnson's administration of the Offices of Economic Opportunity.
We got involved with RurAL CAP (Rural Alaska Community Action Program), the development corporations in -- like, in Bristol Bay, we had a Bristol Bay Area Development Corporation. And I got involved in that in the administration originally, and eventually becoming the director.
And that's -- Through that organization, we got involved in the Native Alaska settlement. Alaska Native Settlement organizations (Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act - ANCSA).
And being involved in that, eventually, I became an administrator. And we helped organize a -- We -- I mean, we implemented the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act after it was passed.
And I remember going to the meeting of AFN (Alaska Federation of Natives) in Anchorage, where Richard Nixon addressed the group. And at that time, he signed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
After that, it was a -- we had to implement the Act. We had to organize the village corporations, and also the regional corporations.
I was one of the incorporators of the Bristol Bay Native Corporation. And I was involved in that for 20-some years.
But in the meantime, I also commercial fished every summer. In order to be a good fisherman, you have to have good winter job.
And we enjoy that. I enjoy that type of life still, where we have to work. Because work is what keeps everything goin'.
KAREN HEBERT: Absolutely. And let's return to some of the work that you did, in all of those different organizations.
Maybe we can finish going around the room, and have everyone here just give a quick, little -- just -- just state your -- your name, and where you were born. And where you spent your early years.
And then we can come back to all talking together about some of all of your family's involvement in these issues over the years.
MARY ANN JOHNSON: I don't wanna do this. (Laughter)
KIMBERLY WILLIAMS: Just say your name and --
MARY ANN JOHNSON: I'm Mary Ann Johnson. Married to William P. Johnson. KIMBERLY WILLIAMS: Born?
MARY ANN JOHNSON: Born in Kanakanak. KIMBERLY WILLIAMS: Raised? WILLIAM JOHNSON: Maiden name? MARY ANN JOHNSON: Raised in Dillingham.
KIMBERLY WILLIAMS: What's your maiden name? MARY ANN JOHNSON: Wallona. My maiden name was Wallona. There was eight of us kids.
WILLIAM JOHNSON: And your father came from? He grew up in an orphanage and he originally came from Port Heiden area. KAREN HEBERT: Oh, wow.
WILLIAM JOHNSON: So, he came up here in 19-, around 1920, and he grew up and lived in an orphanage. I guess he got here when he was somewhere around five years old. And he grew up in an orphanage.
And that's why Bristol Bay is comprised of many Native people from throughout the Bristol Bay region. Mainly, because they came to the orphanage, and then they stayed around here. And they grew up around in this area.
So when you go and talk to some of these old people nowadays, you can know -- I mean, they will tell you that they were from Egegik, Port Heiden, Togiak. Because they were all brought here by the government, and they grew up in the orphanage, and then they stayed around here.
KAREN HEBERT: And you -- you all had children. How many children? MARY ANN JOHNSON: Five. WILLIAM JOHNSON: Mm-hm.
KAREN HEBERT: Including one who's right here.
KIMBERLY WILLIAMS: My name is Kimberly Williams, and I am the oldest daughter of William and Mary Ann Johnson, who's sitting here.
I was born at Kanakanak, just like my mom. And I have three brothers. I had one sister, who passed away when she was in high school.
And I grew up listening to all of the politics and the organizations that my dad did, and his work, but also my mom. Through her activity through the village council.
She served on -- she was elected to the village council. So the tribal council, and then she served on the housing authority board. And she served on the hospital board.
And so I grew up having board members coming in to our house, and listening to them. But I -- I remember -- and especially realized from all of that activity, that there was some duties put on children of organized families and leadership. That you had to go to school, and you had to go and get an education, and come back.
And I have -- the first one in my family that has a bachelor's degree, and the first one in my family that has master's degree. But then my children -- my daughter, has a doctorate.
So from -- from a high school diploma from my father, and his mom probably had a sixth-grade education, or at least my mom's grandma had a sixth-grade education.
Just in the span of three generations, we now have doctorates in our family. So, that's a big achievement.
And I think of that in itself is -- is what has happened in our region. And how education has played a really important role. In not only organizing, but realizing that our future is really dependent on education.
KAREN HEBERT: So these are great perspectives. And maybe I can ask you all to speak a little bit more about the different things you're -- continue to talk about your involvements and how that influenced your perspectives on what were the most important resource issues that people were concerned about in Bristol Bay, whether in the days of WACMA or in more recent years, in the work that you've all been involved in doing.
So, I mean, whether you wanna also speak to how you actually -- the activities that you did involving natural resources, or your political involvements, or both, would be great.
WILLIAM JOHNSON: Well, one of our major things that we are concerned about as commercial fishermen is the price that we receive from fishermen. And that's why I got involved in WACMA in the first place.
And we know that unless we organize -- and the fishermen are independent and disorganized nowadays. We don't have the organizations that -- that were set up to market -- market our resources, and to negotiate with the buyers of our salmon to receive the best possible price for our fish.
Nowadays, we're disorganized, and the price of fish has plummeted. And that's related mainly to the disorganization of the fishermen.
And if the fishermen were to get together and see improvement in the price of their product, they will have to organize. And start an organization in which they can go to each of the companies and negotiate fish prices. Unless that happens, we're gonna continue to see the price of fish drop, and our return diminish.
KAREN HEBERT: And so tell me how people in Bristol Bay have been organized over time. You said you were really involved in the, you know, creation, it sounds like, of both the BBNA (Bristol Bay Native Association), and the BBNC (Bristol Bay Native Corporation).
And so, have those -- what were -- what were the main goals of those folks, you and others who were involved in building those organizations at the time? What did you most want to address in doing that?
WILLIAM JOHNSON: Well, you gotta look at what was driving the -- what was our feelings back when --
You know, I graduated from a Territorial high school, and the following year, it became a state. And after statehood, the state started selecting land. And they were selecting land that we used.
So one of the first groups that confronted this was the Bristol Bay Area Development Corporation, which was organized under RurAL CAP, which is still in existence today in Anchorage.
And they put on a Native allotment drive. That was to get the Natives to apply for land that they used for berry-pickin', hunting, and whatever. Trapping. And file for Native allotments. And that's one of my first goals -- one of my first tasks, was --
KAREN HEBERT: And what year was that, about, that -- ?
WILLIAM JOHNSON: In 1967. '68. In that area. No. Yeah, it was in that time frame.
And so there was only three of us in the staff, so we just broke up the region into what areas that we would go and visit. And help people file for Native allotments.
And I took the Yup’ik-speaking area, because I was able to understand and speak the Yup’ik language, to some extent. And then we had Linda Backford, who took care of the upriver and the Aleknagik. The Aleknagik people drove down here, so she took care of the upper region.
And Ted Angasan, he took care of the west. The (Alaska) Peninsula, and Iliamna Lake region. And I guess we were pretty good at what we did, 'cause Bristol Bay ended up with the most Native allotments filed in the state, of the regions.
So we knew how -- we learned how to do things. And then following that, after Native allotment, then the whole state got involved in getting the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act into being.
Had to fight the politicians, and public opinion. And so, here we are today, from being involved in WACMA, we got into the Native claims, and from the Native claims, we got all these other organizations. Bristol Bay Health Corporation. All the other BB's.
And then we also supported the University of Alaska to get the Bristol Bay campus here. That was one of the things that we supported. Because we know that education is the foundation of everything.
KAREN HEBERT: And so, this is a question for you and everyone else, but looking back, especially given how many different, important initiatives you've been involved with, a lot of the issues that you mention, about fish prices and control of Native lands, what do you see as having changed the most? And what do you see as staying the same, from the past to the present?
WILLIAM JOHNSON: Well, the biggest change I've seen is the negative influence of the -- I mean, the canneries, you gotta say are organized. Because they have substantially reduced the cost of the product that they have -- I mean, diminished the price of the product that they buy from the fishermen.
Last year it was down to 50 cents a pound. And that is not very good. So the biggest problem that we -- Bristol Bay faces right now is the fish prices. And unless they get organized, they're gonna continue to see a diminishing prices.
Especially if the State of Alaska gets a minimum wage of $15 an hour. They would have to pay the cannery workers 15 bucks an hour, which they -- I think the current price is somewhere around seven, eight dollars.
So, they're gonna see a double in their wage. And, you know, for the canneries to make money, they're gonna have to cut where they can. And where they can cut is the disorganized price that they pay to the fishermen.
KAREN HEBERT: And -- and what did you do when you were involved in WACMA in the past? What did you do to be effective in the organizing? How did WACMA work?
WILLIAM JOHNSON: We -- we negotiated with the fishermen, and the fishermen were -- I mean, there wasn't that many fishermen back in those days. Generally, there was about 1300 active participants in the drift fishery.
Now with the passage of the Limited Entry law, everyone who participated in the past had an opportunity to file for and obtain a Limited Entry permit.
And originally, after the passage, and people got their permits, some guys as they were getting old, they sold their permits for next to nothing.
And that's how we've seen a migration of permits goin' to mainly people on the Outside. And there's nothin' that's gonna change it, because they have the financial backing, and the know-how on how to get loans to get involved in the fishery, and they're buying permits for their kids.
And we're gonna see Alaskan residents being -- becoming -- they already are a minority in a Limited Entry fishery. So I don't see anything right now that will -- will work like get the fishermen organized. Until the fishermen get sick of that low price that they're getting' for their fish.
KAREN HEBERT: What about the other issue you mentioned? It sounds like you were really successful in Bristol Bay, in getting a lot of Native allotments.
But in terms of control over lands in this area and lands that, you know, Native people, you all included, have harvested on for many years, whether it's controlled by the state or other kinds of Outside developers, how has that changed over time? Or where do you see that, sort of, heading?
WILLIAM JOHNSON: Well, right now, after we -- You know, lookin' at the economic situation in Bristol Bay, you know, there have been a lotta hard times goin' around. We've seen a lotta those Native allotments change hands. You know, people have sold them.
And that's a negative aspect of what we thought would happen. We thought that, you know, once you own land, if you take care of it properly, you can get a good return on it. But that hasn't happened, except for a few people.
KAREN HEBERT: And even beyond allotments, you know, we've heard in recent years about lots of different proposals to potentially, you know, develop mining in Bristol Bay, and other sorts of things.
How do you see that fitting in to the challenges that -- that were there when you were involved in these issues in the '50s, '60s, '70s?
WILLIAM JOHNSON: Well, one of the main reasons that we are concerned about is the water quality. And if there's any dangers to our resources, would be contamination of our water resource.
And mining has a -- has a great potential for reducing the quality of our water. And we know that our waters in Bristol Bay support the greatest red salmon fishery in the world. And the only thing that can change it is mining, and contamination of our water resource.
KIMBERLY WILLIAMS: So, Dad, when you -- when you were chairman of BBNA, when did you guys first hear about large-scale mining?
WILLIAM JOHNSON: We always were in favor of mining. Even when we first organized Bristol Bay, we had -- we hired consultants who'd -- who compiled information on the mineral resources in that region -- in our region.
Because we were -- we wanted to become involved in resource extraction also. But after -- after -- over time, our -- our view of mining has changed drastically, because we know that our salmon resource is dependent upon good water.
KIMBERLY WILLIAMS: So, Dad, why didn't -- when you worked at BBNC, and you were the director of lands at BBNC, Pebble is on state land. Why didn't BBNC select that site? Because you knew back then there was potential for mineral development. So, why didn't BBNC select the Pebble prospect?
WILLIAM JOHNSON: Well, we really didn't know that there was a prospect there. We knew that there one in -- over by Kokhanok, and we had that explored by Cominco. We had an agreement with Cominco.
And the exploration of -- of the Pebble prospect occurred afterwards, kind of. So we were unaware of the Pebble prospect. We didn't know about it. And it wasn't even on the horizon then when we had to complete our land selection.
We had a deadline for our land selections, and by the time -- by the time that was, it don't -- the Pebble prospect surfaced after we did our land selections.
KIMBERLY WILLIAMS: There was a -- I always understood the record that there was always the mineral potential at the Pebble prospect, and that even back in the -- the late '50s or the '60s, that Pebble was kind of -- there was a mineral potential there. Although, they didn't know what the prospect was. Just like Humboldt, which is by Stuyahok and Koliganek. Shotgun Hills.
I mean, these -- these are all mineral potentials that we've had in the region, that people knew about or had an idea about, back in the late '50s, early '60s.
And -- and I -- I just -- I guess -- I -- from my perspective in working on these issues, one of the reasons why I understood BBNC didn't select Pebble, was because of the fishery, and because of salmon and spawning.
WILLIAM JOHNSON: No, no. We just didn't know about it. KIMBERLY WILLIAMS: You didn't know about it?
WILLIAM JOHNSON: Yeah. We didn't know about its potential, nor -- we didn't even know it existed as a possible mineral prospect.
KAREN HEBERT: And I'm curious to hear more about how it came to be that a lot of organizations in this region were really excited about the prospect. Or at least open to the prospect of something like mining.
And then came to see things a bit differently in recent years. And maybe you can talk more about how that changed over time, too.
WILLIAM JOHNSON: Well, it was a change in our attitude. You know, originally we thought that the extraction of resources would be a -- a good business to get into. To keep the organization productive.
But then over time, we learned that mining has great potential for doing away with our resource, or heavily impacting our resource. Which is the salmon.
KAREN HEBERT: And -- and when did that happen? And how did you think that, you know -- what -- what made everyone come to that new realization?
WILLIAM JOHNSON: It -- It's a recent thing. Especially after Pebble came out, and they started proposin' their big hole in the ground. (Laughter)
KIMBERLY WILLIAMS: But I think, you know, like, Tek Cominco, that first held the claims to the Pebble prospect, that was in late '89.
And back in the '80s, when Tek Cominco came out, they only --You know, they had like two or three drill holes, and came out and started talking to the villages.
They really -- they went to BBNA, and they basically had the conversation with BBNA. And you gotta remember, back in the '80s, BBNA was like -- and BBNC were like the spokesmen for the -- the Native community in Bristol Bay.
And they carried a -- a large club back then, so if you went to an organization like BBNA, and made a presentation, and they said no, then I think that fell into Tek Cominco's decision-making.
Not only because it wasn't economical with the three holes that they dug, but BBNA passed a resolution that said, no, you know, we are opposed to the development of this project.
So they -- back in the late '80s, they knew somewhat about mining and the destruction that mining caused. But it -- it -- To me, the perception or the groundswell of opposition to large-scale mining in Bristol Bay really happened when Northern Dynasty bought the claim, and started pitting the region against each other.
So they hired a bunch of people up in Iliamna and Newhalen and put them to work. And -- and got them all fired up about economics and jobs.
And then this side of the region, the Nushagak, and the west side of the region, we weren't part of a borough, so there was all these other dynamics happening when Northern Dynasty purchased that claim that really caused a division in our region.
But Dad's right. I mean, large-scale mining and the destruction to water quality is the biggest player. And -- and modern mining techniques can't stop dams that are breaking.
That happened down in Brazil, where their tailings impoundment facility broke, and killed people. And destroyed communities. And the Mount Polley disaster in Canada is just another example of what can happen to a fishery.
And so it's -- it's a no-brainer for the fishermen of this region, and the outside fishermen of the area, to say, yeah, our salmon's gonna be impacted by any large-scale mining.
And -- and so I think you've seen subsistence, commercial and sports fishermen all united. Which had never happened before. To get that united front opposed to one project, like never before.
I mean, I remember Board of Fish fights, and I'm not an active commercial fisherman, but all of the politics that happened in the Board of Fish meetings of -- in terms of allocation and who can kill fish and who can get the most fish.
There were some pretty heavy battles. And these groups are now united on -- on this large-scale project.
KAREN HEBERT: Yeah. I'm -- I'm curious to hear everyone talk about more -- well, Mary Ann and William, if you can remember how groups used to interact on these issues, and if you've seen that change at all.
Whether internally within the fleet. The east side, west side, Outside fishermen, Alaska and -- and, you know, watershed resident fishermen, and then also all different groups of, you know, users.
In terms of their -- how united or not they've been on these issues. It would be great if you could reflect on that from your historical perspective.
WILLIAM JOHNSON: Yeah. Prior to this mineral prospect here in Bristol Bay being developed, the local residents, the local fishermen here always were against the outside fishermen. We didn't get along.
And there was also a battle between the set netters and the drifters. And finally the set netters got an allocation passed. And to this day, I don't think the drifters would endorse such a thing that happened, you know.
Prior to that, we -- we fished all on the same openings, and we pulled up our nets out on the closures. So we were all equal then, but then they got their allocation. And that caused a division between the set netters and the drifters.
And, of course, the outside fishermen always seemed to have an advantage. Because they lived there where the canneries had their headquarters, so they were always involved with being in communication with their set -- their buyers.
Whereas if we were lucky, we got a visitor from our fish company once a year. Generally, around Christmas time. So we always thought that they had an advantage over us. And because of that advantage, we -- we sort of disliked that.
KAREN HEBERT: And -- and what also about sports fishermen and sort of environmental groups and environmental interests? Can you tell me about the history of relationships there?
WILLIAM JOHNSON: Yeah. In the sports fishing industry, we've seen them obtain a good portion of our resource. And that's a recent activity, you know.
In -- in the early '60s was when they started getting into the Bristol Bay for sports fishing organizations. And they became more active in the Board of Fish and Game activities.
Nowadays, we don't see any commercial fishing on king salmon, in which we used to fish five days a week. Now, we don't have that anymore.
We're lucky if we'll even get one opening during the -- during the time that we used to fish for king salmon, and sell 'em to the canneries.
But by the reduction of the king salmon resources, it's been all allocated to the -- I mean, the sportsmen get a bigger allocation on the king salmon than we do. All we do is we get the -- during the red season, we get a small catch of the king salmon.
KAREN HEBERT: And what about how the fishing fleet here, did they use to have any interaction with environmental organizations at all in the past? And if so, what was that like? And how does that compare to today?
WILLIAM JOHNSON: Well, environmental organizations are somethin' that, you know, just -- we never knew about Teddy Roosevelt and his activity in the environmental push, but we never considered him to be an opponent of ours.
And they were concerned about preservation of the bears, where we were more concerned about the preservation of the fish. So, we've always looked at them with a slanted eye. (Laughter) And they're good people to get along with.
KAREN HEBERT: So, when, you know, Kim was describing how all these different groups of people were coming together in recent years around the Pebble issue, did that -- did that surprise you at all?
And from your perspective, too, does -- does it seem like this is something that is -- can unite people in the way that the unions did in -- in the years in which you were involved in WACMA? Or does it seem like it's sort of a different -- something different now?
WILLIAM JOHNSON: Well, it's a little different, because nowadays it's -- we're -- we're resource-oriented. And we know what is the mainstay of Bristol Bay, is the salmon. And we're concerned about maintaining that importance to -- you know, above everything else.
Because we know our life and our -- our future depend upon a good, healthy resource. Which our salmon is, right now. And we're very concerned about those things which can impact it.
KAREN HEBERT: I'm curious, also, if -- if you wanted to speak about how you got your -- your fishing permit. And, you know, another issue that's gotten a lot of attention in this region, that you already mentioned, is the outmigration of fishing permits.
And, you know, whether that was something that your -- the organizations that you were involved with anticipated, and were concerned about, and, you know, how you see the future looking there?
WILLIAM JOHNSON: Well, the outmigration of the permits is something that we didn't visualize at the time of the passage of the Limited Entry legislation.
And my involvement was -- in the fisheries, was that I grew up helping my mom at her set net site. And helping my dad on his set net site at the time that he fished down at Ekuk Beach.
And then we moved to Igushik, and I always helped my mom. And then I ended up helping my sister, and then my cousin.
And then I eventually got into the drift fishery with my brother. And then I partnered with Nick Wall in '59, and Billy -- yeah, no, in, yeah, in '59. And I partnered with Billy Gurtler in '58. And my brother in '57.
In 1960, I became a captain of my own boat. And back then, all you needed was a gear license, a vessel license, and a fishing license in order to get --
And you had a total investment of about $45 for all your licenses. And after Limited Entry passed, I'm now paying $600 for a Limited Entry, to activate my Limited Entry permit. And then $60 for my vessel license or somethin' like that. So the prices have all gone up.
But I remember being a -- helping my mom. And I enjoyed fishing. I enjoyed pickin' fish. But I've been a captain now for 50-some, 55 years. So --
KAREN HEBERT: And so what were the rest of you doing when William was out fishing? Were you helping on shore, the commercial operation? Were you set netting?
MARY ANN JOHNSON: We fished in a boat. KAREN HEBERT: Oh, you joined? WILLIAM JOHNSON: Yeah, she fished with me. Many years. MARY ANN JOHNSON: Mm-hm.
WILLIAM JOHNSON: And my daughter fished with me a few years. KIMBERLY WILLIAMS: And I fished with my mom for a few years.
KAREN HEBERT: You wanna tell us more about -- about the different fishing operations and how you got involved with those?
KIMBERLY WILLIAMS: Just leave it (the recorder) right here. No, mom -- I -- I can remember very -- when I was really young, my mom and dad would leave for the summer, and we would get this babysitter for the entire summer. And life was hell when we had a babysitter that didn't know how to cook. (Laughter)
But -- but my mom fished with my dad, and then I think when Limited Entry came on, then my mom get her permit. And my dad had his permit, so then they had two boats. And by then, my brothers -- we were all old enough to go fishing.
But I can remember all five of us kids on the boat with my -- my great-uncle, because my dad was working. And we would lay in the bunks and read comic books. And that was because you probably had to have -- for every kid on board, you got so much gear.
WILLIAM JOHNSON: Twenty-five fathoms, yeah.
KAREN HEBERT: What year was that?
WILLIAM JOHNSON: That's one of the Jay Hammond --
KAREN HEBERT: Yeah. People always talk about that time. WILLIAM JOHNSON: -- creation, yeah. MARY ANN JOHNSON: Yeah.
KAREN HEBERT: Do you remember what year that -- ?
WILLIAM JOHNSON: It just happened in that one year. In that one year, I had all my kids on board. Because in order to get our allocation of 150 fathoms, we had to have six -- six people on board. With the gear license.
KIMBERLY WILLIAMS: So we all ended up staying in the bunk and read Archie comic books. (Laughter) While they all fished. But, I -- I mean, I remember that.
But I -- but later, my mom and one of my older brothers fished. So Billy fished with you, huh, mom? MARY ANN JOHNSON: Mm-hm.
KIMBERLY WILLIAMS: For many years.
KAREN HEBERT: And you fished on your own boat, with your son? And were there many other -- many other women who were out there?
WILLIAM JOHNSON: Oh, yeah. MARY ANN JOHNSON: All the women seemed like were out there. WILLIAM JOHNSON: There was a lot of fish -- women.
KAREN HEBERT: A lot of captains? WILLIAM JOHNSON: Yeah. Oh, yeah.
KAREN HEBERT: Who were come of those captains? WILLIAM JOHNSON: Rosa. KIMBERLY WILLIAMS: Who, mom? WILLIAM JOHNSON: Rosa Mulkeit. MARY ANN JOHNSON: Mm-hm. KIMBERLY WILLIAMS: Who else? WILLIAM JOHNSON: That was Johnny Bennett’s sister.
KIMBERLY WILLIAMS: Blanche Kallstrom, mom? WILLIAM JOHNSON: Lot of ladies from upriver. MARY ANN JOHNSON: Mm-hm. KIMBERLY WILLIAMS: Oh, yeah. Annie Chocknok.
WILLIAM JOHNSON: Yeah. And there's still a few around, like that one lady from -- KIMBERLY WILLIAMS: Julia. WILLIAM JOHNSON: -- Koliganek. KIMBERLY WILLIAMS: Julia. WILLIAM JOHNSON: Ishnook?
KIMBERLY WILLIAMS: Yeah. They all -- I mean, as I travel the region now, they'll all ask about my mom and dad. But they -- they talk about mom and fishing. You know, they'll -- they'll mention, how's your mom doin? And I remember -- and that's Annie and Evan Chocknok, so Annia. WILLIAM JOHNSON: Uh huh.
KIMBERLY WILLIAMS: They're all out there. She had her own boat and permit. So --
KAREN HEBERT: So you never -- your -- your family, did you set net at all for a commercial set net?
MARY ANN JOHNSON: Always drift. KAREN HEBERT: Always drift.
WILLIAM JOHNSON: Her mom set netted in the early years. MARY ANN JOHNSON: Whose? My mom?
KIMBERLY WILLIAMS: Yeah. I -- I have pictures of your uncles when they were really young. They must've been like 16 or 15 years old. Set netting down -- MARY ANN JOHNSON: By the creek down there.
KIMBERLY WILLIAMS: Yeah. Kanakanak. Yeah, down there. 'Cause there's poles. I mean, how they fished from the beach -- they had poles up in the nets, and then the picture has all these salmon hanging -- hanging in the web. But that was just down -- down the beach.
KAREN HEBERT: And who did you -- who bought your fish?
WILLIAM JOHNSON: Well, there were a number of canneries around here. Our family, we fished mainly for Libby, McNeill & Libby. So, they had a cannery at Ekuk.
And Winn Brindle bought them out in 1959, I think it was. Or '58, somewhere around there. But we fished for them, too, until we broke away and we started fishing for Pacific American Fisheries. PAF. KAREN HEBERT: PAF.
WILLIAM JOHNSON: Also known as Pay After Fishing. (Laughter)
KAREN HEBERT: So tell everyone who's listening about that experience that you -- Was that an issue of you didn't -- you had to wait a long time to see your money?
WILLIAM JOHNSON: Yeah. Not -- not really. They paid us right after their -- they paid before they left. They paid us before we left -- they left, to go back Outside.
So -- so our credit was PAF. Pay It After Fish -- Pay It After Fishing. We had credit in the stores. And we had to pay our bills after the fishing season. So, it was -- you know, reminiscing about the past is good exercise for the brain.
KAREN HEBERT: Absolutely.
WILLIAM JOHNSON: It pushes away Alzheimer's. (Laughter)
KAREN HEBERT: That's true. So maybe since we just have probably 15 more minutes, is that? KIMBERLY WILLIAMS: Mm-hm.
KAREN HEBERT: So, maybe we could talk -- I mean, maybe we could talk a little bit about like some of the things that you think have stayed the same. We talked so much about the different changes, but are there aspects of living in this region, and all the issues we've talked about, that stayed the same?
Whether things that are positive or challenges that persist? Or anything that springs to mind?
WILLIAM JOHNSON: Not really, no, but things have really changed to the better. KAREN HEBERT: Oh, okay, so tell me more.
WILLIAM JOHNSON: Yeah. Our travel. I mean, I can hop in my car and I go to town, and go anyplace. You wanna fly to Anchorage? Anytime. Back then, you know, in the 1940s, it was -- it was hard to get from one place to another. You had to make arrangements.
Yeah, so we've seen a great change in the way we move around. Nowadays, we can -- instead of a dogteam, we hop on a snowmachine when we have -- if we ever get snow again. (Laughter)
But snowmachines have changed the way we travel. And -- and we got nice highways, good airports. That have improved over time.
I remember going upriver in a boat, and the airplanes landing on sand bars. Now, all the villages got airports.
Back then it was a -- it was a different country then. We had to travel by water or -- or took the chance of flying, going someplace and finding a place to land. Then getting picked up and get -- get to the village. Now, things are so much simpler.
KAREN HEBERT: What about any other thoughts on anything that's stayed the same? Or what's changed the most, for the better or for the more complicated?
WILLIAM JOHNSON: Another big change that's occurred is in our -- our fishing boats. Back then, you know, we had all wood. When I started fishing we were all wooden boats. Then we gradually moved into fiberglass boats. And now mostly aluminum vessels.
And the prices have -- I remember my first boat I bought was $8,000. And it was a fiberglass boat with a diesel engine. The last boat I bought cost me $185,000, and it has two diesel engines in it. And it was a used boat. So we've seen big changes in our tools of the fishing trade.
KAREN HEBERT: And it sounds like, in terms of thinking about the future of this region, and people's livelihoods there, what do you see that looking like? What's the role of fishing in that, as you, sort of, either imagine it or would like to see it?
WILLIAM JOHNSON: Well, I'd like to see the price that we get for our salmon improve. Because right now, if it's gonna be 50 cents a pound next summer, I don't think I'll launch my boat.
Because I can save a lot of money just by just keeping it on shore. A lot of people lost money last year. But now I've got a good job with Social Security Administration. (Laughter) So --
KAREN HEBERT: There are some good changes. WILLIAM JOHNSON: Yeah. That's one thing I like about this country is social security.
KAREN HEBERT: Any -- any other thoughts from the rest of you about the fisheries and livelihoods in this region? And what -- what you see as being important going into the future? What you would like to see?
KIMBERLY WILLIAMS: Well, yeah -- I think what struck me sittin' here with -- with dad and mom, is how they were back then as multi-taskers. They multi-tasked and had many changes and many opportunities, in the -- in the creation of all of these political entities.
At the same time, they fought for their fishery, and they fought for our price. And so, to me, it's a legacy of -- of the -- of what Bristol Bay is made up and the leadership that -- that we have.
And it's -- I think it's incumbent on my generation, and the generation to come after me, to be that same way. That we have to multi-task.
We can't just focus in -- and I think so much we focus in on one issue, and that issue alone. And we fought this issue related to Pebble, but we need to get back to now being the multi-tasker and being the leadership and to solve these issues about the out-migration of our permits, the fish price, and if it --
That, to me, I think, is a takeaway message. Is that this generation, you know, we come from a strong legacy. And it's incumbent upon us to do more. And not to say, “Oh, you know, it's -- Oh, geez, it's changed. Well, damn it.”
Sure, it's changed, but you better do something about it. Because the generation before you did, and they succeeded in giving you what you have today, and the opportunity you have today.
And so what if -- if you have to only fish in the summer, and you get a job in the winter? They did it in the past. And why in the hell can't we do it in the future? That, to me, is a -- is a takeaway.
WILLIAM JOHNSON: One of the things I'd like to mention, too, is that, you know, back in the early years, fur trapping was a big industry.
There was a lotta people here, especially old people in those times, that went up and trapped all winter. Came down and they sold their furs. And they stayed drunk all summer. And then in the fall time, they went back upriver again, and that was their life. But you can't do that anymore.
So, goin' back to Limited Entry, I think one of the resolutions for Limited Entry is to repeal it.
You know, once you -- you know, if the state would repeal Limited Entry, and give a date in the future in which it would become effective, that'll give people the opportunity to straighten out their affairs, and -- and realize that Limited Entry is gonna be done away with.
And I think that would get -- get local people more involved into fishery.
KAREN HEBERT: That's interesting. I mean, one -- one last question I -- I had, in our last few minutes, given what you both have been talking about just now, is -- is sort of given how involved you all have been in these issues in Bristol Bay, what advice you would have to the leaders who are just coming up?
And -- and you already sort of started speaking to that, but if there's any advice or -- advice, but even also just reflections based on your experience sort of organizing to fight for issues that were important for the region, and still are important for the region. What you think is most important for them to know?
WILLIAM JOHNSON: Well, if you're gonna make a change in anything, you know, you gotta realize that the impact you're gonna be having on who's gonna be affected by -- by your decisions. And you have to look at everything, and find out who's gonna be impacted and who's gonna be negatively impacted.
So, you gotta figure out a course, a pre-planned course, and then try to convince everybody that they should go this way. That's the way good decisions are made. By getting more people involved. And, hopefully, we'll overcome some of these negative impacts that we're having.
KAREN HEBERT: Hm. Anything?
KIMBERLY WILLIAMS: Oh, no. I -- I would think that -- And something that I've done, is, especially as it relates to like large-scale mining, is -- is making sure that our young people are involved and aware.
Because, you know, we may not be fighting Pebble much longer, because, one, they're in court and they don't have a backing, and mineral prices are down. And so, you know, Pebble may go to sleep for -- for a while.
And to me, it was important that the young kids get involved, and understand the issues. Because, you know, back in the '80s, sure I was outta high school, but I had a different course of action. And -- and I left it up to leadership at that time to -- they were the ones making the decisions.
And -- and to me, it's -- it's important that our young kids understand the history, and be involved, and learn that history early on.
So that in 20 years, they're gonna be much farther ahead of the game than some of us who had to -- had to play catch-up to understanding why things have happened, and why they happened back then versus today.
So that's -- that's something our -- our kids need to learn. Is that it's important to pay attention to the history, and to understand the issues, but they'll have another course of action to take.
And the legacy is, is that the salmon that we harvest every year, whether it's commercially or through subsistence, when I fill up the smokehouse, I want to make sure -- I want to make sure future generations have that same opportunity.
And part of it is they have to participate in that subsistence fishery to understand what it means to pick fish. What -- what it means to split fish. Or a hundred king salmon, you know. What it means to be a family to do those types of activities. That we have to continue. And that's a good legacy.
KAREN HEBERT: Wanna add to that at all? Last thoughts?
WILLIAM JOHNSON: I don't have anything left. (Laughter) KIMBERLY WILLIAMS: We don't -- we don't have -- WILLIAM JOHNSON: If you -- if you want clarification on anything, give me a call. KIMBERLY WILLIAMS: Yeah.
KAREN HEBERT: That sounds -- that sounds really good, 'cause there's -- there're a lot of details and there are a lot of different organizations.
But it's a really important history to reflect on and have documented. And especially given all the work that you did for so many years. So it's -- it's really great to be able to have this conversation. Thank you. KIMBERLY WILLIAMS: Yeah. WILLIAM JOHNSON: Mm-hm.