by Bjorn Dihle
Erin Ranney might be best described as a force of nature for nature. When she was 13 years old, she began working on a setnet operation in the Egegik district in Bristol Bay. She fished alongside her aunt, who is a year older than her, and did her best to shoulder all the responsibilities that came her way. Erin had already been to fish camp near Yakutat when she was very young, but Bristol Bay was another beast entirely.
“It was full on,” Erin said.
Erin is a third generation Bristol Bay commercial fisherwoman. Her grandpa has fished all over Alaska and retired from the Bay just this last year. Her step grandma still fishes the bay. Erin’s dad began setnetting in the Egegik district when he was just 13, buying a site just a mile from where Erin’s is today. During one of his first seasons, he caught over fifty thousand pounds of sockeye by himself and bought a wooden Bryant drift boat and permit. Later, he used the money he made from fishing to earn a college degree in biology. Both her parents — her mother also has a degree in biology — imparted their love of the natural world, their work ethic and their commitment to conservation in Erin and her siblings.
“Growing up, everything was a biology and science lesson. My parents taught that if you’re going to take something from nature, you should protect nature, and make things better for the next generation. Eventually all my siblings, aunts and some grandparents all fished on the same beach. No internet, no phone—the lack of connection to the outside world really made us close. Fish camp is a really cool way to grow up,” Erin said.
Commercial fishing also offered Erin the means to gain financial independence at an early age. After earning a scholarship for her undergraduate degree in wildlife ecology, she was able to use her savings from fishing to pursue her dream career. She had watched Travis Rummel and Ben Knight’s “Red Gold,” a documentary about Bristol Bay and the proposed Pebble Project. She was impressed with the film’s effectiveness in helping people to care about the future of Bristol Bay.
Erin had an epiphany: “I could spend eight years writing a paper that not many people may read, but I realized I could use visual images to share these scientific findings and conservation messages.”
She enrolled in a wildlife documentary production Master’s Degree program in England. Afterward, she returned to Bristol Bay and apprenticed with the gator-wrestling and king salmon- whisperer wildlife camera operator Mark Emery. Since then, she’s worked on films with National Geographic, BBC, PBS and other big networks.
Erin keeps busy in the wildlife film industry but, regardless of how enticing a potential film offer, she returns each year to her setnet site in the Egegik district. Her dad and sister fish the two sites nearest her. Erin loves the lack of connection to the outside world and the community that fish camp offers. Fishing has taught her a lot she applies to her wildlife film making.
“You learn that you can work in all weather, and that you can do a lot more than you might have thought you could,” Erin said.
Erin is in the process of releasing her own film. Her grandmother, Gayle Ranney, was one of the early female Alaskan bush pilots. Erin took six months off from her normal work schedule to film four different locations in the Alaskan wilds, including the Gulf of Alaska and Bristol Bay, where her family members once had camps and fished. Many years had passed since some of these places had been used. It was a wild experience, she said, though the post-filming production work feels more difficult than the months she spent with brown bears, bugs and the often-rough weather. Erin is hoping the film will be released sometime in the next year.
Erin’s favorite species to film is the brown bear. One of her most enjoyable encounters, which she filmed for her own film, was watching two subadults who’d recently been ousted by their mom learn how to fish on their own.
“Every bear is unique and they all have different personalities. I don’t think I could ever get tired of working with them,” Erin said.
A lot of fishermen would be happy to cash out and sell their operation if they had another rewarding way to make a livelihood. Not Erin. She hopes to keep on fishing as long as she can. Bristol Bay is an incredible place, Erin pointed out, and fishing is rewarding and great for studying wildlife. Erin is devoted to the salmon, brown bears and people of Bristol Bay, and to fighting to make sure they have a future.
“It’s important to so many people and to wildlife. These salmon feed over 130 species. Even if you’re never able to visit, it’s worth protecting,” Erin said.
Pride of Bristol Bay is a free column written by Bjorn Dihle and provided by its namesake, a fisherman direct seafood marketer that specializes in delivering the highest quality of sustainably caught wild salmon from Bristol Bay to your doorstep.