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A History of Loss Paved Way for Dillingham's Thriving Future

Published On: Jul 10 2013 04:45:00 PM AKDT

It's the town's strong history of fishing that helps the community thrive today. Now the largest city in the Bristol Bay region, Dillingham wasn't always the largest settlement.


It’s a tradition that’s been passed down for generations. Learning subsistence living is what helps Jewline Hoseth and her family connect with their rich culture of growing up in Dillingham, Alaska.

“Everyone has a job,” Hoseth said, who learned subsistence from her grandma.

“It’s a real honor to have her teach us how to do fish the way she’s been doing fish for all the years that she has been,” said Hoseth’s sister, Gayla Woods.

“We’re a big family, there are 8 of us kids and all of us have had the opportunity to learn from our gram,” said Woods.

And like any commitment, preparing fish can be a full-time job.

“If it’s raining, you’re going to want to smoke your fish constantly. You’re pretty much married to your smoke house,” Hoseth said.

It’s the town’s strong history of fishing that helps the community thrive today. Now the largest city in the Bristol Bay region, Dillingham wasn’t always the largest settlement.

In 1818 across the river from town, the community now known as Nushagak was the center of trade when Russians built a fur trading post.

Originally inhabited by the Yupik people, local native groups and natives from all over the state plus outside traders mixed together as they came to visit or live at the post.

In 1884, the first salmon cannery in the Bristol Bay region was constructed, and within 20 years, 10 more canneries opened in the region.

But by the turn of the century, the dawn of Nushagak’s day was rapidly setting.

Nushagak, once the hustle-and-bustle of the bay area, received a fatal strike. When the channel of the Nushagak River began to shift, so did the people. That’s when the town of Dillingham began to grow.

In addition to the growing mudflats that limited access to fishing vessels, the world-wide influenza pandemic of 1918 devastated the region and contributed to the depopulation of Nushagak.

After the epidemic left no more than 500 survivors around the region, a hospital and orphanage were established in Kanakanak, across the river from Nushagak and near the present day city of Dillingham.

That’s when Dillingham became the fishing town that thrives today.

“We’ve always been about fishing here,” said Dillingham Mayor Alice Ruby. “Over time, we’ve just went from a primarily subsistence site to a really commercial fishery now with subsistence.”

Today, one of the only canneries left in Dillingham is Peter Pan Seafoods, and it remains one of America’s best-known names in wild Alaska seafood products.

“The fishing industry is critical for our economy,” Ruby said. “The Peter Pan Cannery is the oldest facility in this district and it still operates today and it’s over 100-years-old. In fact, it’s kind of one of our historic areas.”

Thanks to the rich fisheries of Bristol Bay, Dillingham is the fastest growing community in the region.

It supports more than 200 commercial fishing licenses and has four fish processing plants. In the summer, workers at the fishing plants double the city’s population.

Today, the Alaska Salmon Fishery is one of the only certified sustainable wild salmon fisheries left in the world. And Dillingham is an important port to the Bristol Bay Fishery, which annually provides most of the total Alaska salmon value overall.