Stories from Gulf of Alaska fishermen are headed to the Library of Congress

A boat ties up to another boat
A fishing vessel ties up to the tender Muskrat to deliver a catch of sockeye salmon near Naknek. (Mitch Borden / KDLG)

A fisherman from Seldovia is collecting stories from fellow Gulf of Alaska fishermen. The oral history audio project will eventually be sent to the Library of Congress.

Listen to this story:

It was in the mid 1990s when Josh Wisniewski landed in Kachemak Bay as an 18-year-old. Today, he’s a set netter and still fishes halibut out of Seldovia. That’s also where the inspiration for his current audio project was born.

A man in a surgical mask looking out an airplane window at a harbor
Wisniewski visited Kodiak in January for the project and plans to return later this spring. (Photo courtesy of Marissa Wilson)

“When I was a kid and came across the bay here and started, you know, meeting and fishing for Alaskan Native elders who have been here forever — but as well as other people who had been fishing here since before statehood,” he said, “I was just amazed by peoples’ stories, for one, but also the depth of peoples’ knowledge.”

The Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center hands out grants annually to document the oral histories of tradespeople across the country. They’re then sent to the Library’s archive. Wisniewski was one of six awarded the grant last year through the Alaska Marine Conservation Council.

This year’s audio contributions include stories from mail carriers in Appalachia and healthcare workers in New York’s Hudson River Valley. Wisniewski’s recordings will be the first stories from Alaska.

“It’s just a really wide range of people that reflect the diversity of the United States,” he said.

He started recording stories last fall and plans to talk to 20 fishermen. He’s been to Homer, Seldovia, the southside of Kachemak Bay and Sitka. He was also in Kodiak last month and will visit again later this spring. He said many of the stories touch on the changes in commercial fishing’s technology over the years.

“I find a common theme of just an intrinsic value people have on the experience of it, whether it’s pivotal experiences on the ocean and opportunities to see yourself and test yourself as you push yourself physically and mentally and emotionally sometimes, in complex situations. And just an overall evaluation of the camaraderie among fishermen,” said Wisniewski.

Wisniewski plans to whittle down his recordings and submit them to the Library of Congress this summer. He said he’ll continue the project after that though, and hopes to release a podcast from the stories.

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