Longtime fisherman reflects on his career in Bristol Bay

a fisherman
Dan Barr while fishing. (Courtesy of Dan Barr)

Dan Barr is 81 and a half years old. He fished Bristol Bay for just about half his life.

“It’s been just such a great part of my life,” he said. “Every year I came home, it was like [I got] to live out something new that got loose in me.”

Barr spent much of his career finding ways to connect different people with each other. For over two decades, he was president of the Bristol Bay Driftnetters Association — an organization formed in the 1980s that aimed to unify the fleet. There, he helped publish newsletters about issues around the fishery, like practices in the Pacific Ocean that affected Bristol Bay.

Throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, vessels in international waters cast nets that were up to 40 kilometers long, collecting millions of salmon that were otherwise on their way to the region to spawn. This is called high seas interception. The practice also results in high levels of bycatch. Nets can trap everything from whales and sharks to seabirds.

Barr worked with interest groups and pushed for federal legislation to address the problem.

a fishing boat
The fishing vessel the Slam Dunk. (Courtesy of Dan Barr)

In 1992, he formed a coalition that helped pass the High Seas Driftnet Act, which aimed to restrict large-scale driftnet fishing in international waters.

He said he worked with dozens of conservation and user groups like Greenpeace as well as sports and other commercial fishers.

“And so I dreamed up the issue of: ‘let’s get a coalition of sports, environmental, and commercial’ and we got 29 organizations to sign on. And we wrote a letter to each U.S. senator,” he said. Barr said that despite some initial pushback, they garnered the support to pass the act.

The act restricts net size at sea and makes it illegal to import fish harvested with large drift nets. It has brought more visibility to both the bycatch and fish interception issues that affected the health — both ecological and economical — of the fishery.

Barr attributed their success to collaboration. He said he coordinated with people who traveled around the country and internationally to help document the extent of the bycatch and overfishing problem, and later, enforce the act. Barr said team members did everything from discussing the issue with Russian border guards to identifying pirating vessels in Kodiak.

“We live in a world that’s made some gains in some constructive things they’re doing,” he said of the act. “And it’s one of the things that came out of Bristol Bay.”

Barr also worked within Bristol Bay. He started an open radio channel for the Ugashik district where fishers could talk to each other about important issues during slow hours.

“We got on one of the local VHF frequencies and said, ‘spread the word,’” he said. “Every night we’d go through and talk about what we knew about Bristol Bay, what we knew about what was happening in the north Peninsula, what we knew about the high seas, what about safety…”

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Barr (center) with his sons, Daniel and Kieran, who now run his vessel, the Slam Dunk. (Courtesy of Dan Barr)

He said some discussions on the radio lasted three hours.

Barr also helped secure an exception to Coast Guard regulations in Bristol Bay, so that people could substitute personal emergency beacons for regular ones. He said the change made carrying a beacon more accessible, due to its lower price. Personal beacons are registered to an individual.

“It meant that people might buy one where they otherwise wouldn’t just for the extra safety,” he said.

Barr says nearby communities later started using the beacons on snowmachines.

Through it all, Barr said his favorite part about fishing in Bristol Bay was spending time with his family and connecting with friends.

“The greatest part was fishing with my family. We had ten members fish in Bristol Bay,” he said.

Now, he reflects on the people he met here.

“I mean, the amazing people there, and the people that have retired have become longtime friends that are really quality people. It’s the people aspect first,” he said.

Today, Barr is battling cancer in Seattle. His son fishes on his former vessel, the Slam Dunk.

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