MACHIAS — For nearly 80 years, beginning with an 11-pound silver snagged in the Penobscot River in 1912, the first seasonal catch of Atlantic salmon was delivered to the president of the United States.
The Penobscot River once saw up to 100,000 of the fish return each year to spawn, until dam building, overfishing and pollution resulted in the almost complete elimination of any migratory fish from the rivers.
In 2019, 1,100 Atlantic salmon, one of the highest counts in years, were counted returning to the river — an improvement, but nowhere near the numbers once seen.
Had Chris Mullen been born a hundred years earlier, perhaps he would’ve been able to fish the salmon runs in the rivers and tributaries near his home in Machias. But Mullen began fishing in 1987, not long before Atlantic salmon runs in the Gulf of Maine were declared endangered. So he had to head farther afield: nearly 4,000 miles west, to the mouth of the Nushagak River in southwestern Alaska.
“I first went as a fisheries observer,” said Mullen. It was soon after the 200-mile limit was passed, a United Nations law extending exclusive economic rights up to 200 miles from a country’s coastline.
“The U.S. didn’t have the infrastructure to pursue this fishery,” said Mullen — no boats or processing facilities — so the country opted instead to send two Americans to every vessel (most of which hailed from the then-Soviet Union) to monitor the catch.
“That lasted a few years, then eventually the U.S. built its fleet up,” said Mullen. “It was fascinating. But I did decide I’d rather fish than be a bureaucrat.”
More than three decades later, Mullen captains his own boat, and just like the sockeye, returns each summer to Bristol Bay, where he spends roughly six weeks with his gillnets and crew, trying to catch some of the tens of millions of rosy-colored fish leaping back up river to spawn.
Seafood lovers now can enjoy the fruit of Mullen and his crew’s labors. Through mongr.net, consumers can order the Maine fishermen’s wild-caught salmon either online or at Ellsworth’s John Edwards Market, Blue Hill Food Co-op, Machias Marketplace, Columbia Falls General Store and other stores.
In fact, Mullen early last month was at the Co-op to offers samples and promote his family’s enterprise.
Mullen fishes with his brother Jonathan, a Bar Harbor lobsterman and occasionally his son Wolf. Last season the crew was joined by Asher Molyneaux of East Machias, one of the youngest-ever hikers to complete the Appalachian Trail.
“We basically leave town at the beginning of the season and stay out all season,”
said Mullen, whose home port is the small town of Dillingham. “It’s remote. There’s nothing on land but tundra and bears.”
The men stay in the 32-foot Bristol Bay gillnetter (the largest boat allowed in the fishery, by law) around the clock for weeks, fishing up to 20 hours each day, catching sleep when they can.
Mullen sells his catch to Leader Creek Fisheries, which sends tenders to fan out every 12 hours to its roughly 200 boats, collecting fish and supplying fishermen with fresh water, supplies and replacement parts. The tenders return to plants along the shore, where they’re frozen and shipped around the world. In recent years, Mullen has also brought home several thousand pounds of fish, which he stores in a warehouse and sells to individual and wholesale customers around Hancock and Washington counties.
“It’s really challenging psychologically,” said Mullen. “It’s an adventure. You don’t sleep.”
The average salmon boat in Bristol Bay, which is the largest and most productive salmon run in the world, catches roughly 100,000 pounds of salmon each year, said Mullen (sockeye range anywhere from 5 to 15 pounds). In 2018, a total of 62.3 million sockeye returned to Bristol Bay, the largest run on record.
“It’s a very competitive fishery,” said Mullen. “It’s super hard work and really intense for a brief period.”
The salmon run in Bristol Bay is so healthy, said Mullen, because it’s been managed well, with a fixed number of permits (unlike in Maine lobstering, licenses can be bought and sold, running around $170,000 each), lots of data on fish populations and the input of hundreds of scientists.
“It’s amazing to have a resource-based job where the resource is in such good shape,” he added.
Even though it’s healthy now, the future of the salmon fishery in Bristol Bay is by no means guaranteed. In a reversal of Obama administration policy, the Environmental Protection Agency recently scuttled proposed development restrictions this summer on the Pebble Mine, an open-pit mine that would attempt to unearth some of the world’s largest known stores of copper and gold.
“It’s about the last salmon run that’s in health and abundance,” said Mullen, who urged readers to visit http://www.savebristolbay.org/ to learn about the proposal. “That would truly be a disaster. It would just be a matter of time.”
To buy fish from Mullen, visit https://mongr.net/ or call 266-3804. Mullen also will be selling his fish at the Banff Mountain Film Festival at The Grand in Ellsworth beginning Jan. 31.