Filmmaker Vows To Preserve Alaska’s Wild Salmon

Salmon documentary poster

 

The following appears in the May issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:

 

 “If you look 100 years down the road, which, to a geologist, is not much time at all, and you think about how will people look at salmon, it’s going to be viewed as one of the most incredible food sources on the planet. And it grows itself; throwing away a resource like that for short-term interests makes no sense.”

–Geomorphology professor and author David Montgomery, in The Breach

By Chris Cocoles

In his mind, aspiring filmmaker Mark Titus wanted to make a “love story.”

Except in this project, Titus’s idea wasn’t to pen a romantic comedy with a sappy feel-good story starring the Drew Barrymores of the genre; nor was it a more gritty drama with the classic Hollywood tragic-ending screenplay. In fact, the object of his affection wasn’t a human being. It was a salmon.

“This (is a) fish that’s revered, not only here,” says Titus, a Seattle resident with sentimental ties to Alaska and the salmon fishing industry, “but as I’ve come to find out, in lots of parts of the world where they’re no longer around.”

With that, Titus’s first feature-length documentary, The Breach, was born. It’s his tribute to the dwindling population of salmon, which once roamed the Atlantic Ocean in massive numbers but is all but extinct from the Eastern seaboard of North America to the European continent. The Pacific Northwest and Alaska are some of the last few regions on earth where large numbers of salmon continue to make their anadromous journey from the sea to coastal rivers for spawning.

Despite the obstacles, red flags and warning signs that seem to threaten the ongoing cycle of life and death, the fish keep coming back. Yet those who rely on these iconic and wild salmon in this part of the world wonder if it all go away in their lifetime, or at least for future generations.

Titus has worked for around four years to get his finished product done, and it clocks in a little shy of one hour, 30 minutes.

“It’s such a vast topic and there are passionate, passionate people at every turn on this topic; you can’t possibly cover it all in 90 minutes,” Titus says. “But we wanted to try and create a narrative that at least brought people in the door and gave them an emotional experience and a reason to learn more about wild salmon.”

Salmon documentary 5 Salmon documentary 2

 

“We’re blessed with an ecosystem that provides an abundance. And we have the ability to go in and responsibly harvest.”

–Bristol Bay fisherman Jason Kohlase

As a young college student in the Northwest 20-something years ago, Mark Titus began spending his summers working in the Last Frontier’s fish-heavy culture, first at a salmon-processing plant in Bristol Bay, then for the better part of a decade as a wilderness fishing guide in Southeast Alaska. Part of his inspiration to head north was through the writings of David James Duncan, whose homage to fly fishing, the novel The River Why, was the basis of a 2010 feature film.

“I was just head over heels in love with the land and the people; and most definitely with the salmon, especially the Chinook. As we all know, they were the most elusive, the most prized (fish),” Titus says. “It’s something that I took seriously and sacredly.”

By 2004, after studying acting and directing at the University of Oregon and the Vancouver (British Columbia) Film School, respectively, Titus began a career in the film production industry. He produced commercials for Seattle-based companies like Boeing and Starbucks, and one of his first projects was directing a six-minute documentary short called Fins, about the lore of killer whales around Puget Sound.

In April 2011, Titus traveled to Southern California for a commercial shoot and, “knowing how enraptured with salmon I was,” was reading a book recommended by a friend. Author Bruce Brown’s Mountain in the Clouds: A Search for the Wild Salmon was a major turning point. Brown’s work detailed the factors that were diminishing salmon runs around Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.

“I’m reading this book and going, ‘Why is this the first time I’ve read this?’ It’s something that was published in 1983,” Titus says. “And No. 2, I ran across the name of an attorney who had instant connectivity.”

The lawyer’s name was Russ Busch, whose son was a friend of Titus’s. One of Busch’s lifelong crusades was joining forces with Native American Elwha tribal leaders on the Olympic Peninsula to remove dams on the Elwha River. The damming had all but snuffed out the stream’s legendary salmon runs. Finally, a nearly 40-year fight to get rid of the two dams was coming to fruition. But by then, Busch was dying of stage IV brain cancer.

“This was April, and the dams were supposed to come out in September. And I thought, ‘I should start interviewing him immediately and maybe he’ll get a chance to see these dams come out.’ And he did,” Titus recalled.

“Russ was the catalyst.”

Busch’s appearance in the film is among its most compelling moments. He was there when the lower dam was detonated shortly before his death in April 2012. “As more and more people got involved and Congress got involved, I began to see what was going on,” Busch says in the film, recalling his involvement in the case dated back to 1976. “The tribe always knew how important the dams were. I kind of realized there’s a lot of people who wanted these dams out of there.”

While Titus’s film’s name is a reference to the removal of the Elwha and Glines Canyon Dams, the largest such project in history and completed in 2014, it is more about a breach in the contract between man and nature, and more specifically, between man and wild salmon and their needs. In a sense, taking out the Elwha dams is a step towards patching the breach. As the river clears, salmon as well as steelhead have slowly begun to make their way back from the Pacific. While dams built along the mighty Columbia River, which flows through Washington and Oregon, have resulted in decreasing salmon numbers, as Titus says, “the Elwha is a very interesting story of promise.”

“More than had been seen in decades, but still a fraction of the over 400,000 salmon a year that used to return to the river before the dams had been built,” Titus narrates in the movie.

By the time he’d interviewed Busch and done more research, Titus was hooked and set out to make his documentary. He picked the brains of several of the Pacific Northwest’s and Alaska’s heavyweights of wild salmon conservation. Among 82 interview subjects – 22 of whom got into the finished product – is noted activist Alexandra Morton, a key source in Sara Pozonsky’s fine wild salmon documentary, A Fishy Tale (ASJ, June 2014). Also contributing were authors Brown, David Montgomery – whose work includes King of Fish: The Thousand-Year Run of Salmon– and Duncan, artist Ray Troll, chef Tom Douglas, former Environmental Protection Agency head Bill Ruckelshaus, and several others. They’ve all endured highs and lows on their journeys to preserve one of the planet’s great ecosystems, where in a perfect world Pacific salmon would thrive for generations as they always have.

“The common thread was, everybody loves these fish, and a lot of people felt frustrated about what’s happened,” Titus says. “What I kept coming back to was, ‘Yeah, there has been a lot of bad stuff that’s happened.’”

 

Salmon documentary 1

“The thing about Bristol Bay that makes it so one of a kind is these large systems up here that are nonpolluted, are able to create an environment that could not be recreated by man.”

–Bear Trail Lodge owner 

Nanci Morris Lyon 

Returning to Alaska was a sentimental reunion for Titus. He learned so much about himself guiding clients for trophy salmon on the Panhandle. The filming locations in the Northwest and Alaska were near and dear to his heart. Titus was the caretaker of a wilderness fishing lodge 60 miles north of Ketchikan. One day, as a 25-year-old, he was shoveling snow and looking out over the bay.

“I remember thinking, ‘Oh my gosh. This is my home.’ How many Americans have that sense of place? The Pacific Northwest, these islands; this is my root source. I don’t have any desire to live anywhere else. Here I am in a place that I was in love with and where I want to fight for. I consider it my home.”

Part of that home is being threatened by the proposed Pebble Mine, which has its sights on set on Bristol Bay’s rich minerals in the form of copper ore. That the Pebble Limited Partnership’s planned open-pit mine shares the same ecosystem as the waters containing roughly half of the world’s wild sockeye salmon has had both sides dug in for a lengthy and highly publicized battle.

Interviews with Bristol Bay locals are among the heart and soul of The Breach. One fisherman, Curyung Tribal Council chief and former Dillingham mayor Tommy Tilden, was Titus’s first interview subject in Alaska. Tilden shared with Titus of taking the season’s first salmon harvested to his ill sister, who also would succumb to cancer. A tradition among Native subsistence fishermen is to share the first fish caught that season. This one had even more meaning.

“I offered her the first part of it, and the look in her eyes – that gave her life, although brief that it was,” Tilden says in the film. “But it was very moving. How do you describe that spiritual feeling that we felt? This is who we are.”

Tilden chokes up during the interview. Titus also admitted to getting tears in his eyes.

“In all the folks I interviewed and was fortunate enough to spend time with, they were not telling me because it was cute or politically correct or sounds good,” Titus says. “They’re telling me this because this is who they are. The salmon is in their blood, in their fiber, in their stories and in their culture.”

“Every single thing about it was authentic and that sense of authenticity was overwhelming to me. The words were one thing, but then when they bring you into their home and they show you the 40 cases of jarred salmon that include king salmon hearts, bellies, livers – the whole thing. That’s what they eat in the winter. This was no BS, man; this is the real deal. When they say they subsist on this fish – they subsist on this fish all year long.”

Throughout The Breach’s social media pages, the hashtag #eatwildsavewild is prominent.

“I think it’s a very important question: Why would I eat wild salmon when I want to save them? Why wouldn’t I want to just leave them alone?” Titus says. “It’s hard to understand without a little knowledge. If you’re a consumer and salmon is the third most consumed fish in this country, 91 percent of that is farmed. But if you’re demanding wild salmon, you’re demanding a product that by its nature needs clean, well-preserved habitat in order to keep coming back.”

In the debate over farmed salmon in open-water pens that dot the British Columbia coast and threaten Canada’s run of wild fish, The Breach points out how self-sustaining salmon runs have been over the course of time until many factors, most caused by man, have jeopardized the cycle.

“Farmed salmon need continual care and management by human beings,” Titus says. “Wild salmon don’t need any of that. They not only survived but thrive on their own when they have sufficient habitat to make babies and keep going out to the ocean and back. That’s a resource that can be sustained forever if you simply let it do what nature intended.”

Salmon documentary 4

“These salmon have been feeding us, and there’s more and more and more of us on this planet, and we can’t get that in control; we better start paying attention to the refrigerator.”  

–Alaska artist Ray Troll 

 

This has been an eye-opening odyssey for Titus, who was hardly a novice about salmon and their importance to the culture, diet and livelihood of his corner of the world. Even he looks at these fish differently than he did all those years in Southeast Alaska, before marriage and a new career in making movies prompted a change.

But Titus dug deeper and appreciated more about the exquisite salmon-themed art of Ketchikan-based Troll; found new meaning in the writings of Duncan, Brown and Montgomery; was affected by the years of hard work that paid off for the dying Elwha River attorney Busch; marveled at the tireless crusade of British Columbia-based activist Morton; soaked in the ebb and flow of emotions for concerned commercial fishing boat crews and lodge owners in Alaska; and was inspired by tales of tribal elders and subsistence fishermen in the Northwest and Bristol Bay.

“I thought I knew everything there is to know about salmon. The vast amount of knowledge that I consumed over the course of this project, I couldn’t possibly have planned for,” Titus says. “It was almost overwhelming – there’s so much history, so much biology, historical and legal precedent. I was astonished. For me, this was like a football player interviewing Joe Namath. These were my heroes.”

Titus bought his first print designed by Troll – called Midnight Run – when he was just 19 and working a cannery in Dillingham. Years later, the two men’s worlds collided again. Troll’s artwork once told a story to its buyer. Now, that buyer was telling the artist’s story.

“It was a tremendous honor,” Titus says of filming Troll at work in his studio and showing time-lapsed shots of his art in the film.

The Breach returned to Ireland to be screened at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival in March months after an earlier version was shown in Galway, Ireland (see sidebar), where it was among the top 10 picks in the Audience Award Winners category. It played the Portland Ecofilm Festival in mid-April, and by the end of last month Titus was to begin a barnstorming tour through most of May that started in New York and will end on the 20th in Los Angeles.

Titus hopes he’s told a human story about a wildlife issue and tried to keep politics away from the main arguments, as difficult as that can be in this age of Twitter feuds and toeing the party line.

“As an overarching goal, I wanted to create a story that is accessible by anybody across the political spectrum,” Titus says. “A person who gets engaged and involved in a story just because they are a human being. They want to learn more about salmon.”  ASJ

Editor’s note: For more on where you can see The Breach during its film festival tour this month, go to thebreachfilm.com and sign up to the mailing list for details. You can also check out its Facebook page (facebook.com/thebreachfilm) and follow on Twitter (@thebreachfilm).

Salmon documentary 6

Facebook Comments