DILLINGHAM, Alaska — This oh-my moment was nowhere on the official schedule for President Barack Obama’s visit to Alaska: salmon spawning on his shoes.
“You see that?” Obama declared Wednesday as he gripped a fish with two hands. “Something’s got on my shoes. … Generally you don’t want fish spawning on your feet. He said he was happy to see me.”
Visiting an isolated fishing village on a grey, overcast day, the president was full of admiration for the whole operation: He pronounced salmon jerky “really good,” tried unsuccessfully to scare up a knife so he could attempt to filet a fish, and carefully inspected smokehouse drying racks.
The president, wearing orange rubber gloves, held up a large silver salmon for reporters to admire but hastened to add: “I didn’t catch it. I don’t want anybody thinking I’m telling, you know, fish tales.”
He listened intently as a woman holding her own wiggly fish nonchalantly explained the fishing process.
As for the souvenir can of fish he received, Obama instructed aides not to go eating it.
Before leaving Dillingham, the president attended a cultural performance at a local school, where youngsters in traditional headdresses with jewels and fur waved their hands in the air and slapped their thighs as they danced and chanted.
Obama joined in on the last dance, declaring, “I’ve been practicing.”
The president’s visit to the fishing operation came with a serious goal of promoting the importance of environmental protection.
“If you’ve eaten wild salmon it’s likely to have come from here,” Obama said. “That’s part of the reason why it’s so critical that we make sure that we protect this incredible natural resource, not just for the people whose livelihood depends on it, but for the entire country.”
Dillingham, which sits on an inlet off the Bering Sea, is the fishing hub for Bristol Bay, a world-renowned salmon fishery. Obama’s visit to Dillingham, home to fewer than 3,000 people, places him for a few hours at the center of a roiling conflict between fishermen and developers who want to build a gold and copper mine called Pebble Mine.
Although the company seeking to build the mine hasn’t yet submitted any formal proposal, Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency has taken the unusual step of pre-emptively blocking it out of concern it could harm the salmon population. That action triggered a lawsuit against the EPA.
Fishermen have banded together with locals and environmental groups in warning the mine would produce more than 10 billion tons of mining waste.