Why fishermen are mailing corks to Murkowski

By  Liz Ruskin, Alaska Public Media

June 13, 2019

Bristol Bay fishermen who oppose the Pebble Mine are adding an unusual task to their pre-season chores: They’re writing messages on cork floats and mailing them to Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

If you’ve seen commercial nets, you’ll recognize these foam corks. They’re about the size and shape of a Nerf football. Strung in a line, they keep the top of a net afloat.

It turns out, you can put stamps directly on a cork, add an address and the Postal Service will deliver it.

“The corks are everywhere. I mean, you can find old corks on the beach, in the grass, and then in these boatyards…,” said Nels Ure, in Naknek.

Ure has collected dozens of corks since he saw on social media how fellow fishermen are using them to send anti-Pebble messages to Murkowski’s office in Washington, D.C. He planned to bring a pile of corks to a community festival so other people in Naknek can do the same.

Ure is 23 and just spent $150,000 on a drift permit, his first. He said the corks should remind the senator she has constituents who depend on the future of the fishery.

“There are letters and forms you can send out, but this is more like a personalized, very fisherman way to show her that we care,” Ure said.

Dillingham fisherman Katherine Carscallen said they’ve probably sent hundreds of corks by now.

“This idea caught on pretty quick,” she said. “We just started talking about it, and it went around on facebook a little bit. I’ve seen people throwing parties in the boatyard and mailing – I think there’s even been boxes of corks being mailed now, because there’s so many going in.”

Photos she and others posted on Facebook show corks hand-scrawled in Sharpie markers. Some people instead taped paper notes inside their corks. The messages express fear the proposed mine will degrade the bay and harm the salmon runs. Some urge Murkowski to take a stand.

To “cork” a person, in commercial fishing slang, is to lay your net in front of someone else’s. Carscallen says on the water, it’s an aggressive move.

“It’s kind of stealing the other person’s fish,” she said. “But it can also send a strong message. If somebody gets on your bad side or you really want to get someone’s attention, you can cork them.”

She’s sure she didn’t invent the idea, but Carscallen said she and a cousin used to communicate via cork when they were on fishing boats as kids.

“We’d write little notes on corks when we’d drive by each other. I was on my dad’s boat. She was on her dad’s boat,” she recalled. “So we’d pass notes in the water, pass notes back and forth on corks. Then, I don’t know, one day when she went home to Michigan we tried mailing them.”

Lo and behold it worked.

Carscallen said if they’d thought this campaign through, they’d probably mail corks to U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan and Congressman Don Young, too, but she said they’re targeting the senior senator because they know her as a champion of commercial fishing.

Alaska’s congressional delegation has been mostly neutral on the mine, though all three opposed the Obama administration’s effort to pre-empt the regular permitting process. They said then Pebble deserved to make its case.

Pebble Limited Partnership Vice President Mike Heatwole takes issue with the tactic of sending corks.

“Well, frankly, I think it’s highly disrespectful to our senior senator, who works diligently for all Alaskans,” he said.

Murkowski spokeswoman Karina Borger said the senator values the input from fishermen. Mail to the Capitol is typically delayed at an off-site security screening. Borger didn’t know how many corks have arrived in the office so far.

“But I do know that we’ve received several, into the dozens,” she said. “Different shapes. Different colors. None of them look identical.”

The Corps of Engineers is accepting public comment on Pebble’s draft environmental impact statement until July 1.

In Congress, House Democrats have proposed an amendment that would block the Corps from proceeding on Pebble. It could pass the House on a spending bill but, barring support from Murkowski or Sullivan, it has almost no chance of passing in the Senate.