FISH!

18 10 2012

Friends! Are any of you in Oklahoma? Or do you have extended communities that reach into the Sooner State?

If so, please don’t miss the chance to check out FISH, a multimedia art exhibition presented by the University of Oklahoma School of Art & Art History and the Lightwell Gallery. The exhibition will be open from Tuesday, October 23 through Wednesday, November 7. (Visit UOSAA for more location/time details.)

What’s the connection between a landlocked university and an examination of global fisheries? With their rich farming history, Oklahomans know about the long, arduous road of getting food from its point of origin to people. So do fishermen. Curator Cedar Marie took a “stream to plate” approach with FISH, inviting viewers to “consider how we tend to our relationships with the food we grow, harvest, and consume,” while also shining a light on one of our planet’s most diminishing food sources.

Longtime readers may recall this summer’s call for submissions. Thanks to an enthusiastic response, FISH presents “a compelling range of perspectives on the culture of fishing. Interpreted broadly, the artworks in the exhibition include sculpture, painting, video, and good old-fashioned storytelling, among other media, from both U.S. and international artists.” That range of fish-related perspectives includes water management, environmental/habitat concerns, historical depictions, sustainability, gender, safety, community awareness, and education.

(You’ll see some of Hooked favorite people/groups exhibited in FISH: Fisher Poet/Xtra Tuf ‘zine author Moe Bowstern, the Sitka Conservation Society’s Fish to Schools program, Rebecca Poulson, and Cap’n J. View a complete list of artists.)

I have to tell you, I seriously considered hopping on a Greyhound to be able to stroll through this show. Studied the calendar and everything, but it wasn’t meant to be this time. So, sweeties, if any of you are in the Norman, Oklahoma, vicinity, I’d love to hear your report. And if you’re in the area AND you’re free at 10:30 a.m. on Tuesday, October 30, give yourself a treat and attend the legendary Ray Troll’s public lecture.

FISH’s curatorial statement says this: “Visiting Guggenheim Fellowship artist Ray Troll’s quirky images based on the latest scientific discoveries bring a street-smart sensibility to the worlds of ichthyology and paleontology. His drawings and paintings are also a delightful commentary on the fishy behavior of humans.” That’s all spot-on. Ray is an Alaskan icon, forever immortalized as the artist behind “Spawn Till You Die.”

(Ray’s also to be credited for keeping Joel and I clothed. We recently figured about 80% of our T-shirts and hoodies are Troll-isms. Case in point: writing this, I’m wearing his salmon yin-yang sweatshirt. The man’s cornered the market for the Southeast Alaskan uniform.)

As much as I’m a fan of FISH’s artists, it’s the story that really gets me. On the heels of World Food Day, FISH promotes a critical message of being connected to our food sources. As a fisherman, I’m grateful for all of the time, labor, and passion that Cedar Marie has devoted to our industry and our stories. Many thanks, Cedar, and big congratulations on seeing your vision to fruition. I’ll be cheering FISH from afar, hoping that some of Hooked’s friends will share their impressions with us.





Celebrating World Oceans Day with Whales

8 06 2012

Happy World Oceans Day, friends! Wonder what you can do to celebrate and protect the big blue? Ocean rower Roz Savage has answers here. If you aren’t familiar with Roz’s amazing story, do go check her out. The first woman to complete solo rows across the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, she writes with the authority of over 500 days alone at sea in a 23-foot rowboat. I haven’t yet read her memoir, Rowing the Atlantic, but it’s on my list.

Over 500 days at sea… What would you learn about yourself with that much time alone – in a depth of “alone” that few of us can imagine? Would you still like the person inside your skin when you stepped back onto shore?

I’m thankful to work alongside my best buddy in our 43-foot floating home. Even so, the long hours, isolation, and stress lead to moments of snarkiness that Cap’n J and I have come to expect. (“What the hell’s your problem today,” one snarls. A glance at the calendar mellows our tempers: “Oh, right. This is Day 10 of our trip.”) By the end of our six months on board, we’re ready for some time apart. I wonder what you do when the person you’re sick of is yourself.

Emotional strain, physical strain. Demands our bodies can’t sustain. The endless expenses just to be ready to go fishing, no guarantee of what the season will bring in return. Living in reliance of things absolutely unreliable. Ever-present threats leering over our shoulders: weather, break-downs, genetically engineered salmon, Pebble Mine, and the constant dread of our industry being shut down.

Real as the challenges are, they’re no match for the rewards of a life at sea. We witness natural wonder, beauty and awe on a daily basis, truly awesome sights that many people go their entire lives dreaming of experiencing. In honor of World Oceans Day, here’s a perfect example, footage of time we spent trolling alongside humpback whales last summer.

What do you do to make a difference for our oceans? Whether you’re fellow ocean-goers or landlocked, thanks for all the ways that you show your love for the blue.

Also, thanks to everyone who’s asked about last week’s North Words Writers Symposium. It was amazing – so much so that I’m having a tough time summarizing such a profound experience. Stay tuned for a post within the next few days.





Hooked Visits New Friends & Goes Fishing

25 04 2012

Just a short update here, friends. The deck is loaded with all of our longline gear, the fish hold is optimistic with plenty of ice and bait, and I just got my last shower until we’re back in town. All that remains is a quick run for groceries, then we’ll untie this evening and set off for our first halibut trip. Delivering fresh fish, we can’t stay out for longer than five days; hopefully, we won’t need close to that much time to catch our small quota.

Before heading out of communication, I just wanted to share some news with you. Hooked had a big day yesterday, appearing some new places, making some new friends.

Author Patricia Sands’ blog’s tagline is, “Everyone has a story,” and Patricia is a powerful facilitator in sharing those stories.  We’ve been following one another’s work since last fall, and I’ve been impressed with Patricia’s enthusiasm, commitment, and generosity in hosting a diverse range of guests. I was honored to be interviewed on her blog yesterday, talking about the fishing/boat life, boat cats, and writing. Please do pay her site a visit, and Patricia, many thanks – I had a great time talking with you and your readers!

If you’re not familiar with Grist, this is an excellent time to get to know their work. “A beacon in the smog,” this environmental online magazine is known for its wry, hip tone – yet they accepted an article from so-not-funny me anyway, “How Catching Salmon Can Save a Forest.” Thanks for letting one of the not-so-cool kids sit at your table, Grist!

Just in time… The captain’s got his grocery list ready to go, my crewmate’s finished submitting a couple photos to some contests, and I’m the only one holding up this program anymore. Best wishes, all – be well, and we’ll be back in touch soon.

 





…And It’s On! Sitka’s 2012 Herring Fishery Opens

31 03 2012

When Cap’n J and I walked back to the boat after our pie and coffee, we commented on how different today felt – such a palpable pulse in the air, diesel engines revving as seiners jockeyed through the harbor and steamed out, anticipating that today would be the day. And what a day… Glorious sunshine this morning, blue skies, and flat calm before tomorrow night’s gales. Perfect time for any fishery.

And sure enough, after five days of standing by on two-hour notice, the word came down today. Unable to resist the suspense, I’d spent the morning glued to the Nerka’s VHF radio. At 12:30, the Alaska Department of Fish & Game’s area management biologist Dave Gordon came on Channel 10 with the words everyone had been waiting for.

“At this time, I’d like to announce that we’ll have a fishery this afternoon at approximately 2:30 pm.” They’d just gotten the most recent test sample results, and with egg maturity ranging from 11-16%, the opening was a go. “It’s a fairly high female count, no spawn-outs and just a couple few immature fish in the mix, so it looks like good fish. Average weight was 170 grams, so it looks like big fish, as well.”

By this time, almost all of the herring fleet had long since steamed out to the grounds. The only boats remaining were the giant steel tenders, the middlemen between fully-loaded seiners and the processing plants, and they didn’t waste any time untying. Even as Dave Gordon continued to explain the boundaries of today’s opening, the procession rolled out.

I ran out to the harbor’s outer-most finger to watch an amazing stream of work boats parade by. One after another, stern to bow to stern, powering through the breakwater to the herring grounds north of town. The harbor sang with new noise, powerful engines roaring to life as their crews whooped out their pent-up tension. Someone blasted an air horn a few times. I watched a couple latecomers run down the dock, boots and raingear in hand, to jump aboard their departing boats.

I spent a long time on that outer float, watching the boats head out and considering my conflicted feelings around this fishery. Ego and excess concern me, the notion of flooding a declining market just because you can. But even with that sense of uneasy disapproval, I couldn’t resist the lure, the excitement of Go Time. One of Cap’n J’s friends referred to Sitka’s herring as “the Superbowl of fishing.” Friends, I don’t give a damn about sports, but I do love fishin’ boats and the men and women who call them home. For that reason alone, this parade was beautiful to me.

I wanted to share that sight with you. For those Hooked readers who are of this industry, I wanted you to have the opportunity to recognize some of your companeros, maybe see a boat whose deck you’d scrubbed in years past. For those land-based readers, I wondered if you could see something beautiful in these images, too, despite their foreign nature.

So I took a bunch of videos that I’m dying to share with you. Maddeningly, the harbor internet appears completely unable to handle the big files. After about an hour of gnashing my teeth, here’s one – not the best, but you get the idea. Maybe something else will work out later.

In another day or so, we should have some far superior images to share. Turns out that Cap’n J’s high school buddy Tanner runs of these tenders and was generous enough to invite him aboard to watch the show live. As many of you know, Cap’n J’s a talented photographer, and he didn’t waste any time grabbing his camera gear. The boat’s taking its load to Petersburg, so I don’t have any idea of when I’ll see my buddy again, but it’s cool – he’ll have some fantastic shots to share whenever he’s back, and I’ll share them with you as soon as I can.

The Dancer heading out, Mt. Edgecumbe looking on.

You can find opening updates on Raven Radio, and JuneauTek always has the best fisheries photos/video. Fishin’ folks, have you got any news from the grounds? Favorite sites for the latest updates? I’d love to hear your observations in the comments. Meanwhile, best wishes for everyone – fishermen, boats, ecosystem – and safe, healthy returns.





Contemplating the Harvest: Sitka’s Herring Fishery

30 03 2012

When Cap’n J and I arrived in Sitka last week, we found the harbor packed with seiners, decks loaded with coiled nets, and the air near-electric. As captains and crew paced the docks, I found it easy to imagine their boats as equally impatient – steel and fiberglass racehorses pawing the water, nostrils flared as they waited for the gate to open.

On standby, waiting to go…

Spring in Sitka means herring. If there’s a Southeast Alaska runner-up to Deadliest Catch’s rock star madness, it’s this – the Herring Sac Roe Fishery. You can follow the frenzy from wherever you are: JuneauTek always provides excellent coverage, and Youtube is plugged with testosterone-drenched videos like this one.  Scenes of combat fishing, engines screaming as boats slam-dance over who’ll set their net in the sweetest spot. With 48 permit-holders and openings that last mere hours, competition is ferocious.

(I’m told that the Coast Guard is putting their foot down this year. Any boats ramming another, they’ve promised, “We’ll shut this thing right down,” like a fed-up parent shouting from the car’s front seat. Sure. But cowboy culture is hard to police. Walking through the harbor, I notice boats necklaced with neon chains of rubber buoys, their bows so thick with inflatable cushioning that the vessel’s name isn’t visible.)

Anticipation further heightens the intensity. On Monday, the Alaska Department of Fish & Game put the fleet on two-hour notice. Biologists take daily test samples of roe, monitoring the eggs’ maturity level. When that level reaches 11%, ADF&G will give the fleet the green light, allowing at least two hours’ notice for everyone to jockey into position before the gun goes off. Management biologist Dave Gordon shares updates on the day’s findings over the VHF radio. Yesterday, he summed up the slow roe development with a call for continued patience. “We will continue to monitor the distribution of fish.”

I don’t have any connection to this fishery, yet even I’m caught up in the excitement, eager to witness an explosive exodus from the harbor. Herring is a Big Deal, and never more so than this year. After last year’s then-record quota of 19,430 tons, ADF&G determined past calculations had underestimated the biomass.  The 2012 quota skyrocketed to a new high: 28,829 tons.

Veteran status in one fishery doesn’t make you knowledgeable in another. With my seasons limited to trolling, longlining, and shrimping, the XtraTufs on my feet and crew license in my wallet are all I share with a herring deckhand’s experience. Trollers drag their hooks around for up to 18 hours a day, striving to catch at least 100 coho, one fish at a time. The longliners I’ve crewed on have fished relatively small quotas – 15,000 pounds of halibut here, 20,000 pounds of black cod there. And my shrimping memories are fond recollections of the mellowest ocean-labor I’ve had. Coming from such comparatively small potato ventures, I found it impossible to conceptualize almost 29,000 tons of herring.

I wasn’t the only one. Jeff Feldpausch, the Sitka Tribe of Alaska’s Resource Protection Director, asked himself what that number really meant. What does 57 million pounds of herring look like?

Imagine a football field… Over 20 feet high.

Imagine the Empire State Building… 77 times as tall.

The Sitka Tribe released a series of ads protesting the quota as excessive, and Jeff spoke with Raven Radio, further explaining the concerns. Herring are what’s known as a keystone forage fish – that is, a vital part of the marine ecosystem. A critical food source for salmon, halibut, and humpback whales, herring are the only forage fish that’s commercially harvested in Alaska.

“What happens if you cut out the bottom of the food chain?” Jeff asked. “Everyone above collapses.”

If herring’s value in the ecosystem is near-priceless, I figured, its economic value must be astronomical. But that’s a tough one to gauge. Virtually all of this fishery’s catch is shipped to Japan, where the sac roe – kazunoko – is a high-end traditional food, a New Year’s delicacy. After much speculation on how last year’s tsunami would impact the market, the wholesale value fell $500/ton, crashing down to $150-$200/ton. This year’s price remains an unknown.

Kazunoko: a Japanese New Year’s delicacy. Photo from www.tastefood.info

Beyond Japan’s ravaged infrastructure, some fear their food culture is changing. Tlingit elder Ray Nielsen believes kazunoko is a declining market. “The young people, they eat at McDonald’s. There’s no money in this anymore. It’s just an ego fishery now. Everyone wants the big sets.”

As I sat at the Backdoor Café considering all this, a friend noticed the Tribe’s flyers on my table. “Propaganda,” she scoffed. “There’s a lot of fish out there.”

Maybe. I hope so. ADF&G points out that the quota is only 20% of the biomass; using the football example, the remaining herring will tower over 80 feet above the field. And as a troller, all of my experience with ADF&G has been positive. I’m impressed with their salmon management, thankful that their strict supervision has contributed to abundant runs and a strong industry. I have no reason to doubt their biologists.

But excess in all forms makes me anxious. A little voice deep within cries, What if we’re wrong?

Art by Ray Troll.

I’ll be the first to admit I don’t speak from first-hand knowledge, and regular Hooked readers know I’m sensitive to the notion of “enough.” So what do you think? Wherever folks fall on this issue, it’s one we should consider. Your experiences and observations are welcome here; thanks for keeping it civil.





Exxon Valdez: 23 Years Later

24 03 2012

I was 11 years old when Bligh Reef ripped open the Exxon Valdez’s steel belly, bleeding over 40,000 tons of crude into the pristine waters of Prince William Sound. My family had traded Alaskan residency for our migrant lifestyle by then, setting up a winter life in Washington State and returning to Southeast every summer for the salmon season. I remember staring at the images on TV –  seabirds grounded by sludge-drenched wings, dead otters like blackened driftwood – and wearing a T-shirt that expressed despair through furious satire: caricatures of a party boat perched “on the rocks,” newly christened the Exxon Fuxxup.

Twenty-three years later, I’m sitting aboard a boat in Southeast Alaska, my body re-calibrating to the continual motion of a life cushioned by the sea. The view is stunning. Living in the midst of the world’s largest remaining temperate rainforest, surrounded by mountains, glaciers, and a parade of wildlife, it’s sometimes hard to remember that this splendor isn’t guaranteed. That however firmly rooted nature appears to be, we can’t take her for granted or become indifferent to our responsibilities as good stewards.

Poet Vivian Faith Prescott is a fifth generation Alaskan who knows all too well the cost of indifference – environmental, cultural. She knows that when horror is so vast, grief so unspeakable, art provides a life raft. Her post,  “Fetched Up Hard Aground: Remembering the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill,” pulls readers into that life raft. If you’re not familiar with her work, please take a moment to visit Vivian at Planet Alaska.

Named and gendered, boats take on identities independent of the captains who come and go. They’re sized up and judged, bestowed with reputations that can’t be absolved with a change in ownership or a new name. So what  was the fate of the ship forever shackled to one of the most devastating human-caused environmental disasters? The Mudflats blog answered that question earlier this week:  “The Exxon Valdez Gets Its Death Sentence.”

In our sound-bite society, with social media’s barrage of moment-by-moment news updates, we’re good at year-of tributes. Succinct summaries of what happened back when and where they are now. This post is a perfect example – I wrote in that exact formula, without a second thought. And now I wonder… We remember, but what have we learned?

Photo Courtesy of John Lyle, ARLIS Reference.

Update: Immediately after posting this, I learned that Mudflats had re-posted her 2010 story, “Walking With the Ghost of Exxon.” A powerful account of what she found lingering in Prince William Sound 21 years after the spill – long after we’d been assured that everything was cleaned up –  this is on Hooked’s “Required Reading” list. Please do read and share.





Your Inner Lorax: Protecting the Tongass, part 3

4 03 2012

Thanks to Ashley Brady-Power, Dr. Seuss, and Scott Chambers.

Today begins an important week for the trees. Trout Unlimited and Sitka Conservation Society are sending a team of commercial and sports fishermen to Washington D.C., where they’ll lobby for increased funding for habitat conservation/restoration in the Tongass National Forest. Now is a critical time for this effort: on Tuesday, the Senate’s Natural Resource Committee meets to determine the 2013 Forestry budget. (Learn more from TU’s press release.)

Hooked readers may remember December’s posts on the skewed management of the Tongass. The world’s largest remaining temperate rainforest, the Tongass is home to 70,000 humans, 30,000 bears, all 5 species of salmon, as well as deer, wolves, and over 300 species of birds. Its 17 million acres blanket Southeast Alaska, where coastal communities are sustained by less than 200 timber-related jobs and more than 7000 fishing-related jobs. Yet the Forest Service’s annual budget directs $25 million toward logging and road building, and $1.5 million – that’s 1 point 5 – to conservation and watershed restoration.

Many of you bristled at that discrepancy. You fired off emails and phone calls, urging a management plan reflective of the region’s actual economic and cultural values. You wrote a small mountain of letters, which will be hand-delivered to Congress and the Forest Service on Monday. You’re an inspiring team of Loraxes, friends, and your voices are making an impact. Thank you.

You don’t have to be an Alaskan or a fisherman to care about this funding discrepancy. In an awesome show of community organizing, Sitka Salmon Tours recently took the Tongass on the road. Through events in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, Nic Mink and Helen Schnoes explained the critical role of this rare ecosystem, where “the salmon are in the trees.”

Their audiences got it, and they rallied. I’ve read the 80 letters our Midwestern allies contributed. It’s a powerful experience, hearing strangers voice the connectedness between their own lives and this distant wild that many will never see firsthand.

Here are some snippets of what they wrote:

“I am writing because my life is richer knowing that wild places like this still exist in our world. As a teacher in Illinois, my students and I do not encounter these gorgeous wild landscapes, nor do we see rivers and lakes so abundant with fish.”

“It is important to me that the food I consume is healthy and sustainable. I know wild Alaskan salmon is both, but I fear for the future. When more money is allocated to the destructive acts such as the logging of old growth forests rather than to restoration of salmon habitats, I fear for the future.”

“This funding gap would be silly if its reach were not so damaging. There exists a gross disconnect: the tree removal harms salmon habitats, which in turn negatively affect the salmon population and is  much less economically valuable than the $986.1 million that salmon fishing and hatcheries generate.”

“While only a small portion of people in the Midwest will ever have the pleasure of traveling to the Tongass, many of us value the forest and its salmon as important national treasures.”

“I don’t have to be from Alaska to understand that salmon is one of the most sustainable and renewable resources of our entire National Forest system.”

“We need to see our forests for more than just the trees.”

Beautifully said.

Great big thanks to everyone who’s already urged the Forest Service to re-examine their Tongass budget. If you haven’t done so, it’s not too late – NOW is the critical time to chime in. Please take a moment today to summon your inner Lorax and send a quick email on behalf of the trees… and the salmon… the streams… and all of us. Direct your messages to Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell (ttidwell@fs.fed.us), USDA Undersecretary Harris Sherman (harris.sherman@usda.gov), Senator Mark Begich, and Senator Lisa Murkowski.

Need an example to get you started? Whether several concise sentences or an impassioned page, your words are an essential contribution. Please share your message in the comments, and much gratitude for your advocacy.

"Salmon Spawning," by photographer/author Amy Gulick (Salmon in the Trees)








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