Boat Cats. Fishermen. Heaven.

28 11 2012

Some of you know my weaknesses.

Pie. Baked treats in general. Delightfully patterned socks. Pens, paper, empty notebooks waiting to be filled. Fabric. Crafty people. Books. Bread and cheese. Those one-size-fit-all stretchy gloves. Handwritten cards. Bandannas. Funky coffee shops. Bad pop music. Good tattoos. Coconut ice cream. Ravens – all of the corvids, really. Squirrels.

(Joel interjects here that I have a particular fondness for the creatures most people view as pests, “including humans.” It’s true: the outcasts have a friend in me. We recognize our own.)

And boat cats.

Regular Hooked readers know Bear, but my boat cat history dates back to 1984. My parents launched the sailboat they’d been building in the backyard, sold the vet clinic that was both home and livelihood, found a new human for our two black Labs, and packed everything else into a 40-foot van. Everything, that is, except for Yacky.

This Siamese came to us as a client. His humans brought him in for a urinary blockage, then elected to have him put to sleep, rather than pay for the treatment. “Well, if you don’t want him, can I have him?” my mom asked. Successfully flushed out, he never had a problem again.

When the Askari splashed, Yacky came with us. I suppose my parents figured we had room enough for a cat that didn’t move much. Probably the ensuing years of transience weren’t a lot of fun for Yacky – sailboat, house, broken-down motorhome, different house, new boat, dragged along with every bi-annual migration. Somehow he lived to be 18, quietly dying aboard the Willie Lee II in 1995, my mom and I both at his furry side.

Thanks to those origins, boats and cats are inextricably linked in my mind. How can you go to sea without a kitty to snuggle? Who’ll you talk to when you’re 40 miles offshore, tired of your shipmate, and not going back to land for another few weeks? Who’ll be the boat’s chief morale officer?

(In 2005, I struggled to decide if I’d continue crewing for my “brother” Marlin, or jump ship to work with Joel. A major negotiating chip was who’d be the first to get a boat cat. Those two know me awfully well.)

Someone else does, too. My friend sweet wirkman sent me a link today. “Cat Heaven Island in Japan.”   Photographer Fubirai spent over five years documenting the semi-feral felines, cared for by local fishermen. They’re stunning photos. I swooned. (After some anxiety over the spay/neuter/vaccination services. A commenter claims such a program has been in place for years, and I’m choosing to believe that’s so.)

By Fubirai, from Buzzfeed

I’d planned to spend tonight practicing for a Fisher Poets performance that’s in 15 hours, but cats on the interwebs have completely derailed me. If that happens to you periodically too, don’t miss these 50 gorgeous photos. Let me know your favorites. I’m calling 2, 4, 10, 13, 16, 20 – oh, just go see for yourself.

(Also, the story claims that the soundtrack is “optional.” If you grew up in the Eighties, it’s most definitely NOT. As sweet wirkman advised me, “play the optional soundtrack.”)

And because I just can’t help myself, here’s a video of TWO of my favorite things, together.

I know some of Hooked’s regulars have their own boat cat stories. Have at it, friends – I’d love to hear about your seafaring felines. (Joel K, I’m lookin’ at you, sir…) And because we’re about inclusivity here, ocean-going dogs are welcome, too. Who’s your vessel’s chief morale officer?





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.





Across Oceans, Walking Home

20 03 2011

Japan’s 9.0 earthquake and consequent tsunami struck one week ago.  As the depth of the devastation continues to unfold, I’ve been thinking about our Japanese brothers and sisters, wondering how people manage to get through the unimaginable.

Three days ago, Al Jazeera News posted a video of 65-year old Takio Tachibana, a fisherman whose home of 38 years was destroyed. Surrounded by the remains of his family’s life, he pulled a rake through the rubble. Slowly – the motions of someone who has to cling to a tool, even if that tool is as relevant as a plastic spoon for clearing an avalanche. His wife and son were safe, yet in addition to their home, Tachibana’s boat – their livelihood – was lost. The disbelief on his face was clear – how does someone spend a lifetime going to sea, only to have the monster chase him through his very door?

Viewing photographs of shattered coastal townships, I’ve been thinking about the precarious nature of the relationship between humans and the sea, the sense of community forged between people, even on opposing sides of the globe, whose hearts pulse in time with the ebb and flood of the tides.

During one halibut season several years ago, my “brother” Martin perfectly articulated this sense of an ocean-based global connection.  He’s traveled extensively – Tunisia, France, Italy, most recently – and makes a point to always visit another country’s fishing villages. “Wherever I am in the world,” he reflected, “whenever I step on a dock, I’m walking home.”

When Joel and I travel, we always pack a few fishing photos.  Some of the Nerka on a blindingly blue ocean, some of the mountains towering above us, some us-with-big-fish snuff shots. When we pull these out to share with the locals on a Costa Rican riverbank or in a Tunisian boatyard, no es importante that we stumble over our minimal Spanish and hopelessly butcher the couple Arabic phrases we cling to, our linguistic life-jackets. When those pictures come out, suddenly we have a shared tongue.  Ours is the language of people who’ve gazed over an expanse of water so great that it washed away every illusion of self-importance, every misplaced notion of what was essential, water so omnipotent that it washed the very sun off the horizon. Together, with our global shipmates, we are drunks who clutch this confused cocktail of absolute freedom and total dependence, who’ve traded the certainty of firm ground for the risk-filled relief of a deck undulating beneath our feet. Each time we leave the harbor, we know this might be the time we don’t come back. And, knowing all of these things, we drink that glass dry, drain it of every last drop.

But Japan’s docks are gone.  Wrenched from their anchors as cruelly as a hermit crab yanked from its shell, their walk-on-water, floating footway promises utterly, irrevocably broken. I’m left wondering, how do ocean folk find their way home, when all of the moorings are gone?








Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: