…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.

The View from the Nerka: A Sitka Welcome

23 03 2012

Oh, man, friends…

We arrived yesterday evening to this:

And, like a gift, today received this:

That’s the view from the Nerka’s helm. Absolutely glorious, and I find I’m not able to do much of anything today but smile. (Oh, and spend an hour clearing the snow from the dock and deck, thanks to our wonderful neighbor Zander sharing his red shovel.) 

It’s a really big smile.

No poetic words or big stories today, just pure bliss. I hope you’ve got a place like this in your life – somewhere your eyes can’t seem to drink in quickly enough, somewhere that your heart lightens that moment you return, somewhere that you feel your absolute truest self. If you haven’t met that place of your own just yet, you’re welcome to share mine:

In Limbo Between Land and Sea: Shipping Out

22 03 2012

I’m typing quietly this morning, friends.

Thick darkness outside, my housemates are still clinging to sleep. All except Bear – I poked her awake and insisted she join me downstairs. She’s been a loyal companion in my writing room all winter, reliably sprawled in front of the propane fireplace while I type, and I want her to share this final morning.

Today is our transition. With a four hour flight, our lives shift abruptly from spacious house on soil to cramped cabin at sea. When we first get settled aboard and the small wheelhouse radiates warmth from the galley’s diesel stove, I’ll view “cramped” as “cozy,” and relieved peace will seep through my body. I’ll feel a wave of affection for the vessel that, for the next six months, will be our everything. Home, workplace. At her best, a trusted friend who ensures our safety in an environment where humans don’t belong. At her worst… Well, something less than a trustworthy friend.

Having such a clearly defined, bi-annual switch between lives lends itself to reflections of what we’re saying goodbye to. On my 24th season of this migrant life, I’m an old pro at leaving, but have felt unusually ambivalent this year. So I take special pleasure with this last coffee and English muffin – neither come out as tasty on the boat – and consider the past week’s bittersweet observations.

The sizzle of chopped onions hitting the hot skillet – won’t hear that for a while. Even when you let a pan sit on the stove’s “hot spot” – right above the diesel flame – nothing ever comes to a full sizzle or rolling boil.

Damn… didn’t get a bath while I still had access to a tub. The only showers from here on out will be infrequent and in the fish plant’s communal stalls.

We didn’t eat enough Thai food this winter. Upon that realization, we splurged on take-out Pad Kee Mao twice, to tide us through the six month drought.

Save that quarter. Between fishing trips, we’ll haul loads of ripe laundry to the Laundromat.

I’ll miss this bed. Say goodbye to sprawling across the queen-size acreage. Carved of peculiar geometrics to curve with the hull, our foam bunk is an optimistic double at the shoulders, but tapers to a tangled, tight squeeze at the foot.

Bear’s not gonna like this. Our girl’s preferred water source is directly from the tap. With the Nerka’s limited water supply to carry us through two-week trips, she won’t get that option.

This migration requires adaptation from all of us. But turned inside-out, regrets reveal gifts, and my attitude shifts to giddy anticipation.

The Backdoor Café! Bernadette and Sotera! Forget the English muffin; I’ll be having pie with my coffee tomorrow morning.

Ravens! My yard birds and squirrels have been faithful visitors, but my heart belongs to Sitka’s hefty corvids.

Friends! In a community of 9000, even strangers are familiar faces. One of my favorite touchstones of returning is seeing people I don’t know by name, but whose continued presence assures me I’m home.

Home. Enough said.

Be well, friends – we’ll catch you on the other side.

Happy Birthday, Hooked!

18 03 2012

One year ago today, Hooked went live with this post. Astute readers may notice that that first post’s date doesn’t match today’s celebration. Though I wrote and posted “The Launch” on March 10, 2011, I didn’t have the courage to make it public until 8 days later. Full of trepidation, I wasn’t sure what I had to say – or if anyone would care. Arriving late to the blogosphere (about 3 years after my dad prodded, “Do you have a blog yet?”), I agonized over what kind of first impression Hooked would make.

That first post laid out a pretty modest mission: “Hooked is intended to share the story of what it is to be a Southeast Alaskan fisherman, a troller/longliner who combs the sea to harvest the highest-quality wild salmon, black cod and halibut.”

“Fisherman” is both an occupation and identity for me, so this wasn’t a bad goal to begin with, but I like to have room to stretch. The next line left the narrative door ajar: “Fishermen are a diverse bunch, and no one’s perspective is quite the same. My voice as a tree hugging, tofu eating, public radio listening, pierced/tattooed bleeding heart pescatarian feminist, a lapsed social worker turned professional deckhand, is – perhaps – a tad unique.”

Just as my perspective is unique, so is yours. As you introduced yourselves in the comments, strangers became new friends, and I delighted in your diverse voices. Encouraging family members. Current and retired fishermen. Women from an astounding variety of life experiences. Whether actively working on the water, land-locked and dreaming of a life adrift, or seasick-prone and happily rooted ashore, you tugged the threads of these posts and found them connected to the fabric of your own lives.

So this post isn’t about celebrating 12 months of a one-dimensional online construct. This is about recognizing and honoring community, and that’s all of you who take the time to stop by and say hello. You’ve become participants in these stories. Your hearts seized as whales rose up beneath the Nerka. (Maybe some expletives fell from your lips, too, in chorus with those falling from mine.) You celebrated Cap’n J’s birthday, and you imagined the taste of traditional Tlingit foods. When I shared my writer’s panic last fall, you offered support and encouragement. You learned the interdependent relationship between salmon, trees, and Southeast Alaskans, and you rallied as spokespeople for the Tongass National Forest. You cheered for the 2012 Fisher Poets, and you grieved those lost at sea.

Hooked’s readers have been the greatest joy of this experience.  I wish I could offer you a slice of that aquatic-themed cake (or provide a gluten-free/sugar-free/vegan alternative) in thanks. You’ll just have to trust that we enjoyed it with you in mind. Bear, too.

In lieu of cake, I do have a gift for one of you. Two months ago, I printed a few copies of Hooked: The Best of 2011 through blurb.com. An 80 page collection of my favorite posts, they came out pretty nicely (only 2 typos discovered thus far, and purely my fault.) If you’d like to be entered into a drawing to win your own copy, leave a comment here before midnight on Wednesday, and I’ll put your name in a hat. (No, not a hat, but an Xtra Tuf boot. Thanks for the suggestion, Cedar – cultural authenticy matters!)  Cap’n J will do the honors on the morning of the 22nd, and I’ll stick the winner’s copy in the mail as one of my final tasks before we head north.

Are you a long-time Hooked reader, or a new visitor? As we approach the upcoming fishing season, are there particular stories or issues you’d like to hear about? What have you liked in your time with Hooked, and what could we do differently over our second year?

Vanishing Boats, Lost Fishermen, and the Price of Fish

12 03 2012

I woke up this morning with a particular post in mind. I wanted to tell you about the changes afoot here at Hooked Central. Winter is abruptly over. Cap’n J, Bear the Boat Cat and I are packing up and heading back to Sitka next week, where we’ll reunite with our girl, the F/V Nerka. It’s been a tough winter up there, and we’re anxious to see how she weathered all these months alone. I’d planned to tell you about the long to-do and don’t-forget lists, reflecting on the ways we say goodbye to one life in anticipation of the other, and probably would’ve ended up with something very similar to this post. That’s what I had in mind.

Then two tragedies bookended the day, and suddenly those preparatory details of our life at sea seemed terribly trivial.

The first was out of Newport, Oregon. The F/V Chevelle ran hard aground on the jetty this weekend. Everyone made it safely to shore, but the 70-foot steel crabber remained lurched against the rocks, hammered by growing waves. The News Lincoln County’s article included video of the wreck, and my blood chilled as I realized what I was seeing.  As each wave hits, the Chevelle’s aft deck raises independently of her shuddering wheelhouse. That’s the sight of the sea slowly unzipping a boat down its midship line, like a piece of paper torn in half. For the ocean-goers amongst us, this video is more frightening than any horror movie villain.

Tonight, I went back online and saw this headline from today’s Seattle P.I.: “Boat sank so fast no time for distress call.” The article includes all the worst kinds of heartbreak… The crewman who’d had a bad feeling about making that trip, but a worse feeling about his house payments. The deckhand who’d been hired on just a day earlier, eager to work. The Coast Guard station that received an EPIRB alarm from the Lady Cecilia at 3:37 a.m., and arrived on scene, 17 miles off the Washington coast, only to find an oil slick, some debris, and a life raft – empty. The search team that scoured over 640 square miles of unconcerned ocean. The four men who weren’t found. The two year old boy who won’t see his father again.

Here at our house, we keep a little altar over the fireplace. Some candles. A weeping Buddha, circled with small mementos from the sea. Photos of people we’ve lost. I keep a photocopy of an old Portland Oregonian article tucked up there, too. I don’t know the author’s name or the publication date, don’t even know how it came into my hands in the first place, but I know it resonates in a deep, waterlogged place in my heart and it’s all I really want to share with you today.

The Price of Fish

“The deep sea fishing boat ‘Republic’ will never sail out for the tuna again, nor for the salmon – out of Astoria into the green swells from westward. Part of her bow has drifted ashore near Long Beach, and some of the forward deck – and where the hulk of her is, only the sea can tell. Her last port of call was the storm. And the fishermen who sailed her, and looked to her fishing gear, and harvested the sea? Where are they? Perhaps the gulls know, or the cormorants. Only this seems certain – that they and their boat will fish no more.

You walk through the market and glance at the fish stalls heaped with limp silver. Only a day or so ago these fish, most of them, were out where ‘the low sky mates with the sea.’ Now they bear price tags. Even fish, so we say, is high priced. That is true. Fish are high priced – and the least of the price is reckoned in coin.

Men who would rather fish at sea than work ashore sail out on the fishing boats to seek and follow the fish. It is a glad, hard life, and they love it well – but they stake their lives on the catch. It isn’t often that the boats don’t come back to port, for their oil-skinned skippers and crews to shout to their friends on the dock with word of their luck – but sometimes they don’t. The ‘Republic’ was one that didn’t. And how are you going to figure that into the price of a pound of fish?”

Rest in peace, Dave Nichols, Jason Bjaranson, Luke Jensen, Chris Langel, F/V Lady Cecilia, and F/V Chevelle. My heart goes out to all of your loved ones left on shore.

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