F/V Charity, North to Alaska

29 04 2011

A mountain of unavoidable boat projects caused a few days’ delay, but I’m now reasonably certain that the good ship Charity will pull out of Seattle’s Fisherman’s Terminal today. As certain as a deckhand ever can be, that is. If a profession rooted in taking life can offer Buddhist teachings, it’s this: Let go of expectations and attachment, as captains reserve – and continually exercise – the right to change plans.

(I have a ways to go yet on realizing this lesson.)

The Charity's last night in Seattle, until fall 2011.

Had some excitement this week. If you read Hooked’s last post, you know I was pretty casual about packing for this trip. Saved it for my last night at home, tossed everything into a couple bags. I don’t expect to be on the Charity for more than a month, and the process is pretty formulaic. Boots, raingear, toiletries, a lot of fish clothes, a little of town clothes. (“Town clothes”: A T-shirt and Carhartts that haven’t been worn while fishing. That’s pretty classy for our crowd.)

While Martin did the Costco run, I prepared to gel-coat the head floor. At lunch, he’d said we’d likely stop in Bute Dale, a mystical ghost town several days into Canada. Century-old skeletons of houses and a long-abandoned cannery slide into the bay under the supervision of a massive waterfall and one lone caretaker, Lou.

My thoughts wandered as I wiped the floor down with acetone. Haven’t stopped in Bute Dale since the last time I fished with Martin…what, 6 years ago? Wonder what’s left of it. Bute Dale… Canada…Customs…Passport – NO PASSPORT!

I called Joel in panic-stricken disbelief. We were planning to leave in the next day, and not only had I forgotten to pack my required documentation for transiting through Canada, I didn’t have a clue where I’d put it. A bad surprise for anyone; extra mortifying for the family member known as the responsible, organized one.

Cap’n J saved the day. He calmed me down, refusing to play my “What if you can’t find it!” game. When he didn’t find it in any of my usual safe-keeping spots, he drove down to the Nerka, checked the binder of required documents on our boat. No dice. I jumped when the phone buzzed several hours later, and felt my shoulders sag when he said, “Found it.”

With that, things took a turn for the better. Joel had already planned a trip through Seattle for the next day, so he made a special delivery detour through Fisherman’s Terminal. We had a bonus last lunch together, a few more hugs and kisses goodbye, and I’m now legal to travel through Canada.  Whew.

We got fuel yesterday. Over $3500 of diesel. That’ll get us to Alaska; we’ll have to fuel up again in Sitka before we can go fishing. We’ve still got a few tasks today – groceries, running new anchor line on the winch, checking the survival suits. If you’d like to keep an eye on our trip, visit here and here for marine weather updates.  We’ll be heading up the Inside Passage, Seattle to Sitka, and expect a 5 to 6 day trip, barring any weather-related delays.

June 2010: Looking back on Washington water, heading into a great forecast.

When you next hear from the F/V Charity, we should be safely tethered to Sitka’s Eliason Harbor. If we pass on the dock, you’ll know me by the halibut-sized grin on my face. I’ll have made the first walk up to the Backdoor, Romeos fairly skipping over the sidewalk to get to that homecoming slice of Bernadette’s close-your-eyes-and-whimper-it’s-so-good pie. (See? So much for letting go of expectations.)

Until then, sweet reader, may you enjoy clear skies and safe seas in your life, as you embrace your own seasonal transitions.

From the Galley: Black Cod, Sitka-Style

7 04 2011

(This is Part 2 of a series on black cod, also known as sablefish.  For more about the fish itself and how it’s harvested, please visit Part 1, Seeking the Sustainable: Alaskan Black Cod.)

Our friend Jerry Dzugan is the director of the fantastic Alaska Marine Safety Education Association (AMSEA), a tireless advocate/teacher working to keep fishermen and other mariners safe. Fortunately for us, he’s equally enthusiastic about inviting friends over for dinner, and is a pro at cooking up Sitka’s natural bounty into healthy, delicious meals. I’ll be forever grateful to Jerry for introducing me to the joys of black cod and sharing this quintessential Sitka recipe.

Black Cod Marinade, Sitka-Style

1/2 c Yoshida’s teriyaki sauce

1/4 c apple cider vinegar

1/4 c orange juice (I prefer an orange, so we have fresh zest with the juice)

1 pound of black cod.  We use tips because that’s what we have; a fillet would produce equally delicious results.

My favorite kind of recipe - simple!

With the fish spread out in a shallow baking pan, we start by grating orange zest over the meat.  After that, we squeeze the juice into a bowl and mix in the Yoshida’s and vinegar. Pour the marinade over the fish and let it refrigerate for a while – “a while” meaning a couple hours to overnight, depending on your time frame.

When you’re ready to cook, prepare a skillet over medium-heat with a teaspoon or so of sesame oil and a little minced garlic.  We let the pan get fairly hot, so there’s a satisfying sizzle when you add the fish.  We pour a couple tablespoons of marinade in and put a lid on.  You should be able to flip it over at about 4 minutes in, and may want to add a bit more liquid.  After another 4 minutes or so, you’ll know it’s done when the meat flakes apart under a fork. Much of the marinade will have cooked off, leaving a heavier glaze behind.

Sizzlin' away...

Such a very simple recipe for something so delicious.  My favorite ways to serve these are equally simple: fish as above, rice, and some veggies, or tossing the fish in with stir-fried veggies and yakisoba noodles.  (Baby bok choy seems especially happy to be partnered with black cod.)  You’ll feel your body thank you for such a good meal!

As beautiful as it is delicious.

Black cod is a tremendously versatile fish that Americans have been missing out on.  Stay tuned for Part 3 of this series – black cod with miso soup.  If you’re still struggling with a cold, reluctant spring, as I am, that one goes out to you, sweet reader.

Seeking the Sustainable: Alaskan Black Cod

6 04 2011

It’s been almost 1 month since Alaska’s 2011 longline fishery opened. Maybe you’ve seen banners around your grocery’s seafood counter, promoting the sudden market availability.  “Fresh Alaska halibut is here!”

Lesser known among Americans is black cod (aka sablefish) which is also being fished right now. Japanese and European markets have been clamoring for black cod for decades, and domestic interest is increasing. These torpedo-shaped beauties saunter through the darkest depths of our Gulf waters, requiring gear set in up to 400 fathoms. Some perspective: walking that length from ocean surface to sea floor would be the equivalent of climbing three-quarters of the way up Mt. Edgecumbe, a strenuous day’s hike. Fishing in such depth places tremendous tension on the line, making this a higher-stress, higher-risk fishery than some others.

(Ten years later, I still remember the T-shirt a local fisherwoman was wearing in the P Bar – that’s Sitka’s Pioneer Bar, for those who haven’t been. Handmade, white letters blazing from a black background, it boasted, “Longliners do it deeper.”)

Snapping on baited "tube gear" on the mainline that's flying by. Very tense line, very tense crew.

Like halibut, black cod is managed by an Individual Fishing Quota (IFQ) system. Alaska’s longline fisheries are heavily-regulated and meticulously monitored, earning both of these species a “Best Choice” sustainability rating from SeaWatch’s Marine Stewardship Council.  The National Marine Fisheries System has an excellent summary of the black cod’s life history, habitat, management and sustainability.

Black cod might as well be black gold. A limited number of boats can participate in this fishery, and with deliveries earning close to $7 per pound, the competition for deckhand positions is December-gale fierce. Though I grew up in the fleet, I didn’t manage to land a spot on a longliner until I was in my late 20’s. I’d been squeezing salt water from my socks for over 2 decades before the first velvety bit of black cod melted on my tongue.

That first bite was instant love, but as with many things, love wasn’t enough. My freezer rarely contained this rich white meat. A deckhand doesn’t walk away with much take-home fish – particularly not at these prices. My world shifted when a friend introduced me to black cod tips.

Black cod are sold headed & gutted. The heads are chopped off by the processing plant, slated for disposal. Tips are a delicious nugget of meat nestled between the jaw and collar.  Too small and time-consuming to be lucrative for a business, they’re perfect for the local salvager who’s willing to dumpster dive for fish.

If you’re lucky enough to have a fisherfriend you can beg some black cod tips from, the sun is indeed shining on you, my friend.  Otherwise, check in with your local seafood store and consider splurging on a fillet.  It’s not cheap, but it’s a rich flavor where a small piece will provide monumental taste (along with high omega-3’s and other heart-related good-for-you’s.)

Please check back in for more of this series: in Part 2 I’ll share a marinade recipe that’s a Sitka classic, and we’ll share a tribute to our friends in Japan in Part 3, with a black cod miso soup recipe.  Meanwhile, best wishes to the men and women longlining out of Sitka, facing 13′ seas right now – stay safe, sweeties.


Walking on Water with Michael Jackson

26 03 2011

(A note: On March 25, 1983, Michael Jackson introduced what would become his signature move – the moonwalk – during a television performance of “Billie Jean.”  Though many other artists had performed the move over prior decades, it gained worldwide popularity through MJ. This bit of trivia, totally unrelated to women in fishing, becomes relevant later.)

Many aspects of the fishing lifestyle give me great joy.  Living seasonally, in partnership with the environment we’re dependent upon, developing an entirely different sensory system to understand and co-exist with the natural world.  The independence of being our own boss, driving ourselves hard and relishing the satisfying exhaustion that comes from pushing beyond perceived limits of physical and mental endurance.  And of course, working in an office that words – my words, at least – simply can’t do justice to.  Sometimes I look up from the fish I’m cleaning and take it all in – every make-your-heart-ache glacier-laden mountain that supervises our tack, all of the pristine forests rolling like carpet across vast hillsides and on down to craggy shorelines, and an ever-changing ocean as far as I can see.  Even after 22 years of calling this coastline home, I sometimes forget to breathe in the face of the unfathomable grandness of it all.

One of my favorite aspects about our life is the opportunity to enjoy the creatures around us.  Alaska’s waters are dense with life, an urban metropolis bustling around and beneath us.  It’s tough to avoid anthropomorphizing: we may not spend time with other human beings during our two weeks out, but we’ll interact with our animal neighbors daily.  As guests in their natural habitat, we get an intimate look at their behavior, an idea of their likes and dislikes.  They become more real, more relevant, than our human companions.

(Oh yes, I’m aware of the hypocrisy here, that I can write about cherishing wildlife interactions even as we’re out there as professional killers, harvesting life from the very ecosystem I’m exalting.  But that, sweeties, is another post – or ten – for another day.)

Like us, each species has their own unique moves.  Dall porpoises, among the most joyful living creatures, seem delighted by our presence.  They race our vessels, zipping in front, darting beneath the bow so close you catch your breath, afraid that this time they’ll miscalculate the boat’s speed and the water’s chop. They never do.

Grizzlies lumber along the beach, snuffling a spot of sea asparagus here, nudging over a crustacean-concealing rock there.  Though they can run up to 35 miles per hour, I’m content to have only observed their muscle-bound, shoulder-led saunter from the comfort of a boat.

As a corvid fanatic, it’s no big shocker that I think Alaska’s ravens have the animal kingdom’s handle on cool.  The sky is their playground, where they coast on thermals and dive into barrel rolls, exultant in their atmospheric acrobatics.  And it’s something else entirely to walk down the sidewalk behind a raven’s tail-shaking swagger.

I thought I had a pretty good idea of the local creatures’ characteristics, so it was a surprise to learn that the black-footed albatross is a Michael Jackson fan.  The following video was taken in June 2009.  I was crewing for our friends Ben and Betsy, longlining for halibut in Sitka Sound.   We had just finished setting our gear, and were about to enjoy an eight-hour break  while the hooks soaked.   We drifted in the Sound, surrounded by these friends cleverly waiting for our haul, when they’d swarm over our bait scraps.  Keep your eye on the handsome fellow in the middle left.

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