“I Just Really Want to Go Fishing!” Introducing Amanda

22 06 2012

I’m a nosy person. My social worker days allowed entry into others’ most private moments, while fishing’s mode of communication, the VHF radio, provides socially acceptable eavesdropping. The Backdoor Café’s elbow-close tables are just as handy for my voyeuristic tendencies.

One crisp March morning, camped at a corner table, I pecked out sentences between bites of peach-raspberry pie. When an earnest voice drifted over, my steel-ringed ears perked up.

“I just really want to go fishing! I know it’s clichéd, but I don’t even care about making any money.” Mentally, I mouthed the next sentence. “I just want the experience.”

Though the sentiment was familiar, the voice was not. With a casual sip of coffee, I glanced down the room. A young woman sat among the morning crew. Alaskan men whose hands are permanently etched with their mediums – motor oil, copper paint, white-laced trails of long gone hooks and blades – these regulars dished advice with indulgent smiles.

“First thing you’ve gotta do is learn to swear,” one said.

Another agreed, “Learn to swear, learn to fish, and learn to shower less.”

Long brown hair swinging forward, she leaned into their words. Teal-accented glasses shielded her eyes, yet excitement shone through body language as she nodded intently.

*****

Back aboard the Nerka, I told Joel about this latest newcomer in the spring flood of dream-driven greenhorns. “I kinda envy her,” I mused. “Growing up in this, always knowing the reality of our business, I’ve never felt that kind of wide-eyed excitement.”

He frowned. “I don’t know about that – I still get awfully excited to go fishing. To me, excitement without knowing what to expect is just anxiety.”

“Yeah… But we know too much to be excited like that, all consumed by the fantasy.” Struggling to put my feeling into words, I cast about for a comparison. “Like kissing. Kissing someone new is crazy-exciting, and kissing someone familiar is a different, quieter kind of exciting.”

My partner of 8 years smiled. “What’s really exciting is kissing someone you know really well, but haven’t seen in a long time. That’s what coming back to Alaska and going fishing is like for me.”

.*****

I surreptitiously followed this young woman’s updates for weeks. She held a seat among the morning regulars; her open demeanor and enthusiastic ability to connect with anyone impressed me. One day, a thread of uncertainty wove through her usual optimism. She wondered aloud how she’d know if a skipper was safe.

Her apprehension echoed in my head as I walked back to the boat, a feeling of shirked responsibility tugging at my heels. Dammit…I should’ve reached out to her. Pulling out my phone, I texted one of the fishermen she’d been sitting with.

“Hey dude – the woman who wants so much to go fishing should give me a call. Would you give her my #? Thanks!”

A return message buzzed almost immediately. “Hi tele! Amanda is very excited to give u her number! Here it is: XXX-XXX-XXXX.”

*****

That’s how I met Amanda. Several hours later, she sat in the Nerka’s cabin. Surrounded by the trappings of a foreign world, she studied the lures hanging from the helm and carefully repeated their names. Hoochies. Flashers. Spoons. I could practically see her brain creating a new file, tabbed “Fishing Terms.”

I hate to see an inexperienced young woman to find herself in a bad situation, sure, but my motivation wasn’t so pure. A friend needed a deckhand. Knowing that he prefers female crew, I wanted a better sense of who she was before making any offers. Could she actually be as genuine as she appeared?

Yes. By our visit’s end, I was openly scheming to land Amanda a job with my friend. There’s no telling how someone will handle the sea, sleep deprivation, or isolation, but it was clear that Amanda had the right attitude.

Such a good attitude, in fact, that many other folks jumped to help her in her quest. One morning she approached me with apologetic eyes. “I’m sorry, I won’t be able to help your friend… I got a job.”

Waving aside the apologies, I cheered her good news. She described her role working for a well-reputed captain on a tender – a large vessel that transports catches from the fishing grounds to the processing plant. I gave a thought of thanks for the guardians in our community. Gently cradling her fantasy in experienced hands, they’d placed equal value on her safety and the realization of a dream.

How will reality stack up against the fantasy? Wouldn’t it be fun to hear directly from Amanda on that? She’s agreed to be Hooked’s pen pal over the course of her first fishing season, letting us know how things are going. This makes Amanda our first correspondent, and I’m so delighted that you’ll get to meet her. Stay tuned – I’ll post her first letter on Monday. Meanwhile, please join me in welcoming Amanda to our community and wishing her well this inaugural season!

Have you chased a dream? How did it live up to the reality? What would you like to ask Amanda about her experience?   





Enduring Burning: Alaska Walks for Life

15 05 2012

No halibut on deck here… Consistent storms have tethered us to the dock for two weeks, waiting out weather like 45 knot winds and 22-foot seas. We take it for what it is – what else can you do? – but watching steady gray sheets pouring down the cabin windows gets old.

So I go for a walk.

Southeast Alaska’s second annual Walk for Life is scheduled to gather at Crescent Harbor at 12:30. Scoping the scene from across the street, I see three people huddled against snarling wind and icy shards of rain. Oh, man… But taking a public stand against suicide seems especially necessary on such a grim day. I yank my hood up and head over.

Others feel similar urgency. Over the next half-hour, about 50 people fill the harbor shelter: cane-bearing elders, bundled children, young couples. Organizers from the SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium (SEARHC) hand out T-shirts emblazoned with The Watchman, a symbol of courage designed by Tlingit artist Robert Hoffmann.

“I’ve never worn a T-shirt over two coats before,” muses social worker Maggie Gallin.

With everyone decked out and ready to march, SEARHC Suicide Prevention Program Manager Wilbur Brown calls for our attention. “If you’ve been around Alaska at all,” he begins, “you know there’s a lot of suicides here.”

A lot of suicides… Statewide, Alaska doubles the national average, while rates in remote Arctic villages are up to seven times higher.  From our mountains, salmon, and bears, to our chemical dependency, domestic violence, and despair, we have it all bigger, badder.

Wilbur explains that Walk for Life is a response to those staggering losses. Initiated in Kotzebue, the first walk took place in 2009. (150 people participated in nearby Ambler – almost half of the Kobuk River village’s population.) In 2011, Tessa Baldwin, a Kotzebue teenager, inspired Southeast Alaska to join. One year later, the prevention effort has been embraced statewide. “People are walking for life all over Southeast today – people are walking in Angoon, Hoonah, Kake, Klawock, everywhere. We’re walking to celebrate life and say no to suicide.”

SEARHC Suicide Prevention Program Manager Wilbur Brown.

So we walk. Led by a police escort, we march through an intersection (one of Sitka’s two stoplights) and down the main drag, winding around Saint Michael’s Russian Orthodox Church and turning to parallel the channel. We hold up traffic. One driver leans out her window with a smile. “What is this?” Her smile washes away with the answer.

We file into the Sheetka Kwaan Naa Kahidi house, where Wilbur opens the ceremony. He hopes that through events like these, we might lessen the taboo of talking about suicide. “Alaska’s highest suicide rates are among young men. And what do we teach our young men? We teach them not to talk, not to feel, not to communicate. We want to show them there’s another way.”

One of those ways may be through cultural revitalization. For the next several hours, Naa Kahidi pulses with tradition’s heartbeat. Accompanied by a single drum, four Ravens stand at the stage edge, voices raised in a sorrow song shared by Hoonah’s Sea Pigeon clan. A group of Eagles respond, keening loss that pierces through the rafters, through time and place, through language.

Nodding with the beat, I glance at the ink on my left forearm. Part of me for 13 years, this tattoo usually demands about as much conscious consideration as a pinky toe, but in this setting, the Viktor Frankl quote seems to glow. That which seeks to give light must endure burning.

I remember burning… Sitting mute in the psychiatrist’s office, consumed by blistering loneliness, resolute. (Nine years old, I’d already aced my family’s lessons on silence.) Another lifetime trapped within that flame. Alliances with alcohol, friends whose angst mirrored my own. Skin carved like pie crust to relieve the steam within.

I remember light… Blinking against newly broken dawn as I staggered into my tribe. People who offered hope, connection, the thrill of community. We strolled bold amongst dragons, confident we’d pass through without a scorch.

It’s been seven years since I was a practicing social worker. I exchanged the path of tending lives for one of taking life, hunting fish half the year, yet still I find myself whispering the names of those we lost. The young man who committed suicide by cop. The young woman who hung herself in jail. In a hospital. In a garage. With an overdose. With a shotgun. After being kicked out of the family for being gay. After seeming to have made it, whatever “made it” meant. Those we lost, and those we might have. Those whose despair feasted like parasites, those who crooked their fingers to death and silently screamed please.

I remember the hiss of light guttering out, echoed by the mechanical slurp of a stomach pump. By then I’d learned that if I sat very quietly – as still as the dead – and wiped my expression mountain stream clean, the ER personnel would let me stay with the kid I’d brought in. Studying the steady extraction of a young woman’s stomach contents, grainy residue awash in waves of Pepsi Blue, I wondered how I’d ever dared imagine I’d sidestep burn-out.

Back in Naa Kahidi, six drummers gather around the Hashagoon drum, centered on the main floor. “We’re going to do a song to honor those who’ve passed away from suicide,” one explains. “Please remove any head coverings and stand if you’re able to do so. You’re welcome to join us to dance if you’d like.”

A circle forms around the drummers. I study the pairs of Xtra Tufs and sneakers, all moving with differing degrees of certainty and grace. Shuffle, toe, step, toe, knees flex, shuffle. As the faces of my dead and might-have-beens shimmer against the dancers’ feet, it’s easy to meditate on the losses binding us.

But a child careens through the room. Arms outstretched and a grin wide enough to swallow the sun, he runs against the stream on socked feet. He’s shirtless, a clan robe around his shoulders, clasped with five pearl buttons spanning his narrow chest. The robe is a stunning piece of regalia, a red and black link to his history, but today it’s a cape streaming behind him and he’s Superman. He runs faster – he flies – the embodiment of joy, curiosity, and light. He shoves grief aside, inflates us all with his buoyancy.

I leave Naa Kahidi wanting to believe that little boy will keep flying. That the dragons who reduced so many other heroes’ capes to charred ash will leave him be. I hope he grows up knowing how to ask for help, that the only shame is in silence. I hope he learns there’s another way.

If you or someone you know is feeling suicidal, please talk to someone. Here in Southeast, contact SEARHC’s Helpline at 1-877-294-0074. Nationwide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1.800.784.2433. Be well.





Fisherman, Community Participant; Someone in Between

24 04 2012

Cap’n J and I have been back in Sitka for a month now, blissing out on the pre-tourist calm. This is something I love about being up here early. Seasonal workers (yeah, like us) and visitors are a mere trickle in spring, rather than the flood of summer. Like bears snuffling their way out of hibernation, locals blink happily at the lengthening days, joking easily, relieved to have slipped through winter’s clammy fingers.

Sitkans know how to stay busy. Community events celebrate all manner of talent, and we’ve kept a full calendar since our return. The Sitka Film Society brought Salaam Dunk to town, a great film about an Iraqi girls’ basketball team. Performer Gene Tagaban shared a powerful evening of stories, music and dance. There was the Monthly Grind – a community-wide variety show that runs October-April – and an evening of live storytelling at the Larkspur Café.

All these things, and we even managed to go fishing. The Nerka spent 10 days away from the dock, as we tried our hand at winter king trolling. April’s ocean conditions are notoriously fickle; only weeks earlier, a friend awoke to his deck piled with snow, an icy skin on the water. Braced for the worst, we got the fantasy instead, re-entering our work life with flat calm water, gorgeous sunrises, and the occasional king salmon. Not even Bear could complain, sprawled on her bunk in a sunbeam. (Though she did get seasick when we first left the dock. Nothing like a glassy-eyed, mouth-foaming cat to make you feel like a terrible parent.)

Bear's kind of fishin': flat seas and sunny.

We’d have happily continued dragging our hooks around, but by the middle of this month, it was time to scrub the Nerka clean and switch gears. We’re jumping ship to longline on a friend’s boat, hoping to head out this week. Slowly progressing towards being ready, we spent much of Sunday loading halibut gear aboard. (The boat sat noticeably lower in the water, her nose sniffing the sky, after we were done.)

We’re here to make a living, I know, but I’m also hungry to make a life in Sitka. Every day, yet another flyer is tacked to the Backdoor Café’s bulletin board, promoting yet another tempting event. This week is no exception.

Monday was World Book Night, and Sitka’s unique method of spreading literary love earned a national shout-out in USA Today.

Isabella Brady will be honored on Tuesday evening, first with Alaska Native Sisterhood services (5 pm, ANB Hall), followed by cultural services that will continue late into the night (7 pm, Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi).

Wednesday marks a different honoring, as Sitka’s Fish to Schools program is recognized as Alaska’s 2011-2012 Best Farm to Schools Program. Only on its second year, Fish to Schools connects local schools with local seafood. If you’re in Sitka, dinner is a not-to-be-missed meal by Ludvig’s Colette Nelson. Otherwise, you can still support Fish to Schools here.

On Thursday, community organizer Lakota Harden will lead a workshop, “Allies for Youth,” training adults to ally with youth for social change and developing leaders for the next generation. (9 am-noon; RSVP with Brian Sparks, 907.747.3370.) This one’s dear to my heart: my non-fishing path was as a social worker with Seattle’s homeless youth. While I can’t give up this life at sea, I miss social justice work, cultural conversations, the energy and resilience of young people.

But as I heard so often as a teenager, “We are here to catch fish and make money,” and you can’t catch fish if your hooks aren’t in the water. Given a self-sustaining bank account and no anxious skippers, I’d gladly sign my time over to all of these events, and more – experience assures me that Thursday’s tempting event will be followed by something equally fascinating on Friday, then Saturday, and on and on. The thing about fishing for a living is that – eventually – you have to leave the dock.

All this makes me curious… Is our little island town of 9000 special (well, yes), or are other communities equally rich with goings-on? With Hooked’s friends spread across such diverse geography, I wonder what it’s like where you live. Do you feel very connected to your community events? Which ones? How do you hear about them?





Remembering Isabella: 1924 – 2012

19 04 2012

Longtime Hooked friends may recognize Isabella Brady’s name from last summer’s story of a traditional foods dinner. Leaning on a walker, dishing slabs of moose alongside venison stew, the Alaska Native Sisterhood president commanded as much attention as the chewy texture of whale between my teeth.

I’d hesitated to post that story without Isabella’s blessing. Before we left town on a fishing trip, I printed a copy at the library and dropped it into the mail, feeling more vulnerable than I had in a long time.

When we returned to town a week later, a gravel-voiced message awaited me. Isabella told me to call her. Exasperated with my nervousness, Joel asked, “What’s the worst she can say?”

Um… Don’t write about her, don’t post her photo – oh, and my writing’s a terrible bunch of cultural exploitation?

When Isabella answered, I stumbled through my introduction. She interrupted me. “I thought your article was outstanding.” Anxiety gave way to embarrassment, as she shared overly generous praise. This single sentence would have been enough: “I was having a real bad day when I got it, and it made me feel real good.”

*****

Our interactions developed around a directive: “Come to my house and have something to eat with me.” More commandment than invitation. Isabella liked to talk, and I was an eager audience.

She instructed me in making clam chowder, while describing the sharp contrast between her Sitka childhood and the North Dakota Presbyterian college she attended on $100/month scholarship. “Bring me the flour tin and a fork. College was like being a celebrity. Home was like being in the Deep South, for all the prejudice against my skin, but at college, it made me special. Are those potatoes gonna boil over? Mostly my classmates were disappointed I wasn’t an Eskimo.”

A woman of ferocious faith, Isabella began every meal with a thorough blessing. On our third visit, she asked if I was affiliated with a church. My response didn’t please her.

When I brought salmon heads from our final trip last summer, she recalled her boat-building grandfather, Peter Simpson, and her own fishing childhood. “We had a scow, used to buy fish from other boats at Lazaria and Shelikof. We’d collect sea gull eggs at Sea Lion Rocks, had to time getting out of the boat with the waves. I hated it – I got so seasick. My brothers teased me, they told me to eat bacon.”

She asked if I knew how to work a video recorder, still wrapped in plastic. “My friend sent it; she said I should record my stories.” We talked about the challenge of telling your own story, for all of the places that it intersects with other people’s. She spoke of her reluctance to intrude on others’ privacy, then shrugged. “They’re mostly all dead now, anyway.”

*****

On Tuesday, my feet bounced lightly down Sitka’s main drag, my backpack laden with a Tupperware of marinated black cod tips. After the meals she’d shared with me, I felt shyly eager to bring Isabella a gift of food I’d harvested.

A few minutes away, I pulled out my phone to make sure it was a good time to visit. A male voice answered on the second ring. I didn’t think anything of it. Isabella’s home was a hive: a constant flow of children, grandchildren, friends buzzing in and out.

“Hi, is Isabella there?” I chirped.

“No… She’s not here right now.”

I glanced at the afternoon sunshine and thought of the black cod in my pack. “Well, will you be there for a minute? I’ve got some fish for her that I could drop off.”

“Who is this?” the man asked.

I hesitated. “Friend” assumed too much; “smitten admirer” would be more honest. “My name’s Tele… I visit with Isabella sometimes.”

His quiet words hit my ear like small pebbles dropped down a well, as he explained that Isabella had fallen the day before. “She was Medevaced to Anchorage… We don’t think she’s coming home.”

*****

I saw Isabella once this spring, shortly after we returned to Sitka. She told me to make us some pancakes, supervising every step from her seat at the kitchen table, murmuring along with the stereo. That saved a wretch like me. She said how blessed she was, reflecting on the love and generosity that people had shared during her winter hospitalizations. She said that she wasn’t afraid of death.

Penny piles lined her coffee table, copper flashes amidst the endless papers of a lifelong leader still organizing from her living room couch. When she grumbled about needing penny rolls, I volunteered to pick some up at the bank. They’re still in my backpack, a rubber-banded stack heavy with accusation. Why didn’t I take them straight to her, right after leaving the bank?

Isabella sent me out the door with a small jar of sourdough starter. She promised, “Once you make your pancakes from sourdough, you’ll wonder why you never did before.” It’s in the Nerka’s dorm-sized refrigerator now. I don’t know anything about keeping starter alive, but I’ll learn. It’s what remains.

*****

Some people seem too powerful to die. Whether by the confidence with which they move through the world, the magnitude of their service, or the depth of what they’ve survived, they seem invincible. As if they glow so bright that they’d scorch Death’s grasping hand. Maybe part of me imagined that would be true of Isabella. When I saw Raven Radio’s Wednesday headline – “Native leader, activist Isabella Brady dies at 88 – I didn’t want to believe.

As a non-Native, I’ll never know the strength, courage, and hope that she provided to so many. The community is reeling, grief shrouding the Brady family, the Kik.sadi clan, and Native people throughout the region. I’ll never know the taste of their loss. I was blessed to spend a mere speck of time in Isabella’s company, a few afternoons far more significant to me than they would have been to her. And though I fear some may hear this story as self-absorbed, my experience is the only authentic place I can speak from, the only language I have to honor Isabella’s tremendous legacy.

In several grace-filled sentences, Mike Schinke said what I’ve spent pages struggling to convey. I’m thankful for his permission to re-post them here.

“A prayer of solace for the Brady family. A prayer for the health of remaining elders. A prayer for the perpetuation of Tlingit language and culture.

Let Isabella Brady’s life be a testament that one person can make a difference in the world. May her accomplishments inspire many to also make the world a better place in their own ways. She will be missed by many and her absence will be felt far and wide for a long time.”

Amen. Rest in peace, Isabella. My deep sympathy to all who are mourning.





Mount Edgecumbe Presiding

1 04 2012

The view of our neighborhood, friends:

Mount Edgecumbe Presiding, Joel Brady-Power.

Cap’n J got this one a few evenings ago. Mount Edgecumbe never fails to bring a smile to my face. On April 1st, that smile expands to a chuckle as I remember our volcano’s role in one of the most elaborate hoaxes of all time. Enjoy the story, friends, and enjoy the remainder of your weekend.

Want less story/more info? You can follow @TeleAadsen on Twitter. 





…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.








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