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.

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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.





Salmon, Trees, and We: The Tongass, Part 1

9 12 2011

This is one of my favorite places in the world:

Photo by Joel Brady-Power

This photo was taken in Sitka, but could be almost anywhere in Southeast Alaska. The Tongass National Forest blankets most of our region, a crazy quilt of western red cedar, Sitka spruce, and western hemlock that covers almost 17 million acres. Not only is the Tongass the largest national forest in the US, it’s also the largest temperate rainforest remaining in the world. About 70,000 people call the Tongass home – as do 30,000 bears. This rare ecosystem also supports deer, wolves, over 300 species of birds, and all 5 species of salmon: chinook, coho, sockeye, chum, and pink.

When we talk about protecting wild salmon, our national dialogue is heavy on fisheries management and healthy oceans.  Essential elements, but incomplete. These ocean swimmers begin and end their lives in freshwater, including  17,690 miles of streams, lakes and ponds in the Tongass. If we promote sustainable fisheries without placing equal value on salmon habitat, both are at risk.

One of my fellow fishermen, Karl Jordan, published an editorial in the Juneau Empire yesterday: “Forest Service Budget Just Doesn’t Add Up.” (Available here.) Karl examined the annual funding for habitat conservation/restoration ($1.5 million) and logging/road development ($25 million). Quite a discrepancy – especially when you note that timber-related jobs number less than 200, compared to over 7000 fisheries-related jobs.

A fourth-generation fisherman, Karl’s profiled here in Amy Gulick’s tribute to the Tongass,  Salmon in the Trees. He’s a powerful advocate for salmon, speaking from a place of deep love for Southeast Alaska, the Tongass, and commercial fishing.

We heart salmon. (Photo by Jon Corbett)

That’s the place that I speak from, too. Life as a harvester is, for me, inherently bound to life as a conservationist. I believe it’s my responsibility to protect what I love. And between the photo at the top of this post, the many joys of our life at sea, and the honor of hand-delivering these gorgeous fish to our customers, I can’t even begin to count all of the ways I love salmon and trees.

If you speak from this place, too, please join me in quick, easy activism for salmon. If you support increased funding for salmon programs and habitat restoration in the Tongass, please email Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell (ttidwell@fs.fed.us) with your message. It doesn’t have to be long, but it does have to be received by December 16th to weigh in on 2012’s budget planning.

Not sure what to say? Karl’s editorial, here, is a great resource. Tomorrow, I’ll share a copy of my letter to Undersecretary Harris Sherman, which you’re also welcome to use as a resource. Whether your livelihood depends on the well-being of the Tongass, or your life is richer knowing that wild places like this still exist in our world, thank you for joining me in this effort.

Photo by Joel Brady-Power








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