…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.








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