Saturday, March 06, 2010

Ghost Ship of Seldovia Bay comes to life.

For four years the old Alaska ferry Chilkat has sat in Seldovia Bay, unattended, a mystery. But these days she sports strings of lights against the night sky, signaling to people in Seldovia that she is gradually coming back to life, a very new life. As John Enge, one of those aboard the Chilkat now relates, an idea was born to take the tired ship into a new future as a cod fish processor.

A plan was formed among the group to establish a "mother ship" for the cod jigging fishermen who work out of Kodiak. Enge tells how a lot of fishing jobs were lost in Alaska when IFQs, or Individual Fishing Quotas, were instituted, and how Alaska has only one remaining fishery left that isn't privatized. That is the cod jigging fishery for Pacific, or true, cod as it's also known. The group working on the Chilkat wants to see the cod jigging fishermen get a decent price for their fish, so a plan has developed to do everything possible to make that a reality.

But they also want the fishery to be a sustainable one, unlike the injuries done by giant trawlers, which in areas of the east coast of Canada and America have already depleted the resource.

Enge has a good handle on the history of fishing before trawlers, and how for hundreds of years fishermen did it the old way and the cod were always there. He believes there is still time to turn it around for at least a segment of Alaska, the cod jiggers who go out in small boats and fish with line in contrast to the trawlers who drag miles of nets and waste tons of bycatch fish.

Saving lost time

Here we have a viable plan for the small fisherman to make a go of a family enterprise. Currently the cod jiggers lose a lot of valuable time taking their catch back into Kodiak to be processed, and getting back out to the fishing grounds. With the Chilkat taking on its new roll, they can upload their fish to it and also come aboard for a short rest and relaxation, with a shower and a good meal and be back out fishing right away.

The "processing" of the fish that takes place on the Chilkat will be the salting method, so no costly energy will be used for refrigeration. To get the cod aboard, a block and tackle system run by hand will be employed. Both of these methods will ensure more dollars to the fishermen. The Chilkat will run the salted cod to Kodiak for shipping to points around the globe.

According to Enge, North America is almost the only place in the world where there is no market for salted cod. He told of the Atlantic coast of Europe and Africa that import salted cod and provide a good market, along with some Asian countries. Salted means no refrigeration is needed from the processor to the customer, thus ensuring a good product. The group plans to market their cod as "Reel Cod," as in caught with reel and also being the true cod, not imposters.

Right now, though, the work is on the ship, where the crew of six is living somewhat more comfortably this week.

What intrigued me, though, was the logistics of the project. I had many questions. For instance, how do they get their supplies onboard, as the ship is anchored out in the bay? I was told that a former owner put a large door in the side that is about six feet above the water, and local Seldovia people have been providing a taxi service.

I then asked about the water situation and found out that for the time being, they are bringing in cases of bottled water until the huge tanks for water storage can be cleaned and come online. They have a desalinator for sea water on order. The cooking aboard is what Enge calls "field cooking," done by his son Jesse. They just progressed from cooking on the wood stove to using an oil stove. As Enge spoke to me by phone, his son was trying out a new bread recipe he's found online.

What about fuel?

What about fuel for the big generator, I wondered? Enge told me that there is a double tank aboard that has several hundreds of gallons of fuel in it yet, and that is being filtered into usable quantities to provide for heat and cooking. The ship's lounge has been turned into a comfortable living area.

Last week the area experienced an intensive storm with wind of hurricane force, but the Chilkat's giant anchor held her steady. The skiff was blown away but later found and recovered before it could be blown further out to sea and lost. Enge just called with the latest news: The ship's flag had been raised. It was raised it in honor of the three veterans aboard, and to show the world this is an American ship.

Lee Anne Smith lives between Wasilla and Big Lake and recently signed on as publicist for the crew work down on the Chilkat. "I may be paid in all the fish I can eat, but I believe in this project," she said.