Wednesday, September 08, 2010

On the Fly in Alaska

It was the third whirlwind trip to Alaska, this one lasting nine days. Late August and early September promised to be a last chance at speed-boating and berry picking, and we weren't disappointed. The red huckleberries around Petersburg were out in force. My mother makes a dynamite red huckleberry pie. You can get a pie's worth in about ten minutes with Norwegian berry picker. I made two pies myself here in the Rogue Valley yesterday from the excess production.

What amazed me this trip was the size of the salmon. I wasn't around that many, but what I saw was a real eye popper. Seeing humpies on their spawning beds with their backs that high out of water was like looking at seagulls with six foot wing spans. Something was going on in the ocean to make them that big; the cohos too. And can't forget the run of Fraser River sockeye that came in like a Bristol Bay run. Mostly I was seeing just remnants of runs in the creeks, albeit large individuals. Now if the humans would leave them alone a little while, it would probably be amazing how many salmon would show up in the creeks.

There is no problem with fish showing up to the 'ocean ranches' of course. I'm sure the thrill of the chase all over to find the best local runs is sorely missed by seiners who just show up to a hatchery to harvest the new crop waiting outside the fence like dutiful steers. Well, they aren't genetically engineered, or pumped full of chemicals. The combination could be just as lethal as oil mixed with Corexit. Nobody knows. Not that that seems to be stopping the FDA from approving GE salmon from foreign fish pens from landing in our grocery stores. And without a label saying as much.

But I digress. The solitude we often seek is still there. In one bay we entered, we were greeted by seals and spawned out pink salmon, gulls of different kinds galore, the murmerings of a flock of Canada geese, the high speed take-offs and landings of a flock of migratory ducks, and the howls of a couple of marauding wolves. That's what Alaska is all about. Not necessarily the opportunity to put a dent in all that wildlife with guns, but to know it's still there.

After renting the speed-boat for a day, we affixed my double-end fiberglass row-boat to the top of the Jeep and set out down the highway to find a place to row in freshwater solitude. Blind Slough was perfect for that, and after my sweetie exited the boat, I think I made a course record from the bridge to Crystal Creek. My back confirmed it the next day. I row facing forward a lot too, like the hand-trollers of old who stood up to row all day. From Bellingham, Washington to Southeast Alaska just for starters. Of course, some sailing and hitchiking going on as well. And, the new breed of fishermen with up to 28 foot beam seiners would certainly consider that the stone-age of fishing, even though that was only in the 1920s.

If you are only after speed, a racing shell is best. There is a formula for displacement hull speed with the length of the water-line featured prominently. But for utility and ease of rowing and handling, a peapod is hard to beat. My dream is to put a magnet motor in mine and head for Point Frederick to troll for a king salmon or two.

And speaking of that, a friend in Kake says the 'mosquito fleet' of boats is all but gone. That being the speed-boats that most families had in the village to commercially fish, and subsistence fish, for those prime kings and halibut. I guess that's a bygone era, but it was totally unnecessary in my book. Nobody was looking out for those folks. But maybe now is a good time to rethink the sustainability model of life in rural Alaska. Certainly it's not a row of 225 hp outboards on the back of a welded aluminum cruiser to pile on a 'hot bite' fifty miles away like the charter guys.

And giving a community an exclusive fishing zone around it might not be a bad idea either. I heard a good idea to level the playing field for the Petersburg processing plants and the smaller boats. And that is, to put in another enhanced fishery nearby. Turns out Petersburg can thank Gov. Murkowski for handing the cold storage principals in Sitka a million dollars in exchange for the United Fishermen of Alaska endorsement one time, which now has drawn half the seine fleet away from Petersburg. The irony is that one principal is the son of the founder of Petersburg Fisheries, Inc. Only one cannery out of three ran in Petersburg this summer.

All the processing plants play dirty though. While my wife and I had my mother to ourselves for a week or so, we got the straight scoop on a lot of things. One interesting factoid was that my father's boss at his first plant management gig told him he was too honest for the street fighting needed to run plants. But he was liked and ran that plant for almost 30 years. And I know some towns in Alaska are finding themselves on the losing end to the plants for this very reason. But mostly it's the unsustainable fishing practices of the trawlers and consolidation of the fleets. The communities never did weigh in and are still conflicted and confused.

Well, what other juicy gossip was there to be had in Petersburg? I got a chuckle out of the fish cop who fell overboard while boarding a fishing boat and sank thirty feet with his flak jacket and pistol and all. He had been a Navy Seal once, so recovered and powered his way to the surface. But the point is, why wear all the battle gear when boarding a gillnetter or troller? The M.O. is to board with several of these guys and two at the ready with automatic weapons. I guess little Tommy or a grey-haired troller's wife might just have an RPG stashed under a bunk. Same with the cadre of Forest Service hired guns. They told one friend of mine that they have to be ready in force because with this economy "people are more desperate and might try to do something in the forest they aren't supposed to." I suppose like breaking the rule against going to the bathroom behind a tree in the Tongass National Forest.

Not to mention the State Trooper in Petersburg who busted a couple of Native women who were picking up seaweed without a sport fishing license. It's good fertilizer for the garden, and I'm sure they didn't have large scale mechanized equipment to clean out the beaches. Just something they had been doing for thousands of years. Well, someone started the rumor that the Trooper had busted the Librarian for gathering seaweed, and it got all over town and next thing you know, that Trooper was history. Don't these guys have some borders to secure or something? And what about the hundreds of millions of dollars of wanton waste of fish going on every year in Alaska. I guess busting Natives for seaweed gathering for food, etc. is a lot easier. The gazillion dollar new Alaska Department of Fish and Game patrol vessel was tied to the dock in Petersburg the whole time we were in town. I suppose they were trying to nip in the bud any errant behavior by kids jigging herring without a license. The little criminals!

To be fair, the research teams on that vessel have allowed some new fisheries to open up. And they do multiple projects on a single cruise. And they can rub their bellies and pat their heads at the same time. Sorry, couldn't help it. Seriously though, if the trawl fleet starts targeting the Pacific ocean perch up in the Central Gulf, the bycatch of black cod, who also inhabit 'the edge' will be hammered. The void may draw black cod from Southeast to fill the void. S.E. quotas may drop. Not quite the same as there just being less halibut to migrate to S.E. from the Central Gulf due to trawl bycatch, but just a bad for the S.E. longliners' total allowable catch.

If that sounds ominous, believe me, Alaska has it's share of what the East Coast calls 'shadowy groups with harmless sounding names' to thank for the mess. But we've seen Law Enforcement do the right thing before, and hold out hope they will do it again.