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The Thorniest Catch

Managing fisheries in the twenty-first century is hard, but it is especially challenging in Sitka, Alaska, where 90 percent of the haul is bycatch.

April 7, 2015

By John Grossman
Gastronomica, Spring 2015

Sitka, alaska resident jim michener knows that spring has arrived by the sentinel smell of a natural phenomenon he compares to stampeding herds in the Serengeti or bygone sky-darkening flocks of passenger pigeons over the Midwest. After a long winter, Michener will awake one morning in late March or early April and detect "the first whiff of the ocean" he’s had in five months. What’s caught the nose of this 44-year-old former charter fisherman and wilderness survival instructor for the US Coast Guard is an age-old hallmark of Sitka, the subtle tang of the annual herring spawn: the smell of dormant waters rebooting with life. This spawn, loosed from hundreds of millions of herring, inundates bays and shoreline waters with roe and milt, turning them milky white. Plankton bloom and mix with the spawn in the Alaskan waters Michener now uses in other months for his saltmaking business, coloring the normally incredibly clear seawater a mesmerizing Caribbean green.

Whales and sea lions and bald eagles come to Sitka to prey on the herring. As do an elite group of fishermen who annually vie in a high stakes, multiday competition that sometimes takes place in the harbor immediately offshore Sitka’s downtown on Baranof Island in Southeast Alaska. On such occasions, stores close their doors, not because the shopkeepers have gone fishing, rather because they’ve gone to watch fishing. Spectators line the shore and stand shoulder to shoulder on the town’s bridge to watch the frenzied action of a fishery unlike any other, a precisely timed, macho haul of massive schools of ready-to-spawn fish nowadays captured in You-Tube videos with titles like ‘‘The Shoot Out,’’ a fishery still basking in the glow of the single set that netted a lucky boat nearly a million dollars.

Read the article in pdf format.

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