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.
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