Excerpt from the new B&W book ALASKA FISHING GOLD RUSH OF THE 1980s
All books signed by author—9″x12″ 264-page hardcover coffee-table story/photobook available in a limited press run available through Jana Suchy’s Online Store
“1986 Black Cod: The Latest Derby” Copyright Jana M. Suchy 2015; originally published Alaska Fisherman’s Journal, May 1986
An amazingly high density of flagpoles marking set ends along the narrow strip of sablefish grounds some 20 miles offshore turned the open ocean into what Seaward crewman Mark Hammer called “a golf course.”
“The place was plastered with gear,” said China B skipper Dale Chesnut. “I’ve never seen that much black cod gear. It was worse than halibut,” he said. “I must’ve found the right spot because there were three million boats there.”
“You look on the six-mile ring on the radar and see 11 boats, it’s just hard to work like that,” said Dennis Hicks, veteran local longliner running the C-Lady with a round-the-clock, seven-man crew. “You had to run and run and run to find a place to set.”
Alaska’s traditionally months-long black-cod longline fishery in the Southeast-Eastern Yakutat area closed April 17 after a scant 17-day season because of too many boats, agreed Sitka processors and fishermen. A strong showing in ’86 by many newcomers aced out in ’85 by stormy weather and pot boats helped carve up the quota in record time.
“Too many boats, too small of an edge,” commented another longtime Sitka fisherman, Mike Mayo of the Oceanus. Mayo said he compared fishing areas for black cod and halibut by charting them out, and estimated that “in Southeast Alaska you have one-fiftieth to one-sixtieth the ground you have for halibut, in the Central Gulf it’s approximately one-ninetieth.” He said this ratio meant if you put 10 boats on the Southeast halibut grounds, it’s like putting 500 on the black cod grounds:
“There isn’t any room.”
John Fowler of the Rex agrees: “Halibut takes place at all kinds of depths. The black cod fishery’s only good from 250 to 600 fathoms. You look at a chart, it’s a very small area compared to the halibut area. That’s why it’s so crowded—they’re all on the edge.”
For the first-timers and seasoned cod fishermen alike, this translated into frequent gear conflicts and, for most, gear loss. “There’s hardly anybody you can talk to this year that hasn’t lost gear,” Mayo continued. Dockside interviews so far turned up only one boat, the Casino, that escaped the season without loss.
As home port to Southeast Alaska’s largest hook-and-line fleet and clearly the leader in sablefish landings for the Eastern Regulatory Area, Sitka saw a dramatic increase in fishing effort for cod this year that—despite a 50 percent quota increase—brought the April 1st fishery to a swift and short-notice halt.
“It caught me off guard,” admitted Ed Bahrt, plant manager for Seafood Producers Coop. He said that on April 13 he called around to other processors and estimated 3.5 million pounds had been landed in the Southeast-East Yakutat area. But by the next day, a Monday, the Department of Fish and Game announced, “based on catch projections,” the area’s sablefish quotas would be reached in three days and fishing would close east of 140º as of noon, April 17. Sitka Sound Seafoods Plant Manager Mackey McGuire also expressed surprise: “I knew we’d get those numbers, but I thought by the end of the month.”
Fish & Game Groundfish Biologist Tory O’Connell explained that sablefish is a federal fishery, with the state acting as a monitor to collect the fish ticket database and dockside interviews. She said the area longline quota had been set at 5.1 million pounds, dressed weight, or 3,278 metric tons, round weight. The closure news release listed catch projections based on an estimated 150 to 160 participating vessels in the Southeast-East Yakutat area with a daily catch rate of 1.3 tons for the first 10 days.
“I think it’s unfair to the fishermen,” Bahrt said, explaining that several boats had just outfitted for a full trip to learn they had only three days’ fishing left. “They should be allowed a week’s notice on a closure,” he continued, to at least get their costs back.
“There’s an awful lot of effort this year because of the prices,” O’Connell said, and when fish are caught at such a fast rate Fish & Game has to “work off of projections and not hard data” from fish tickets, which lag behind.
This year’s sablefish dock price in Sitka fetched an unprecedented $1.25/lb for seven-pound and ups, reported both SPC and SSS. Several longline fishermen remembered fishing for the cod when there was little outside interest and very low prices. In 1981, admittedly a slump year, the quota wasn’t even caught at an average 51¢/lb. But since the Japanese voluntarily left the fishery east of 140º in 1978 (and regulated out in 1979) the price—and interest—has steadily climbed.
“It’s a crazy, messed-up derby” now, commented Don Wells of the Saratoga. “There’s ten times the gear out there than should be.”
With the opening pushed back three months from Jan. 1 and pot boats outlawed this year for the first time, boats big and small of every gear type charged offshore to longline the deep water. Although rumors put the number of black cod permits at two to three times as many as last year’s, O’Connell said permits statewide held pretty steady around 540 but that this year more were active. “There’s a greater participation, more gear on some of these boats and more serious efforts by some of the new entrants.”
Suddenly, trollers were codders—and some of them getting damn good at it, too. Even the Roughneck, Mark Donovick’s crabber, converted to hooks and line for the first time to help compensate for the shortened crab season. “All of us screwed it up for the guys who do it year-round,” Willie Peterson, Roughneck’s lease operator, admitted quite candidly. “Being a crab fisherman, I wouldn’t want the whole longline fleet to come in and lay gear all over on top of ours.”
While one troller-longliner expressed concern for the big boats, like schooners, that just fish cod and now must compete with those that have permits in other fisheries, many trollers feel pushed to the wall themselves: Consensus is that there are no more trollers, no more halibut fishermen in Southeast. In this day of short-shot fishing, everyone must diversify to survive.
“When you shorten a season, it puts pressure on all the other fisheries,” concedes Tom Jacobson of the Kuiu, Port Protection troller and onetime black cod crew. “That’s why people are diversifying.”
Fowler talked about the investment tied up in his troller, the Rex, and asks what point there is if he can only fish three months. “It ain’t makin’ no money when it’s tied up at the dock.”
“If I had a choice,” adds Bob Fredrickson of the Summer Place, “I’d be trolling.” But with salmon pushed back so far to June 20, boat insurance payments due in March and June, and with a young family to support, “I’ve got to have something to make those payments or I’ll lose my insurance.”
The weather this season, although not officially winter, was bad enough to keep even big boats harbored up off-and-on during the first week, going “from a gale to a storm and back to a gale again,” according to one fisherman. When the weather came up, anchorages nearest the grounds were reportedly packed.
“You had boats out there that didn’t belong in that weather,” said China B’s Chesnut, “and ultimately you’re going to have loss of life.”
“If a storm came up,” added Saratoga’s Wells, “we would’ve lost a lot of boats.” But while fishermen marveled that so many managed to get through the season without greater mishap, several still cited the increased danger of such a short, intensified fishery.
“We had two guys get hooked,” Oceanus skipper Mayo reported. “One because we were set down on our anchor and it just got too tight.” Chesnut mentioned the loss of skills when crews and skippers have to “jump from fishery to fishery,” affecting not only fishing efficiency but the “chance of gear loss, damage to the boat, or injuries,” and even more important, “the instinctive reaction to an emergency.” Although local processors agree that a more spread-out fishery would be better for plant operations, SPC’s Bahrt says the safety of the fleet is a major concern and “would like to see it spread out for that reason alone.”
Fishermen being fishermen, the opinions offered as solution to the latest derby dilemma vary widely, but most everyone seems to agree that something has to be done to limit either the number of boats or hooks in the water. Longtime Pelican longliner and Nancy K skipper Jim Phillips says, “What they oughta do is limit it to J-hooks and eliminate circle hooks,” lowering the catch rate and discouraging most trollers. Sitka black-cod veteran Greg Cushing advocates to “fish the stocks down to where it’s not a bonanza for all of them,” and Lindy crewman and Gambler boat owner Rick Gillman says when the price gets down to what it used to be, “These guys ain’t gonna be out there pounding for them.” Rose-Lynn’s Vaughn Blankenship agrees that 40¢/lb “will cure a lot of that.”
Wells would like to see a registered fishery, where fishermen have to state their fishing area and stay there; someone else said the only way to have all those boats is to set straight out the edge; and Jacobson suggests staggering the fishing time for boats to spread them out over the season, or “have all seasons open at the same time, say June 15, and then we’ll find out who’s who—who the trollers are, who the seiners are, who the codders are.”
Limited entry is often discussed, of course, with some as vehemently against as others are for.
“I think limited entry is an occupational hazard that we’re going to have to live with,” Petersburg’s Tom Greer says, even though as co-skipper of the 66-foot Kesia Dawn he never landed a black cod on the permit he’s had for nine years. Cushing thinks with limited entry “it’s only going to get worse,” because with only so many boats they’re going to continue to upgrade efficiency.
“The fish belong to everybody,” maintains Jacobson, staunchly anti-limited entry even as a salmon troller. “Limited entry is the first thing people think of and it should be the last thing.”
“If there is no limited entry,” says another, “the people who pioneered the fishery are gonna be run out of business by those who generally enjoy protection in fisheries that are already limited entry, like trollers and seiners and gillnetters.” Many agree, even if not with the principle. “We have limited entry,” says the C-Lady’s Hicks. “It’s the main regulatory tool that’s used. So let’s use it.”
All said and done, the short 1986 black cod fishery for Southeast-Eastern Yakutat proved a boon to local processors—high boats bringing in loads upwards of 70,000 pounds—with reports of excellent quality. Sitka’s proximity to the grounds and the processors’ high standards (limiting trips to six days and helping convert the fleet to onboard handling of Eastern-cut black cod) have built a reputation for high-quality sablefish product from Sitka. This year, “It’s been a beautiful product,” SPC’s Bahrt says, and SSS General Manager Harold Thompson agrees: “The bellies are substantially thicker and firmer than last year,” when the season opened during the winter spawning months.
With these continued trends toward derby fishing, what is the future for Southeast’s longliners?
“We’re going to follow the longline species up the line, and hope for the best,” Hicks replied.
“Get a troll permit,” said a few inveterate longliners, and no doubt bait sheds will come off some big boats to make way for gurdies.
“If there’s room on my drag, there’s room on their drag,” Nancy K’s Phillips says.
What a 17-day season says for past arguments is that “there’s no doubt in anybody’s mind that the American fisherman has the ability to harvest the resource put at his disposal,” says Bahrt. And of the management controversies likely to continue, Thompson is optimistic. “I think the council will eventually get more sophisticated in their management,” he says, “and take into account the effect they’re having on the fishermen and processors.”
Excerpt from the color book, FISHING FOR A LIVING IN ALASKA’S SOUTHEAST:
Available through online publishing at Blurb books, priced accordingly for on-demand printing (printed individually when ordered) through Jana Suchy’s BLURB BOOKSTORE
230-page story- and photobook in full technicolor—a fun and pretty look at life on the water living in rock- and island-encrusted Southeast Alaska, in the stunningly beautiful and historic Sitka, in the commercial-fishing fleet and on fishing boats working the ocean for a living. OFFERED AS 11″x13″ HARDCOVER COFFEE-TABLE BOOK or SMALL FORMAT 8″x10″ (in hard-or softcover) and also broken out as a SERIES OF THREE SEPARATE VOLUMES (hard- or softcover), ⇓
by Jana M. Suchy © 2013
We searched for Victor for three days. We searched every rocky tidal zone around every little rocky islet out at Goddard Hot Springs Bay, two hours southwest of Sitka by boat, along the rock-encrusted, island-strewn outside coast of Southeast Alaska. I thought we were just looking for Vic—he’s lost, let’s look, we’ll find. It was 1983 after my first season fishing, fresh from the flatland of water-friendly Wisconsin, totally green.
The night of the second day I realized of a sudden we were not actually searching for Victor; we were searching for his body. I cried like never before or since, wracking sobs, in the tiny wheelhouse of his sturdy wooden boat, the Donnamae, anchored in the bay with his three brothers aboard, searching.
The divers found him on the third day in 30 feet of water, a starfish on his lip. Cold water preserves well, I learned. Learned a lot that November. A lot about life, too much about death, way too much about sadness. First person ever knew to die. Sadly, he was not the last. Rite of passage, I suppose, seasoning a greenhorn to life, initiated into the commercial-fishing industry still listed as the most dangerous occupation in the country—ahead of even loggers, pilots and police officers.
Two years later, working hard, fishing for a living, I was seized with the thought, then consumed with the passion, to go to grad school in Journalism and hone raw writing skills so that I might tell Vic’s story—of his life, of his death. One of 11 kids, he was the rare breed born and raised in Sitka, back when just a territory before statehood in 1959. A life fishing, hunting, trapping, in the remote wildness that is Southeast. I wanted to capture that. Together with what turned out to seem his murder mystery, involving yet another brother, a bottle, and a cover-up.
When Dave and I teamed up to look for Vic, by that third day I’d learned what we were specifically looking for—a body washed up with the tide amongst the rocks, and then I knew I was actually looking for the green German army jacket he was last seen wearing, the one I’d sold him for $2 at my garage sale, what he had called his Czechoslovakian army jacket. I was looking for my sodden, slumped jacket that might have helped weigh him down in the frigid waters late that night.
And onshore, we were looking for what a local born-and-bred would do to survive: strip off all wet clothes, crouch tucked way back into a giant root-wad hole left from one of the many windblown trees—big, tall trees hanging onto thin, rocky soils in stormy, windy country. Stuff yourself in there and cover yourself with fluffy sphagnum moss to maybe stay warm and dry enough to live till rescue might arrive. On one little rocky islet Dave and I split to walk around the rocky beach, then up and over and through the little woods, searching.
I’ll never forget this as long as I live and as long as I have a memory. I walked up into the woods, suddenly startled to come upon a perfectly laid-out skeleton of a raven—every bone exactly as it appeared in his body when he died there, spread-eagled, head and neck cocked back as if broken by the fall, every vertebrae and wing bone and beak perfectly laid out.
I knew then we had to find Victor, had to keep looking, despite the big territory, the deep ocean, the great odds. Because I didn’t want someone, someday, to come upon his bones, perfectly laid out as he had left them, crouched in some root-wad hole covered with sphagnum, because we had not looked hard enough nor long enough to find him.
One cannot always know the reason for a thing, or its meaning or significance, perhaps for years and years, if ever. I firmly believe—and have to, in order to survive and make sense of it all—that good things come of all things, and all things for a reason. Thirty years ago Victor’s sad death changed my life forever, for I’ve been a writer ever since. I owe him that debt, and honor his memory for it.
This book is dedicated to the memory of Victor Jenny of the “Donnamae”
“Sitka Sac Roe: The Luck of the Draw”© 1986 by Jana M. Suchy / originally published in Pacific Fishing, July 1986 Some herring fisherman said this fishery is like if someone threw a million dollars on the floor of the Pioneer Bar and said, “One, two, three—Go!” Mid-March in the Southeastern island community of Sitka, Alaska, and another long, dark winter comes to an end. Sitka’s trollers and longliners—small boats, by boat standards—mostly stay tied to the dock during these gray and stormy months. But soon the seiners will be here, with their nets and power skiffs, six-man crews and huge steel tenders, to chase herring for the big bucks. “Whew, we made it through the winter,” says Sitka resident Nina Cord. She remembers walking the rocky beach and spotting the first of the boats to arrive. Smiling now, sitting at the bar of the packed Pioneer, she recounts the moment with a hopeful excitement usually reserved for robins or crocus. “One day three seiners are here, next day maybe there’s ten.” Never mind the weather; it’s spring. Sitka’s four harbors and waterfront now bulge with boats rafted eight deep into the channel, spilling over to anchor-up in the outer bays. They are here for the Sitka herring sac-roe fishery where the deep outside-coastal waters harbor huge balls of herring; they come here because all but a couple are homeported elsewhere. Since the wide-open days of old this million-dollar fishery is a limited-entry game that now might cost a cool quarter-million just for the permit to play. The Alaska Dept. of Fish & Game (ADF&G) deals the cards and calls the rules to this fish game. Stakes are high: This year a 5,029-ton quota of herring will be divided by fate and skill between 52 permit holders at the rumored rate of $1,000 per ton for 10% roe—with $100 increases for each additional percent. The mathematics are staggering and paychecks can be downright awesome—a huge set of high-quality roe, 200 or 400 tons, could net $200,000 to $400,000. One boat; maybe just one afternoon. But it’s a waiting game to get to that afternoon—herring roe matures at its own pace unhurried by man, and just never know when that might be so better hurry up and get here to wait. “It takes a good fisherman to catch fish,” says one Sitka sac-roe veteran, “but even good fishermen don’t get anything. It’s the luck of the draw.” On March 28, herring boss Bob DeJong—area management biologist for the ADF&G—puts the fleet on two-hour standby notice. He calls a morning skippers’ meeting, the first of many in what becomes a daily 8:30 ritual. The hotel’s Pioneer Banquet Room overflows—lots of folks have a stake in this crapshoot: Spotter pilots, crew, fish processors, “fish cops,” Coast Guard officials, biologists and reporters join the fishermen and converge to hear the 1986 game plan and how it compares to previous tourneys. Mimeographed handouts indicate the sac-roe fishery started small in 1969, that a quota over the last dozen years has ranged from zero to last year’s 7,700-ton high, and that fishing has opened anywhere from March 24 to April 16 with total hours fished varying between one-and-a-half hours and 17 hours even. There are no knowns, and speculation always runs rampant. “Everybody’s got a comment and an answer, and everybody thinks they’re right,” says Bruce Joyce of the Seattle-based Scandia. Comments this first meeting center around a regulation issue of a permit-holder fishing two boats—a spare to sit on some fish should the first seine foul or its seiner run aground. Does the net have to be aboard before the permit-holder can switch boats? Discussion heats, the scenario ripe for abuse: a legitimate hang-up or contrived to save time and catch fish? “You told me yesterday the net had to be outta’ the water,” protests Dave Lawler of the Evergreen. “Do I have to have a goddamn lawyer with me to fish legally?” The dealer holds; a decision will come later. The supervisor of the Coast Guard Marine Safety Detachment cautions against potential collision complaints as he holds aloft the Navigation Rules handbook. “There’s nothing in here that says during Sitka’s herring fishery the rules of the road don’t apply.” Oh, yes, boats do get rammed. “Any idea in the back of your mind how far away we might be?” a fisherman asks DeJong. “That’s the million-dollar question,” the biologist replies.
Read the entire story in “Fishing for a Living in Alaska’s Southeast”