Wednesday, January 19, 2011


Before I begin what will be a chapter by chapter story of fishing - though I cannot say I am not at all sure the direction it will take; I want to first talk a little about blogging. Blogging as differentiated from writing a book. If I were to write a book, I would somehow write the darn thing to a first draft completion, and then I would go through it and re-write, and edit, and re-write until I was happy or finished with it otherwise. Then I would, perhaps, attempt to get it published. 

Blogging is different in that I just start writing. Then I transfer with copy and paste and check for spelling and glaring grammatical mistakes, and then I usually publish. Sometimes, upon publishing and reading what I publish I have to edit, and this process might go on through two or more cycles of that. In this chapter on fishing, I do not expect to do a lot of polishing. It felt like technical writing sort of. Almost inhuman. Though I hope to humanize it more in the future, I am not unsatisfied with this approach for the first chapter which is establishing the basis of fishing before we can get to actual fishing. 

I am not vitally attached to this work, but who knows where it will go? I certainly am an expert on fishing in this part of Alaska. I am more qualified to write about Trolling in SE Alaska then on any other subject. In some ways, I feel too close to it, but that may change. For anyone who takes the time to read it, I hope you enjoy it or at least feel edified from your and my efforts. 

Chapter 1 - Getting Started

Somewhere back in the stacks, I mentioned my boat. I live on my boat in Alaska. Craig, Alaska. That's in SE Alaska, or what some call the Panhandle. It is made up of an Island achepelagio or a group of Islands. Big and small. Mostly,the islands are thinner east to west and longer north to south. Waterways tend to run NW to SE.

Craig sits on the West side of one such island. At the  middle measuring from North to South of the largest of all the islands in SE Alaska. That island is called Prince of Wales, and most locals call it POW. POW extends from the Canadian border North - away from Canada for over one hundred miles. Another row of smaller islands protect POW from direct contact with the Pacific Ocean.

Craig is a small fishing village, really. It's population of about 2000 is bolstered by the largest single employer in the area, the National Forest Service. Though tree cutting has almost entirely disappeared, the FS seems to be going at full capacity. Besides the bonus income the city derives from the Fed's, fishing is about the only other industry which produces anything but support services.

Tourism is almost entirely fish related, so I include that in the general fishing industry. That does not exactly tell the whole story. To understand Craig, and fishing, and fish tourism, one needs to understand that a non-shooting war exists between the different fishing groups. With all commercial fisherman on one side, and any charter fishing boat and operator on the exact opposite side of the war. It is mostly civil, but emotions run high.

Money is involved in all ways, but that doesn't tell the whole story at all. Commercial trolling has been unalterably changed by charter fishing. Up until about the late 1980's or so, there were near zero charter boats. Now they number in the hundreds and probably more than one thousand. The total number of available licences to troll commecialy has remained steady at around 1000 the whole time, but the effort level has increased perhaps 50% from 600 boats fishing to 900 boats fishing. During that same time the charter fishing industry began to expand like a metastasized cancer. Sprouting up simultaneously throughout SE Alaska until, today, there is no piece of water which has not been covered in the routine travels of some charter boat. They are seen in every bay and inlet. They know every fishy point. Every shallow spot on the ocean. They travel alone out to Forrester Island which is almost 20 miles offshore. They travel in massive trains of dozens of boats speeding down a straight.

Territorial disputes exist. No one owns any piece of water, and trollers are by definition moving all the time. Charter boats will come in to an area and drift directly over bait balls and deny access to trollers. Legally, trollers have the right of way, and some trollers do endure the stress necessary to insist on their right of way, but mostly trollers have ceded most of the shallow water fishing in SE Alaska.

Trollers have watched this transformation over the course of twenty years, and see no end in sight. The economic downturn has temporarily slowed the growth like a mediocre chemo therapy treatment. For now, the charter boat industry is in remission, but will recover with the economy and then the growth will continue. The boat orders have been made, and the cabins are being built as I write.

The trolling industry has also been under siege from the fish farming industry which began almost simultaneously and kept pace with the growth rate of the charter boat industry. Though not visible on the fishing grounds, this incursion has had an even more disasterous effect on trolling. Starting with a few dozen million fish and growing to hundreds of millions of fish being dumped on the salmon markets, the price of salmon first stopped increasing and then started falling. The price of salmon peaked around 1984 or so, but would have reached a higher high had there been no farmed fish on the market. The following year, increased farm production drove the price of all salmon down. With few exceptions, each new year was worse than the year before. By the early 2000's the price finally bottomed out around $1.00 per pound for king salmon. The high was around $4.00/pound in 1984.

Many factors were involved in the final bottoming out of the price of salmon. One of the major reasons was that with all of the cheap salmon on the market, restaurants and families ate more of it. Consumers became accustomed to eating more salmon. It is not like the glut on the market caused fish to go bad and get thrown out. No. The price fell until someone was willing to buy. So the entire world supply of salmon increased by as much as 100% as a result of fish farming, and that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Fishermen might not like it, but all things being equal, the world needs more food, and salmon have become like pigs, chicken, and beef. Grow it for the lowest possible price. On land farms this causes pollution, but we have to eat, right? The same holds true for fish farms. There is pollution, and the reduction of shoreline for general use, and genetic issues when farmed fish escape from captivity.

These are much more complex issues than I can hope to explain adequately unless I were to make this book specifically about this subject, and I am no expert nor do I wish to become one, but you get the picture.

The big reason that the markets for salmon finally bottomed out is because of the real and perceived  healthfulness differences between farmed fish and wild fish. More omega fatty acids and no dye to turn the meat red. Political correctness sided with wild fish. Consumers began to differentiate between the two products available. Consumer willingness to pay extra for wild fish combined with declining returns of wild fish everywhere but Alaska created a shortage of wild fish and an increasing price.

That's where we stand today. With more feeding from the same trough, but with increasing prices for the fish. It is not a picture of economic health, but it is better than the worst years, and a profit can be made catching fish.

I have stuck to it since I began back in the 1970's. I took two years off when my carpel tunnel syndrome required it, but after taking care of that with surgery, I got back into it. Then I took two years off to rebuild my boat's cabin and replace my engine and fuel tanks. Lots of other changes in the rigging and equipment, but this isn't a book about boat building, or worse, fiberglass laying. Neither activity suits my nature nor pleases me.

Fishing is fun. However, there are many things to do before one can go fishing. And to keep fishing. Things break and need to be fixed. Equipment needs to be maintained or it breaks more often. A boat is a complex group of equipment. When something breaks it either ends fishing or threatens the boat. Or both. Engine, shaft, propeller, rudder, cooling system, water pumps of dozens of types, hydraulics, electrical systems, electronics of multiple purposes, anchor and anchoring equipment, steering systems and auto pilots. The list seems endless before any fishing is even considered.

Every fisherman maintains and fixes almost every system on a boat except the engine. Engine repairs often require a professional. Some fishermen do these repairs, too. I have had a reduction gear apart and back together, which is the car equivalent of the transmission, but never an engine. Special tools are usually required, and some experience is more than useful.

None of this interests me even slightly. Except as much as a soldier takes an interest in his gun as a necessity. As my life depends on this stuff, I pay attention. That doesn't mean that taking apart a reduction gear is a pleasant experience. Nor is changing the oil in the engine.

Once everything is in working order, a fisherman can consider getting ready to fish. That would be a good place to start the next chapter....  

No comments:

Post a Comment