Archive for January, 2013

The commercial life of a sockeye salmon

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013
The commercial life of a sockeye salmon

When we order from the menu or purchase from our local grocery store, we rarely think about the process that goes into place to get that food on our plate.  I use the term “we” to refer to those of us who do not catch, shoot or gather most of our foods, like many in Bristol Bay. But knowing that story of how that food ends up at the grocery store or restaurant helps to explain how vital a successful sockeye salmon fishery is to the survival of the Bristol Bay region.

The precise steps vary from operation to operation, but in most cases, delivery of sockeye salmon to market goes something like this.  The first and most crucial step for Bristol Bay is that the Alaska Department of Fish & Game (ADF&G), after consulting the salmon return numbers, declares that there will be an “opener” for the Bristol Bay commercial sockeye salmon fishery.  ADF&G will establish a date, time and duration for the opener, as well as which districts are affected, and also identify what type of commercial opener it is – drift or set.  There are very strict rules with tough penalties if a commercial fishing crew jumps the gun on that opener.

Once the opener is underway, crews will work furiously to catch as much fish as possible during the window – sometimes only six hours at a time.  During that time, the fish are stored onboard the vessel in totes filled with ice – canneries will provide cash bonuses of a certain number of cents per pound if the fish is delivered at or below a certain temperature.  Very few fishing vessels have their own expensive CSW (chilled sea water) system, so ice is the norm.

Once the opener is closed, the skipper drives the boat to a waiting tender, typically at anchor in the mouth of a river near the district line location.  (There is at least one shore tender operator in Naknek that takes delivery from boats on the beach in the form of a truck with chilled totes.)  The tender takes delivery of the fish by lowering a crane with a hook and scale that lifts up the fish, bale by bale, and dumps the fish into the cargo hold of the tender.  As the fish is being transferred over, it is weighed and the ship’s catch is recorded.  Some canneries will have a quality control person on board the tender who tests a certain number of fish from each catch for quality and temperature.  When I was on an Ocean Beauty tender in the Ugashik District, the quality control person told me she was testing a pre-selected percentage of boats (approximately 45 vessels) and checking them for overall quality (no physical damage to the fish) and temperature (using a digital thermometer).  The observer also tagged approximately ten fish, with each tag indicating the date and time the fish was delivered, so that Ocean Beauty could then follow the fish all the way through processing to meet its own standards of how quickly the fish was processed and delivered.

Once on a tender, the salmon is chilled most often with CSW.  The amount of fish each tender can carry depends on the vessel.  I spent a couple of days on the tender Westward.  The skipper told me the Westward could carry 100 tons of fish in its lower hold, and an additional 40 tons in its uppper hold if needed.  But, it had been 5 years since the Westward had returned to port fully loaded.  It takes time to unload the catch from an opener, with dozens of boats lining up to deliver a catch that can range from 4,000 to 20,000 pounds.  Once the full opener’s catch is delivered, a tender will pull anchor and deliver its catch to the cannery – if the cannery is located on the same river.  If not, the tender waits until its replacement arrives, and then returns to port where the cannery is located.  For the more distant locations, a tender may be on station to receive salmon for up to 48 hours, and it can take several hours to return to the cannery.  For example, when I was on the Westward, I rode it from the Ocean Beauty docks in Naknek down to Ugashik, spent a couple of days on a drift boat (the F/V Chulyen), and then rode back with the Westward to Naknek.  Each way is approximately 80 nautical miles, and the cruising speed for the Westward is about 8 knots, making for about a ten-hour trip each way. 

Once back at the docks (each cannery has its own delivery dock), the salmon is delivered through large flexible tubes that suck the salmon from the cargo hold into the cannery for processing.  For the larger processers, this is an assembly-line process featuring dozens of workers, each assigned different tasks in handling the fish.  For smaller processers, like Naknek Family Fisheries, it is only a handful of people, including the owners, who individually process the fish for packaging and marketing.

Marketing and delivering to the ultimate market varies greatly, depending on size and product.  Some salmon is sold directly to consumers, while others goes through seafood wholesalers before ultimate delivery to a store or restaurant.  Again, with a smaller processor like Naknek Family Fisheries, they are able to personally handle quality, marketing and delivery. 

Then, eventually, we as the end users consume the sockeye salmon, which has undergone an amazing journey since its catch, a journey with no less drama than the lifecycle of the salmon itself.  With so many hands involved in the catching and delivery of sockeye salmon from Bristol Bay, it makes sense that so many are concerned about development of the Pebble Mine, which could put this very mainstay of Bristol Bay life in jeopardy.

Looking for winter Bristol Bay activities

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013
Looking for winter Bristol Bay activities

Aside from the challenge of funding for doing fieldwork on my Bristol Bay project is simply making connections with the right people at the right time of year to capture the images I need for the project.  (For background on my Bristol Bay project, visit the project’s Facebook page.)  For example, I have a specific wish list of what I want to capture this winter.  But finding the people who know people who can help me accomplish this wish list, well, that’s another story. 

Part of the challenge is that this winter has been a bit short on snowfall for the Bristol Bay region.  A certain amount of snow is required in order to provide the ground cover necessary to get out to certain locations on a snowmachine, the most common mode of travel.  Another challenge is scheduling, finding people who are available when I have the time in my schedule to go out. 

But, in the hopes that someone out there knows someone, here are the photo needs I want to meet this winter (which pretty much means between now and March 15):

1.  Trapping – setting traps and checking trap lines;
2.  Caribou hunting;
3. Ptarmigan hunting;
4. Dog mushing; and
5. Lake Iliamna harbor seals.

For each activity, I want to be able to learn from the person about this part of the way of life in Bristol Bay.  As with all people I meet, I take audio or video recordings to document the activity and the interview, and use that content to include on the project website, which will be launching soon.  Any stills of the person and the activity will be potentially included in the book. 

I am willing to pay gasoline or other expenses for anyone who takes me out, and am happy to bring out any needed supplies (like fresh produce).  So, if you know someone who can help (or can help yourself), please give me a call at 748-7040.  I am available February 4-11 and then on March 8-17.  I may also be able to go out the last week of February.  Thanks a bunch!