The Scandinavians are known for their penchant for pickled herring. You’d think they’d be excited about herring fishing in the Kodiak Archipelago last week.
I know several Scandinavian anglers who are in the field, but it’s the spawn (eggs) they’re looking for. Japanese shoppers are known to pay top dollar for these delights. However, fisherman Luke Lester, skipper of F/V Crimson Beauty, said the market for roe is in decline because future generations in Japan and other Asian countries have not acquired a taste for roe. that their ancestors had. On the other hand, there is a demand for herring itself in European countries. But with rising fuel costs and other expenses, the cost of shipping valuable fish to these markets is astronomical, Luke said.
In the early 1980s, when I was editor of the weekly Kadiak Times, I had the privilege of watching two Scandinavian skippers from Alutiiq – Sven Haakanson Sr. and Sonny Chichenoff – and their crews hunting herring in the bays of Afognak Island. Sven was skipper and owner of the F/V sharman Mae, which he rented out to his nephew (and Luke’s uncle), Al Cratty Jr. for herring fishing. Sonny was the skipper of his boat, the St. Kathryn.
It was a fun ‘throwback’ experience reading the articles I wrote detailing a fishery I knew little about.
Many herring seiners are owned by a combine, an association of fishermen who pool their resources and hire an observation pilot – a sort of airborne captain, who flies over the water looking for signs of herring. By radio communication, the spotter tells the skipper of the boat where to perform the set.
Once the spotter has placed one of the boats on a school of fish in one area, they can fly to another bay and steer another boat. At that time, if the spotter feels that his combine boats cannot get to a hot spot, he will inform a combine friend of that school as long as he has the blessing of the combine harvester.
The spotter pilot and the skipper communicate by radio. Today communication is done digitally and is private, but in the past the boat and air “skipper” had to use a code system so that other fishermen in the area would not be aware of the information. shared.
Spotter pilot Jay Wattum, owner of Vertigo Air, said a bond of trust is created between spotters and anglers. Herring being difficult to find, the pilot must clearly give instructions to whoever is driving the boat. The pilot spends every second staring at the water, Jay said. Sometimes the sun interferes with vision and obstructs the view of herring.
Anglers are aided by Sonar which gives an underwater view of what’s in the water, and the spotting pilot sees what’s above. Sometimes what looks like a school of fish turns out to be something else, Jay said.
In a 1980 interview with fish watcher Ken Nekeferoff, I noted that on rare occasions a fish watcher may mistake algae or rocks for fish, but it is not too uncommon to mistake another kind of fish with herring.
“There are other fish that form shoals, just like herring,” Ken said. “Fish needle. Smelt. They almost look like herring. I made a line and found out I had caught needle fish. All of us who spotted made lines on fish that n weren’t herring,” he said.
Ken was exuberant about the challenges that come with being a fish watcher.
“It’s so much fun!” he exclaimed. “It’s like a game!”
The article said that fish spotting had been compared to chess and dogfighting in World War I. Like most games, there is a winner and a loser. Its risks are high, without excluding the possibility of accidents in flight. For this reason, observation pilots usually have someone else in the cockpit to keep an eye on the surroundings.
“The skipper completely entrusts his boat to you,” Ken told me. “He completely follows your instructions, what you tell him. You tell him starboard or port, left or right, it doesn’t matter. You could take him out to sea and I think he would go on until he got to Russia. They will do anything you say.
Nekeferoff explained that, rather than addressing skippers by their names or the names of their boats, fish watchers use a code system to bypass those who might listen to radios to get to a school.
When Ken was a fish watcher for several boats in Togiak in Bristol Bay, he used names like Easy Money, Southern Comfort and Flatlander. “I was Hawkeye,” he said. “You change your name as you go along. You are on the CB and you know that other boats are listening to you. I could see boats following my directions. So you start changing channels and you start changing names.
“I’ll call and say, ‘Southern Comfort.’ He will answer me and I will say: ‘I know where my boats are.’ If I see herring I’ll call one of my boats If I see enough I’ll call ’em everywhere Southern comfort, do a 180 I’ll steer He’ll turn around So I don’t talk to him He could be 10 minutes from the herring or eight o’clock He doesn’t really know. You don’t tell him too much because the other boats might hear you. 10 degrees to starboard.’
“You’re about 1,200 feet out and you have a pretty good view of everything around you. You notice other boats following yours; you’ll have to start throwing them off, deflecting them,” Nekeferoff said.
Now that the communication between spotter and skipper is private, this code system and other deviation measures no longer need to be taken.
Other changes have occurred in the herring fishery. Pilot Terry Cratty (Al’s brother) remembers that when fish watching first started, there were “a lot more buyers. Today there are more permits than buyers,” said Terry.
“It cost a lot of money to set up,” Luke said.
“The only way I can make it (fishing) work is if I own a tender,” the Enterprise.)
“Fishing efficiency has improved a lot,” so fishermen are catching a lot more fish, but getting paid less,” Luke said.
Perhaps one way out of this conundrum is to expand markets for herring. With that in mind, Luke would like to serve on the board of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. But that goal should be put aside for now. There’s herring to catch, and before he knows it, it’ll be time to prepare for salmon season.