Fish Talk: Why Support Our Southeast Alaskan Small-Boat Fleet?

Fish Talk: Why Support Our Southeast Alaskan Small-Boat Fleet?

What is the Southeast Alaskan small-boat fleet, and why are they worth supporting?

Our Southeast Alaskan small-boat fishery is conducted by a few relatively unique fleets. These are all small boats, largely owned by families that have made Southeast Alaska their home for generations.  These trusty vessels of solid name and character (the Alaska Bounty, for example!) spend their off-hours tied to the docks nestled in the fjords and remote harbors that define our remote world.  There is not a single village or town in the entire region that is not located on the water, and with just two exceptions (Haines and Skagway), none of these towns are accessible by road from the North American highway system.  This dependency upon the water, for both our livelihoods and economical transportation between most towns, is unique to the Southeast Alaskan way of life.  The terrain is far too fragmented and steep to realistically cut roads through, and even if that was possible a highway that connected the major towns in Southeast Alaska would likely be more bridge than road.  So we find ourselves in a unique and -to me, anyway- delightful state of minimal infrastructure, and a relatively large fleet of small family-owned fishing boats.  This is far from the global norm, however.

Today’s world-wide fishing strategies rely on larger, faster, more efficient vessels that can completely process and package the fish, some of which are later offloaded ready for retail sale.  The fish are brought aboard the hundred-yard long (or more) vessels in large trawl nets, are processed by the dozens of crew members into filets, fish sticks, etc., are packaged, and then placed in the cavernous freezer hold in the belly of the ship.  For these boats, which carry enough fuel, water and provisions to stay out for months on end, the need to dock in a remote outport to offload and resupply is unnecessary.  They are fully self-contained, and have very little interaction with the regional economies who have long depended on the fishing fleet as an economic base.  

A prime example of this is the notorious mega-trawler, the Annelis Ilena.  Formerly known as the Atlantic Dawn, this 472 foot long factory trawler was built in Ireland in the year 2000.  She was too big to fish the EU waters under the Irish flag due to quota limitations, so she went around the world to pillage the under-developed nation’s waters.  For years, she has scooped up fish on foreign shores (and a token amount in EU waters as well), reducing overall biomass and opportunity for local small-boat fishing families.  The Atlantic Dawn even did a stint off the coast of British Columbia after she was run out of West African waters due to illegal fishing.  It has since been sold into the Dutch fleet, and flies the Polish flag – no doubt to circumvent as many labor and fishing laws as possible to further enrich her Dutch owners.  This, of course, at the expense of local small-scale fishermen where she continues to pillage the ocean’s bounty.

Here is a most sobering statistic – The Annelis Ilena can process up to 350 tons of fish PER DAY.  By comparison, based on my average salmon catch rates over the last decade, it would take me about 24 YEARS to catch what that boat could pull out of the water in a day.  Basically, most of my career of sustainable salmon fishing is vacuumed up by this monstrosity in a single day.  How many families are being supported by this effort?  How many local economies benefit from this abuse of our collectively-owned resources? As long as the public can choke down a $.99 breaded fish stick from the local freezer aisle, however, it will continue. 

In direct contrast to this foreign-flagged, investment bank-owned fleet, you’ll find our humble small-boat fleet in Southeast Alaska.  This fleet of boats originated in the early 1900’s, and the resulting fisheries are largely conducted today as they were back then.  In the troll and longline fleets, we even have boats still in operation that are upwards of 100 years old!  My own Alaska Bounty was built by the original owner himself, with pride of coastal Douglas Fir and Alaska Yellow Cedar in 1954 on Vancouver Island, BC.  There have been incremental improvements along the way, to be certain – but if a modern troll operation were placed alongside a pioneer of the early 1900’s, you would be hard pressed to tell the difference between them.  Both would be skippered and crewed by a couple of hard-working family members, both would be landing their salmon by hook-and-line, one fish at a time.  Both would be carefully dressing and icing their fish for the highest quality possible, and both would be offloading to processors on shore in the small towns that they live in.  

Why don’t we all up-size to bigger boats to catch more fish, you ask?  There’s a few reasons.  In some cases, our permits limit the size (length) of the boat we can use.  In other cases, like mine in the troll fleet, we are limited to the number of “wires” we can run at once.  For gillnetters, they are limited to certain net dimensions.  In the troll fleet, a slight increase in boat size over time has helped guys be more efficient, and fish more days in bad weather than the guys in smaller boats.  But the reality is that our method of fishing is incredibly labor intensive, and being limited to the amount of gear we can use at once, really caps our ability to harvest (read: overharvest) the fish.  The Alaska Department of Fish and Game, in coordination with the Board of Fish, has decided to keep Southeast Alaska a haven for small boat fisheries and the families that depend on them by instituting various restrictions.  I fully support this, for it ensures a more measured pace of catching fish, which both increases quality and better allows the fisheries managers to make decisions on the fly to ensure the health of the fish stocks.  Even better, the limited amount of fish we can catch due to gear restrictions keeps the big investors out of the picture, since after we pay for fuel, crew, gear, maintenance and repairs, and socking some away for the lean months, we’re lucky if there’s enough left over to take the family to a movie at the local single-screen theater.

One of the greatest things you as a seafood consumer can do is make informed decisions about where you get your seafood.  Decide what’s important to you, and search out a supplier that matches your values. Buying from a small-scale family processor like Issam and Mindy at Catch Sitka allows you to be certain that the bulk of your hard-earned money goes right back into our economy here in Sitka, ensures that the fish you buy are being sustainably harvested with an absolute minimum of environmental impact, and guarantees that the quality you receive is second-to-none.  From my perspective, a consumer in the lower 48 that chooses Catch Sitka means I get a little better price for my fish.  That allows me to better maintain my boat, reinvest that money into our local trades to help me work on the boat, and take better care of my family.  On top of it all, I ultimately know my fish are going to people who truly appreciate a high-quality seafood product, and that just feels good.  I prefer sending fish to Catch Sitka’s facility over less family-oriented corporate entities that I could choose. 

I’ll close this introduction to our small boat fleet in Southeast Alaska by saying that you as the consumer hold the power to help us maintain a traditional livelihood that remains much the same as it has for the last century here in our corner of the world.  By choosing to buy your fish from Catch Sitka, you are choosing to present your friends and family with the highest quality fish available, sourced from family-owned small boats in a fleet that takes great pride in the work we do.

Fair winds,

Hans Olsen

FV Alaska Bounty

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