Saddle up your skiffs, buckaroos! Word on the docks is that the herring fleet is sneaking into the harbors, and they are here to get their spawn on!
For anyone not familiar with the annual Sitka Sac Roe Herring fishery, you can stand to learn a little sumpin’ sumpin’ by checking out the one-hour program, “Cowboys of the Sea: Combat Fishing” documentary that is scheduled to air Sunday March 15 at 9 p.m. (AST) on the National Geographic channel. (as if these goldenboys need yet another reason to be cocky!)
According to the Daily Sitka Sentinel, “The one-hour program […] depicts the competitive seine fishery, where the nets can be hauled in empty or so full that it takes days to offload a single day’s catch.”
If that doesn’t quench your curiosity, you can rest assured that the WSW will be providing insider highlights and tippage galore in upcoming posts. All you need to know right now are these facts:
- Pacific Herring (Clupea pallasi) are small, silvery fish that travel in enormous schools which historically arrive in the vicinity of Sitka Sound every Spring to procreate, proliferate and propagate all over the intertidal and subtidal zones of the Alexander archipelago. In lay terminology (yes, I am aware of the pun): An orgy of epic proportions occurs.
- How the spawn works: The female herring release sticky roe and, predictably, the male herring come along (oops! I did it again) and release their milt into the general area that the eggs are hanging around and eating chocolate at. If you don’t know how this story ends, you should ask your mother.
- How the rodeo goes down: The objective of the sac roe herring fishery is to capture the females immediately before they go into labor. Using pregnancy as an analogy: think NINE CENTIMETERS, not ten. For those of you that can’t fathom that comparison, let’s use preteen sex as an example instead: The herring arrive horny and twitterpated, but not entirely motivated… Naturally, the herring
fishermen aim to take advantage of that small window. Now, think back to when you were still a virgin… yeah, it’s something like that. Meanwhile, topside are a group of 50 elitist permit-holders and their chronically hung over crewmen waiting for permission to drop seine nets into the water. They bide their time by having secret meetings, going to bars, and trying to scoop up as many land-dwelling pre-spawned out females as possible. When the gun finally does go off, the seine boat crews attempt to repeat this scenario with the fish, only this time there is a very strict allotted time frame. This lucrative window typically remains open for a minimum of 15 minutes to several hours, and for the fishers, unlike the fish, there is no wiggle room: the fishery tends to occur in very tight locations with an inordinate amount of action, sudden weather changes, and human participation on all levels. The herring rodeo is closely monitored by biologists from ADF&G, Sitka Tribe of Alaska and affiliated enforcement agencies so that all regulations are adhered to and that the environmental/stewardship considerations are observed .
- Other characters include spotter pilots who, when not trying to seduce young girls into having sex at high altitudes, fly above the fishing grounds to locate schools of herring for their contractors. There are often upwards of ten spotter planes flying in tight little circles over the herring schools prior to and during the fishery, making for some very dangerous and exciting action. I have been up there and it truly was one of those times a gal might rediscover religion. The only other thing I know for certain about spotter aircraft is that Sarah Palin has some children named after them.
- The tender fleet consists of approximately 75 bigger boats (most of which do double-duty in the Bering Sea crab fisheries) with significant storage capacity that participate as herring transporters. The tender crew works together to pump the fish out of the nets and into several large holding tanks that recirculate chilled sea water in order to maintain top quality product until the fish are taken to a processor where the roe is skillfully extracted, packaged, frozen and ultimately transported to their final destinations.
- Because nearly all of the sac roe herring is not used in this country, buyers from Japan and other predominantly Asian locales fly to Sitka and personally analyze the roe content to determine whether the percentage of ripe roe is to their standards. I have seen many big hauls let loose because the roe samples were less than desirable, which is understandable considering that the market has been known to pay over $500/ton. These pivotal players are generally ferried around in skiffs with big outboards and several busty babes on deck. (Actually, I don’t know if that’s entirely true. Some of the skiffs I was on only acted like they had big outboards…)
This little primer is intended to get you warmed up for the actual upcoming rodeo. Also, a WSW bonus announcement: according to my own personal tide book, the 2009 Sitka Sound Sac Roe Herring Fishery will not be in full swing until the very end of March.
In compliance with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the Guideline Harvest Limit (GHL) for the 2008 Sitka Sound sac roe herring fishery is 14,723 tons (29,446,000 lbs.) For those of you that can’t mentally visualize what that number represents, let’s just say it’s a whole lot of boyfriends.
*Shout out to NASA for the archipelago pic