Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Music and Market

Medicine for the People, a group from Hawaii that performed at the Homeskillet music festival this past week.
Breathe Owl Breathe, another amazing band that came to Sitka
The Sitka Farmers Market!!
Amy, the director of Alaskans Own at our booth where we sold fish and gave out information about the Sustainable Fisheries Trust.

It was a busy weekend full of great Sitka community events. The Homeskillet Music Festival was from Wednesday to Sunday with great performances each night by both local bands and professionals from down south. The highlights were the two bands pictured above: Medicine for the People and Breathe Owl Breathe. I attached the links to videos of their performances at the Sitka radio station on the side of the blog. Medicine for the People is a guitar and drum duo from Hawaii with a very strong message about returning to the native way of life and becoming one with the spirits and with mother earth. They were a little over the top at times when talking about their message, but their music was incredible. Breathe Owl Breathe is this kind of folk, alternative band that was very original and fun. Their performance was very interactive, I really enjoyed them. They're going to be in New England in the fall and I'm talked with them some about possible coming to Bates. It was really cool how much these visiting musicians love Sitka and make an effort to engage with the local people.
The Farmers Market was on Saturday at which I sold fish for Alaskans Own. Alaskans Own is the brain-child of the Alaska Longline Fisherman's Association and the Alaska Sustainable Fisheries Trust. It's a marketing initiative where fish is bought from fisherman who are a part of the Conservation Network and therefore agree to certain conservation practices and principles, and then sold to the local community. The Trust uses funding from Alaskans Own to invest in local, particularly small boat fisherman who are committed to sustainable fishing practices. It's a very new company that Linda actually started along with others on the board of the trust and it seems to be growing steadily. There's a Community Supported Fisheries Subscription Program where people pay in advance to receive a box of fish every two weeks for the whole summer. I've been helping with the fish box pick-ups and at the market we were gathering names of more interested individuals. People seem really receptive to the goals of Alaskans Own and how it's supporting local fisherman while also promoting conservation and providing the community with sustainably caught fish. There was someone from the radio station at the market; they interviewed me and a little clip of my response actually got on the radio! The link to the broadcast is on the side of the blog.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Sperm Whale Experiment Preperations

Me with tar smears on my face and hands after finishing the longline gear
Nemo, the autonomous recording device
Lauren, my sperm whale acoustics mentor

For the past month now much of what I've been doing in the office is assembling longline fishing gear that we will use in an experiment to test sperm whale deterrents (see Beaded Gangions post) and today I finished!! Lauren Wild, the girl who is spear-heading this project, and I have put beads on about 3,000 gangions and strung them onto 16 "skates" or 600 feet long sections of rope. It feels good to have finished the project finally; much of the rope we used is covered in tar to make it more durable so it became kind of a messy job.
Originally, Lauren was going to go out on a fishing boat and deploy the gear, but she unfortunately tore her ACL and meniscus in June and is therefore out of commission. I now have to pinch-hit for her, which is not ideal considering Lauren is an expert on sperm whales and acoustic analysis and I am still very much a newbie, but it's certainly an exciting opportunity. This past week Lauren's been showing me the ins and outs of "Nemo", the autonomous acoustic recorder that will be deployed with the fishing gear to record the sounds of sperm whales as they interact with the fishing gear. At some point in the next two weeks I will be going on a longline fishing trip and while the fishermen use our special gear, I'll collect written observations, acoustic data and photos. It will be really cool to see this gear in action after working on it for so long!


The falls at Redoubt Lake
Jeff pulling up fish in the dip-net
A little grizzly bear doing some fishing too

This weekend I had the unique opportunity of going sockeye fishing with Jeff Farvour, a longliner and good friend of Linda's. Right now the sockeye are migrating from their salt water feeding grounds to the fresh water lakes where they will spawn and die. We went to a waterfall where Redoubt Lake feeds into the ocean and Jeff used a "dip-net" to catch fish as they swam up the falls. There were fish jumping all over the place but it was still hard work to catch them. The bear pictured above seemed to be having no trouble however; we watched him for a while as he caught and ate fish after fish. Alaskans are only allowed to fish at Redoubt for subsistence purposes and many locals participate since sockeye is considered by many to be the most tasty sub-species of salmon.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Killer Whales!!

Me, taking pictures of killer whale dorsal fins with a big fancy camera.
Pack of killer whales!!!
This picture and the next are shots I took while trying to capture the dorsal fin and saddle patch of the killer whales.

Heather and Kevin Riley, my whale photo tutors.
Today was AMAZING!! I spent most of the day on a boat following killer whales and it was truly awesome. First of all, it was sunny and 65 degrees today and weather like that just doesn't show up everyday here in Sitka. We got out on boat in the morning right as the fog lifted and almost immediately ran into a pack of about six killer whales. With me on the excursion were Heather and Kevin Riley; Heather is a whale researcher who used to work in the office here in Sitka, but left to get her masters in Fairbanks. She is back for a few weeks this summer to help Jan with some humpback data collection along with her husband Kevin. They are actually two of the nicest people I have ever met and I was so lucky that they agreed to take me out in the skiff today and give me some pointers on photographing whales. Kevin has this great southern accent and pronounces the "h" in whale- it makes me giggle every time. Anyways, we found these killer whales and decided to follow them and get some good pictures. When taking pictures of killer whales the goal is to capture the dorsal fin and the white patch behind the dorsal called the "saddle patch". These are two of the most distinguishing features of a killer whale and we can therefore use these clues to ID the whales and determine whether they are resident or transient, fish eaters or marine mammal eaters. We got so close to these whales, it was incredible. They're so beautiful! I got some really good practice taking pictures too. Killer whales are easier to photograph than humpbacks in that they surface more often and travel in groups, but they move really fast and it's hard to snap a picture of that saddle patch before they dive down again. We spent several hours following the whales before they swam too far out to sea. We then found a humpback and I got a great fluke shot of it- I think I'm getting better at this whole photography thing. Heather's specialty is in getting whale biopsies; she shoots special arrow with a crossbow that hits the whale and takes a little piece of its skin off so that we can get genetic information on the whale. She shot one of the whales today and got a skin sample- it was a pretty neat process to watch.
On a different topic, Linda and Kent got back from 5 days of fishing on Tuesday night. They caught a lot of King Salmon and seemed to be pretty happy with the outcome of the trip. They leave again tomorrow except this time for a wedding in California. So I'm back on dog duty tomorrow with another rainy weekend ahead of me, but at least I got to enjoy the sunshine today!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


I saw my first bear today!! I was running on a trail this evening with the dogs when this bear came right out onto the path infront of me. It was a pretty big bear; I'd say it was slightly taller than my Honda Civic. He was a rolly-polly brown bear and he struck me as being kind of cute as he scampered off into the woods. I'm sure he would not have looked so endearing if he'd decided to charge at me, but the barking dogs scared him away. There have been times this week when I've been slightly frustrated with these dogs, but I now appreciate them immensely. I'm not sure what would have happened if I'd come face to face with that bear while by myself. I didn't get any pictures unfortunately, but hopefully one will show up while I'm hiking one of these days!

Sunday, July 4, 2010

A Very Rainy 4th

I think this has been the coldest and most rainy 4th of July I've ever had, but Sitka still had a great celebration. I didn't get to take any pictures due to the wet conditions! I'll try to get some from other people and post them soon. From Friday to Sunday there was a fair at the elementary school with booths run by some businesses and organizations from town. Each booth provides some sort of food or games. The most popular booths are the ones selling Filipino food, fish tacos or fry bread (fried dough basically). I went on Saturday and made sure to eat a little of everything!
Today I bundled up and donned my rain gear before attending the parade through down town Sitka. It was a classic small town parade with floats by many local groups and businesses, lots of candy being thrown and good spirits despite the steady rain. Afterwards a very funny tradition was upheld where the fire department and the coast guard face off in a water war. Both teams are armed with fire hoses and must spray a red, white and blue barrel and try to push it across the other team's end zone. There were powerful jets of water going every which way and lots of uniformed men running around with hoses being knocked down by the spray; it was pretty hilarious to watch.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Home Alone

Linda and Kent's fishing boat
Hahlen and Rio giving me a tour of the boat.
Hahlen showing off one of the "hoochies" he made.
Trout at the top of Mt. Verstovia, another glorious hike we took on Monday.
Here's one of the pictures I took of the whale we followed while out in the skiff today. Such a pretty whale!!

Linda, Kent and the boys left to go fishing yesterday so it's just me and the dogs at home now. Much of Sitka headed out yesterday actually because today marks the beginning of the king salmon opening; for a week everyone with a trolling permit will try to catch as many king salmon as they can. It's a pretty crazy week where fishermen sleep little and fish in all sorts of weather. I hope Linda and the gang are doing ok! It was a busy week of preparations and packing for them, but the boys did take some time to show me around the Woodstock. It was nice to get a chance to see their other home. Hahlen of course explained all the fishing gear to me using lots of foreign terminology while Rio showed me the dozens of "hoochies" that he has created. "Hoochies" are mini, octopus-like figures that hang from the fishing lines and attract king salmon. Rio has taken it upon himself to make the best "hoochies" possible by combining little octopi of varying kinds including glittery and glow in the dark. He let me in on the best combinations, but I am sworn to secrecy. It's really neat how they can work as a family and each contribute on the boat. After my fishing experience I couldn't imagine having young kids to look after while fishing, but Linda and Kent make it work.
It's been another week primarily in the whale office; I've been entering data, beading more gangions and finishing the poster, but today I got to go look for whales! Jan Straley, my boss at the whale office, took me out on her skiff and had me practice taking pictures of humpback whales. She's been promising me for weeks that she would take me out on the water and today we finally went! We found one humpback feeding and followed it around for awhile. The whale would submerge for 5 to 8 minutes then would surface several times in sequence. Sometimes it would "breech", or jump full into the air, but most of the time it would just blow air from it's blow hole then dive back down exposing its dorsal fin and sometimes its full fluke. My job was to stay balanced in the front of the skiff and take pictures of the dorsal fin and fluke so that we could identify the whale later. It was hard to get the timing right and I missed getting a shot of the fluke several times by just seconds. I did get a few good photos though and I'll hopefully get much more practice taking pictures of humpbacks before I have to take pictures of sperm whales while on a longline fishing boat. It was so cool to finally be out on the water, seeing whales in real life as opposed to just cataloging pictures of whales on a computer screen.
Being home alone has been good so far! I've enjoyed cooking meals for myself and having some peace and quite. Grocery shopping was an interesting experience; it took me about an hour to find everything and I knocked over a display of soup cans in the process (soo graceful). The dogs are great company; they need a lot of exercize and certainly keeping me active. Yesterday I fell while running and really scraped myself up, but I returned to the house to find a wonderful belated birthday care package from my former roomie and best buddy Mollie. I gorged my self in chocolate covered pretzels and I think that helped the healing process.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

After my run!!
View of Sitka from the top of Gavin Hill

After many days of cold, rainy weather the sun has finally come out again in Sitka. I spent most of the week at the whale research office doing more humpback whale fluke categorizing and also designing a poster that includes pictures of many of the whales that live primarily in Southeast Alaska. The poster will be sold to raise money for the whale research. I will post of picture of it as soon as we get a mock-up printed.
Last night I participated in an event called "Only Fools Run at Midnight". It was a 5k road race through downtown Sitka that started at midnight. There were costumes, music and food; it was a really fun event. The temperature was perfect and there was a big full moon out- it was the perfect night for a run. I finished in about 25 minutes, not too bad. I was worried that I wouldn't be in great shape after taking a week off from running for the fishing trip, but I felt pretty good.
The only real low-point of the week was that we don't have cable at the house and I couldn't get the USA vs. Ghana world cup game to stream live on my computer! It was torture not to be able to see the game, but I did get periodic updates via text message thanks to Grady, my buddy back in Maine. I'm going to have to make friends with someone here who has cable so I can see the final game!
Today the sun finally came out and I took the most gorgeous hike up Gavin Hill (poorly named, it's a pretty legit mountain) with the dogs. The views were absolutely spectacular. I tried to capture it in the pictures above, but they don't really do it justice. The trail leads up through these woods that have an almost rainforest feel to them, then you get above tree line and there are these meadows with an amazing array of wild flowers. The view was of the snow capped mountains on one side and the ocean with Sitka down below on the other side. It was breathtaking, I could have stayed up there all day.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Lingcod Fishing

The Sea Miner: my home for the past 5 days.
My skipper, Greg, holding onto the line and waiting for some fish to bite.
This is a lingcod. They are a pretty ugly fish that range from 10 to 60 pounds.
Doin my job: pulling the guts loose before ripping off the head.

Happy Summer Solstice! I'm enjoying the 18 hours of sunlight we have in Sitka today. It's 9:30pm and the sun is still shinning bright.
Sorry that I haven't posted for so long, but I was out at sea! On Tuesday I was at the whale research office when Linda called and asked if I'd be interested in being a deckhand for one of her close friends. I've been wanting to get out on a fishing boat since I got here so I agreed right away. Linda then informed me that I should get home quick and start packing since the boat was leaving at 6 that night. It all happened very fast and before I knew it I was pulling out of Sitka harbor on a 46ft fishing boat. My skipper was one of Linda's oldest friends here in Sitka, Greg Jones (pictured above). He's a former longline fisherman who now trolls for salmon primarily, but has also started fishing for lingcod. Our trip lasted five days in which we caught 200 lingcod. It was a little slow going; our goal was originally to catch 300 fish, but Greg seemed to think that we got close enough to his target poundage. Being on a fishing boat is quite an experience and it opened my eyes to how hard this lifestyle really is. We would wake up at 5am every morning to eat and get the boat started, before driving to a popular lingcod hangout somewhere in the open ocean. Greg would then string long fishing line behind the boat with about 18 hooks on it and a heavy bar at the end that would pull the line and hooks down close to the ocean floor. Then we would wait while the boat moved slowly along. After a few minutes Greg would pull the line up and take anywhere from one to ten fish off the line. Then came the fun part. It was my job to knock the fish out, cut into its throat, slice the aorta and insert a little hose into the artery in order to flush all the blood out of the fish. Yeah, it was pretty messy. Then I would use this huge knife to make some careful cuts in the fish's neck before cracking the spine and ripping the head off. Meanwhile, the boat is rocking back and forth, constantly knocking me off balance. It took a while to get the hang of it, but after about 30 repetitions, I was pretty good. We would move from spot to spot looking for groups of lingcod, and then the process would start again.
Unfortunately, I had a little trouble with sea sickness. For the first two days the swell was big and we were rocking back and forth a lot. By the third day the waves had calmed down and I was on a strict diet of crackers and toast that seemed to agree more with my stomach. Being out there when you're feeling sick can be pretty miserable, but when it's calm the views are incredible and it's such a neat feeling to be out on the ocean. Every night we would anchor up in a little cove and Greg would make these great dinners in our little galley. Greg was a very nice guy and was really patient with me as I learned the skills and suffered through sea sickness. It was neat to get his opinions on some of the fishing policies and on many other general issues. He leads a very different life than anyone I know well in New Hampshire or Maine, so I enjoyed talking with him and getting his perspective.
I can now say that I have been a deck hand on an Alaskan commercial fishing boat! I hopefully will have the chance to do it again, but with the goal of collecting data on sperm whale interactions with longline gear instead of chopping off fish heads. I came away from the experience with a profound respect for the people who make a living by fishing. I don't think I could ever have the stamina and perseverance to make it my career, but I'm so glad that I got a glimpse of what Linda and so many other people here in Sitka have dedicated their lives to.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The dogs: Rascal (in front) and Trout

My birthday was low-key, but still really great. I went to the whale office in the morning and strung gangions, then labeled fish in the afternoon for ALFA's fresh seafood marketing initiative. They have a "share" program where people pick up a box of fish every wednesday so I was labeling and packing fish for this week's pick-up. In the afternoon I did get a chance to sit for several hours at The Backdoor and read my book and eat an obscene amount of pastries. It was fabulous. The next day the whale research ladies brought in a cake for me and we had a little office party; it was really nice of them.
I attended another North Pacific Fisheries Management Council meeting. At this meeting they were taking public testimony on a policy change that is really important to ALFA, so I got to hear many longliners testify about their views. Linda's been working hard to change the councilmen's minds on this issue and I think she has succeeded to a certain extent. Afterwords there was a big fundraiser for the Sitka Sound Science Center that all the councilmen and their families attended. I helped set up and hand out hors d'oeuvres (some of which were the cod collars that I helped cut last week!!). It was a great event, and it was fun to see all the councilmen let loose and have fun after seeing them all so serious that morning. The science center made 10,000 dollars too!
The dogs haven't been interested in running with me, but today I brought a ton of treats along and now I think they're warming up to me. They need to get used to running with me so I can exercise them when Linda and the family go fishing in just a week or two. I also need them for scaring away the bears!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Beaded Gangions

For the past couple of days I've been in the whale research office doing a variety of jobs, but mostly stringing beads onto gangions (as seen above). Gangions are attached at intervals along a longline and then hooks are attached to the gangions before the lines are strung between buoys behind the fishing boat. The beads that we're adding to the gangions will hopefully deter the sperm whales that like to steal fish off of the longlines. We are stringing gangions on three sets of line, each 600 ft long. It takes 1000 gangions!! It's a big job, but the ladies in the whale office are so funny, I really enjoy working there. The fisherman who will be using these lines while data is collected about their efficiency stops in every once in a while and he's quite a character. He's this very loud older man named "Bud" whose hearing is going so we never know if he's really comprehending what we tell him. There are some very funny interactions.
The North Pacific Fisheries Council is still in town and I sat in on part of a meeting today. I think I understood about 10% of what was said, but Linda gave me a dumbed down version afterwards. There are some really heated debates. I won't bore you with the details, but it's cool to hear discussion about longline fishing policies and actually know the people that the changes would be effecting directly. It makes me want to understand the issues even more.
In other news, I found an awesome bakery/café. It's called "The Back Door" and it's tucked behind the bookstore in town. I'm going to try to limit my visits to once a week, but I've already been twice this week and I'm totally going tomorrow since it's my birthday!!

Monday, June 7, 2010

Camping with the boys

The view from the dock at our campsite

My two buddies, Rio (left) and Hahlen (right).
To start off the weekend, I sat in on an ALFA meeting on Friday night. Many of the longline fisherman were out fishing (go figure), so the turn-out was small, but it was really interesting to hear the discussion around the sperm whale depredation issue and the other important issues in longlining. The North Pacific Fisheries Council comes to town Wednesday, so I will really be an expert on these issues by the end of the week. After the meeting Linda took me to her sister's house for a cook-out where we barbecued some of the cod collars that I had help cut the day before. They were really good!!
On Saturday, I went with Linda's sons (pictured above) to a big camp-out that their school was hosting. They're funny kids; it's nice how they've kind of adopted me as a big sister. We went out to this remote island and kayaked and hiked and sat by the fire. I met a lot of new people at the event on Friday and the camp-out Saturday; I like building the network of people that I know here. I will be nice to know some people around town when Linda and the fam leave me to go fishing pretty soon!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Cuttin Cod Collars

I was a little hesitant about going to the fish processing plant with Linda today, but it was actually a really cool experience. What we were doing is know as "cutting black cod collars": when black cod fishermen process and fillet their fish they don't cut out the meat in the throat of the fish or the "collar". It's some of the best meat on the whole fish and unless people like us come in and cut it out, it just gets ground up with the rest of the fish head and thrown back into the ocean. The Sitka Science center is having a fundraiser next Saturday, so Linda, me and two other fishermen cut 14 gallons of cod collars today to be smoked for appetizers at the event. Linda would make the cuts in the fish's throat and then I would stick my fingers in and pull out the meat. I was a little grossed out by it at first, but then I just got into a sort of rhythm and it was actually kind of fun. I felt pretty hardcore I must say.
In the afternoon I took the most beautiful run. I jogged to a trail just a mile from the house (bear whistle in hand) and ran through the woods until it opened up onto this gorgeous lake. I stepped out onto the little fishing dock that was there and just looked for a minute at the water and the snow capped mountains rising above. It is really a whole new level of wilderness.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Humpback Flukes!!

Today Linda took me to the SEASWAP office where all the whale data is analyzed. I learned SO much about whales today and how they interact with the longline fishermen. Much of what this office organizes is the collecting of sperm whale sounds or "clicks" using special recording buoys off of longline fishing boats. By listening to the frequency of the clicks they can determine whether the whale interacted with the fishing gear or not. As soon as someone can get out on a boat to collect more of this acoustic data, I will be learning how to analyze it. Today however, it was all about humpback whales. The whale research office in Sitka along with others in southern Alaska have taken thousands of pictures of humpback whale tails or "flukes" (as pictured above) and cataloged over 1900 whales in the past three decades. Researchers use these catalogs to identify whales and determine the movements of individual whales, who they are traveling and feeding with, when a female has a calf and how many whales use these waters to feed. So today I looked at photos of whale flukes taken by researchers in the past 6 years and matched the whales pictured to whales in the catalog. This is no easy job since there are hundreds of whales in these catalogs and only a few distinguishing features on each fluke. It took me as long as 40 minutes sometimes to make a match, but I got better at it by the end of the day and the ladies in the office were impressed. The women in the office were all very welcoming and willing to teach me about the whales, I never knew they could be so complicated!! I'd love to ID more whales tomorrow but Linda needs me to help her gut fish....not really looking forward to that but it's all part of the experience I guess.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

A little Sitka background

The Stika Harbor

The weather ended up being great today! I had today to just adjust and I took the time to walk to down town Sitka. A cruise ship had just come in as you can see from the pictures above, so the town was flooded with tourists. The main streets of Sitka are filled with gift shops that cater to the hundreds of tourists that come through each day. I joined these tourists in taking pictures of the Cathedral of St. Michael, a Russian Orthodox Church at the heart of town that was built in 1848 as part of an attempt to Christianize the native population. A bishop of the Russian Orthodox Church lived on the island until Alaska was bought by the US in 1867.
Cruise ships are frequent visitors to the island, and I was informed that the ship I saw today was a small one, apparently at times there are as many as three parked in the bay at one time. One good thing is that Sitka does not have a dock to accommodate these boats and they must anchor further out and ferry people in on smaller boats. It was great to learn more about the history of Sitka and see the harbor where Linda's boat is docked.
Tomorrow I'm meeting with the women who run the whale research and I'll hopefully start working soon!

Monday, May 31, 2010

I MADE IT!! Hello batsies, family, etc. I have finally made it to Sitka! I arrived at around 6 today and my employer, Linda Behnken and her two kids Rio (6) and Haylen (8) picked me up. She brought me to her house where I'll be staying and house-sitting for her while she's out fishing for most of June and July. The house is a little log cabin with a great view of the water, I'll be posting some pictures soon. She has two shepherds, Rascal and Trout who are very well mannered. Linda is great, I've really enjoyed talking with her and she makes me feel very at home here. At dinner she told me a little more about what she has planned for me, but I'm still a little fuzzy on the details.
Linda is the head of the Alaska Longline Fisherman's Association; the link to the website can be found on the side. The website explains the organization much better than I could, but it's basically a association of fishermen committed to maintaining the sustainable harvest of halibut, stablefish and rockfish while supporting healthy marine ecosystems in the area. I will be doing some general data entry and grunt work for them while also helping at their booth at the Sitka Fish and Farmer's Market. I will also be working with the branch of ALFA that focuses on sperm whale research. This endangered species tends to eat fish off longline fishing lines, putting the whales in danger and hurting the fishermen economically. The link to the website describing the research is also on the side of the blog; in the next few days I'll be learning how to do data analysis, mainly of acoustic recordings of these whales. I also hope to help out at the Sitka Sound Science Center, doing general maintenance for them particularly in the salmon hatchery. I will hopefully be learning more about each of these facets of my internship in the coming days.
Unfortunately, the weather for this week is not looking so good. It's supposed to be rainy and stormy through Friday and of course, in the confusion of leaving this morning I forgot my raincoat!! Hopefully I'll still be able to take some runs and explore the neighborhood. Linda (being a marathon runner) told me about some great trails right in this area, but I was warned against running on them alone in the mornings or evenings due to bears. She's already seen 4 bears this spring including one mama bear who charged her, but was scared away by her dog Rascal. Uh yeah, I think I'll stick to the roads for now.
More info to come!! Miss you all!!