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!