We pulled into the Petersburg harbor around 5 this morning. The crew unloaded 1,700 pounds of crab, removed the 150-odd crab pots from the deck, and filled the Wind Walker’s 2,200-gallon fuel tank, while I reorganized the refrigerator, washed my last set of dishes, and packed. Around noon, I stepped off the boat for the first time in five days and for the final time this season.
Last year, I tagged along on Mitch’s first seine trip of the season. The seas were as calm as a pond, rendering my prophylactic doses of Dramamine utterly unnecessary, and nearly every day the sun shined, unadulterated by clouds. But there were absolutely … no fish. All the crew had to show for 12 sets of the net were about a hundred salmon. The worst fishing day of his career, Mitch told me.
This year, I enjoyed similarly spectacular weather, but I also witnessed the entire show of life aboard a seine boat. I saw how hard Mitch and his crew work; watched Mitch get keyed up on adrenaline in the minutes before the opening started; and sat, dumbstruck, when some 3,500 salmon spilled onto the deck. Then there was California Nick’s injury, which threw the dangers of fishing into stark relief for me (perhaps not such a good thing for the port-bound). Most important, though, I saw that in spite of the spent muscles and vicious sleep deprivation, these guys love what they do. It’s inspiring.
But I worry for Mitch and the other fishermen that the cost of doing business will drive them out of it. During the boom years in the late 1980s, when fish were in shorter supply, fishermen got as much as $1 per pound for pink salmon. Now after a decade of careful management by the state, the salmon runs are once again plentiful. These higher numbers with the heavy competition from the farmed-fish industry mean fishermen make about 90 percent less—or, to put it more shockingly, 10 cents per pound. They obviously have to work a lot harder to net the same profits.
Five types of salmon swim in Alaskan waters. The Pinks, or humpys, I mentioned above are the lowliest of the five, destined mainly for cans, but despite their low price, their large numbers make them the bread and butter of the seiners’ catch. Chums, also called dog salmon (for reasons I don’t understand, salmon always have two monikers), are valued for their roe and bring seiners about 18 cents a pound. The other salmon make up a small portion of Mitch’s haul. When he snags sockeyes, or reds, they pull in 95 cents a pound—as do kings, or Chinooks. (This is the same salmon that can easily go for 10 bucks a pound in Seattle grocery stores.) The coho, or silver, varies from a dime a pound up to 65 cents later in the season.
From what I’ve read and am told, Alaska manages its fish populations expertly. (The salmon runs in Alaska aren’t teetering toward extinction as they are in much of Oregon and Washington.) With such massive schools of returning fish this year, and for several previous years, it makes sense that the price per pound would drop somewhat. But it’s the farmed-fish industry, which has flooded the market with its “product,” that fishermen blame for their current predicament.
Of course I have a personal interest in seeing the wild fish industry rebound, but even if I wasn’t about to marry into that business, I’d still wonder why folks eat farmed fish. (Or “farmed fresh fish” as some advertisements ludicrously claim.) Most farmed fish live in putrid pens; their red color comes from artificial coloring (if they weren’t colored, these fish would be a very unappetizing dull gray); and they are often chock-full of growth hormones and antibiotics. Their flesh is soft and, especially in comparison to the muscled wild fish, flavorless. Yuck.
But, at least in Seattle, the public is starting to ask for wild fish. On their menus, many area restaurants flaunt that they only serve wild. The Alaskan wild-fish industry recently got approval to use the coveted “organic” label, while in Washington, there’s noise to force farmed fish to wear a sticker that says artificial coloring has been added. So, it looks like there’s hope.