Forty Years ago, I was sitting at a desk in Sitka’s historic Cable house. We were in the process of building Raven Radio. I looked out the window and it looked like someone pulled the plug on the harbor system. The whole fleet was cruising out under the bridge. I had noticed that there were more boats in town than there had been a few weeks earlier, but I was new to Sitka and not yet attuned to the Sitka’s Seasons. I didn’t know that I was about to experience a special Sitka rite of spring, the Sitka Sac Roe Herring Fishery.
Fishermen come into Sitka from all over Alaska and the northwest and the limited number of permit holders wait on two-hour notice, until the Department of Fish and Game open the season. And they’re off in a mad dash. In those days, the fishery could be over in a couple of hours and it was wild. Boats competing with other boats for a good spot, boats corking the opening of another boat’s set. The seiners and skiffs were circling each other, the tenders waiting to take the catch from the permit holders and bring them to the processors, some of them floated up from somewhere else. Overhead the herring air force, an armada of float planes, circled, radioing down to seiners when they spotted a big school of fish. People listened to each other’s frequencies so pilots and skippers developed their own code talking routines. Then it was over and the Pioneer Bar, Ernie’s and the Columbia were hopping with not a few fishermen ringing the bell to buy a round for the house.
Once we got the station on the air we went out with a boat and broadcast it live, a play-by-play sporting event. “And it looks like the Red Herring is about to cork the…” On two different years the skiff our reporter was working from swamped. Once it was when a hose pumping herring from a net to a tender broke and his boat was filled with fish. I remember taking the tape recorder and putting it into a bucket of fresh water to get the salt out (after I had taken out the batteries) and then using a blow dryer to try to save the recorder. I also remember the great sound of the pumping, the hose breaking, the fish flailing and then the swearing. I did a masterful editing job with the bleeps. It really captured it; I think. Then there was the year when the tape recorder went to the bottom (same reporter.)
It was an exciting time, and while now there are fewer than half the number of permits fishing and the fishery is more spread out it is still that rite of spring even though it is tinged with sadness and loaded with controversy. Along with fishermen in the bars there are protesters at the courthouse. I have written about the controversy in my last blogpost “Permits, we ain’t got no permits, we don’t need no permits, we don’t have to show you any stinking permits.”
This is the fifth day of the fishery. And when the Department of Fish and Game published the maps it turns out that the fishery was going to be in my front yard.
It started out misty. I shot pictures of the boats through a pretty thick fog. They must have known it was coming so they were waiting in the fog from before 9 AM until the opening at 10:45 when it had cleared enough for herring air to take flight and direct the boats, although it didn’t seem like there were as many planes in the air. During the day we had fog, rain, pouring rain was followed by a deluge. The fishermen kept working the boats. By the end of the day the sky had lightened and there was just a touch of color over the last tenders.
All pics taken from my front deck.