Alaska, the Last Frontier - Summer 2012 travel blog

harbor panorama

he's got one

ready to eat

competing for fish

fish for all

fishing boat

seine nets

tender transfer

waiting their turn

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fish hatchery

Normally Valdez has enough attractions and tourist activities to merit a two/three day visit. We will be here nine days by the time we leave. It feels like we are taking a vacation from our vacation. One reason is that the 4th of July was on a Wednesday; making it into a long weekend could extend before or after. Valdez was planning a salmon festival the Saturday after the holiday. It would be a shame to miss a free salmon meal. Although we haven't had trouble, campgrounds closer the big city of Anchorage could be rather full.

Another factor is the weather. The high centered over the Midwest broiling our friends and families in 100+º temperatures has trapped two lows over Alaska. They are unable to move and Valdez and everywhere else we still want to visit is enduring endless showers and cold temperatures. The average high in July here is 55º - 70º. We would like to see 55º. Driving on would not solve the problem. It’s just as awful in the Kenai Peninsula where we are headed next.

The final factor in our decision to linger is the arrival of the pink salmon. The hatchery here is licensed to release 230 million pinks and two million coho annually. After a salmon has lived its life in the salt water, it returns to the fresh water where it was conceived. When we first arrived here, it was clear that the arrival of this year’s batch which would return to spawn and die was imminent. We are camped at the mouth of the small boat harbor, a beehive of activity as fishing boats gather to wait for the fish to arrive and the Department of Fisheries to give them permission to start catching them. Boats stack up near us waiting for a turn to come in. It reminds us of airplanes circling O'Hare.

As we sit in the motor home and look out the picture window at the mountains surrounding us on all sides, which disappear and reappear in the fog, a constant stream of boats enter and leave the harbor. We’ve monitored the marine radio and listened to the harbor master jockey all the boats around as everyone needs a chance to refuel and take on fresh water. Since it’s always light out, boats enter and leave at all hours.

The salmon have started to arrive at the hatchery. We go there at various times of day, trying to understand the effects of the tide on it all. The water is boiling with salmon who are struggling to find their way up the fish ladder. One hundred yards away individual fishermen are allowed to catch six salmon/day. There are so many salmon swimming by, little skill is involved. Last night the fishermen were circled by seals and sea lions, also looking for a fresh meal. Bald and golden eagles are also gathering to pluck stranded fish out of the low tide waters. The salmon are too big for them to catch in their talons and fly away, so there is much jockeying for position. The winner sits on the fish and takes eats small pieces delicately and fastidiously. Gulls and ravens are also nearby, looking for an opportunity to take a bite. It gets noisy at times as every bird comments on his needs and position. So far the bears haven’t gotten the memo that the fish are in. When they do, the rest of us will have to yield the ground to them.

Some purse seining has already taken place since the hatchery hires boats to catch enough fish to recover their expenses and enable them to prepare a new batch to release. Large tender boats visit the seiners and suck the fish out of their holds so they won’t have to return to port and can keep fishing. The tenders take the salmon ashore to be processed - flash frozen or canned. Some fish will be taken to the hatchery to have their eggs removed and fertilized. Once the hatchery’s needs have been filled, the DOF will give the signal and all the boats jockeying for space in the harbor will come out, unfurl their nets and start seining. We are hoping that this will take place while we are still here.

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