Salmon Fishing in Alaska - four days of commercial fishing on the Aimee O
A purse seine is a fishing net that hangs vertically in the water with its bottom edge held down by weights and its top edge buoyed by floats. Our home for this adventure was the Aimee O, an Alaskan purse seiner. The purse part describes the bottom of the net which closes like a purse to trap the fish inside the net. The seine is deployed from the stern of the boat by pulling the carefully folded net off the deck with a skiff. In the case of the Aimee O, the skiff was driven by the Captain’s daughter, but I’m getting ahead of the story.
Along with my partner Gloria, I was privileged to spend four days with the owner/captain and crew of the Aimee O in the inside passage of Alaska while they fished for Silver Salmon. I was invited to photograph the trip for a future promotional adventure photography campaign. The plan was to utilize the Aimee O in off season as a floating base for a group of adventure photographers. For various reasons the adventure photography program never floated, but never-the-less the photography trip we made to promote the idea was a great success.
The Aimee O was one of the best designed and most professionally built seiners working in Alaska. It was the dream child of captain Chad Peterman. Captain Peterman employed family members as crew, which is not unusual for a small fishing enterprise. What is unusual is that all of the Aimee O crew members were young women. Most of the youngsters growing up in the Peterman clan were female, so as they grew up they learned to fish like the men did. In many ways they did a better job, because they brought an element of style and grace to the daily routines that men just don’t bother with. It was amazing to watch the women scampering around the deck, handling the nets and lines, and balancing along the gunwale like ballet dancers. They never missed a beat, performing the assigned fishing tasks with seasoned efficiently, and with enough time between tasks to prepare appetizing meals for everyone — three times a day.
We met Captain Peterman in Petersburg, Alaska, the Aimee O’s home port during the short salmon season. From Petersburg to the fishing site is about a fifteen hour run. We left late in the afternoon and traveled all night. While we slept that first night, the Captain and one of the girls traded watches in the pilot house, navigating us north up Frederick sound. Next morning we stopped at a special place, the Baranof warm springs. It is a tradition among fishermen and cruisers alike to take a break and enjoy a warm soak before spending several more hours underway on a boat and we wanted to uphold the tradition.
Back underway, we had great weather to enjoy the wild coastline. The Alaska cedars hold on to a sloping mountain side, almost all the way to the water line. We didn’t see much in the way of wild life, except for occasional gulls or a seal or two on the rocks.
We arrived at the selected fishing site in the late afternoon; the captain decided he would wait until the next morning to employ the first “set” – the name for extending the seine net into a huge circle and hauling in the catch. Several other seiners were already in place. Some were still fishing as the twilight descended.
Next morning the action started around five a.m. Huge salmon were jumping several feet into the air all around the boat, as if greeting the morning. The area where the captain had anchored, and obviously where the fish were, was a large bay, but not large enough to accommodate the number of boats on hand to harvest the abundant silver salmon. The captains of the various boat have a system whereby they take turns moving into the most desirable position to set the net. It all takes place with courteous efficiency — no wasted time and no bumping and shoving.
Each of the sets performed by the Aimee O crew yielded full nets of salmon. A couple filled the net beyond what the derrick could lift with one heave and the skiff had to tie onto the opposite side of the boat and rev up the engine to keep the Aimee O from tipping over from the weight of the fish. In addition to the unbelievable number of fish the several fishing crews took out of the Inside Passage waters that day, two other things impressed me the most. The organization of the fishing community and it’s cooperation with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The ADFG keeps a close watch on the fishing, both from boats on the water and planes overhead. The captains also report on how many fish they have caught and how close they are to their allocation. Each boat has a set number of fish they can catch, measured in tons! By afternoon, the Aimee O had managed to haul in so many fish the hold was full. This is not unusual on a good fishing day, and a processor ship stands by in the area to offload the catch into its hold. The processor is a much larger ship, operated by one of the several seafood corporations in the Northwest. The transfer process, like the other aspects of the commercial fishing operation, is efficient and smooth. A giant vacuum tube on the processor ship empties the hold of the Aimee O, with the fish flowing onto an inspection table for grading and counting. Once the tally is made, the Aimee O heads back to the hot fishing spot. There are still several more hours until sunset and the crew is betting on getting their entire three-day allocation in one day. This is fairly unusual, but they did make it.
I should mention that despite each set pulling in thousands of fish, almost every fish in the net was about the same size, and they were almost all silver salmon, the target species for this trip. There were a couple of beautiful king salmon in one set, which the girls put aside for dinner. You can imagine what fish that fresh tastes like when expertly prepared by the young woman assigned as chef for this trip.
Captain Peterman later told me that this day was one of the best of his twenty year career of commercial fishing. He attributed the unusually successful day to my being there to take photographs and said I could come back any time. Unfortunately, I never got to repeat the experience as the captain called me a few weeks after the season closed and disclosed that he was going to retire and was selling the Aimee O. I’m not sure what happened to this most efficient and comfortable vessel. Our plans for a nautical photo adventure trip were also put on hold as a result of captain Peterman’s decision.
Sometimes fate hands you an opportunity to experience something that is so astonishing, compared to your normal inventory of experiences, that it stays with you for the rest of your life. This trip was that kind of adventure. I’m grateful that Chad Peterman and his delightful crew waited one more year to retire. [back to Journal Index