I lean over the rail, whispering sweet nothings to the salmon in the water below. Hooked through the cheek, she stares at me with a turquoise eye. I raise the baseball bat-like gaff with my right hand and promise her, “This will be quick.” When I slam the gaff against her head, her opal scales quiver faintly, then go still. I yank her out of her universe, and into mine. A pool of crimson spreads on the deck. “Thank you.”
My partner Joel glances over. “Nice one!” Like me, he grew up fishing. At 22, he became the captain of the Nerka, his childhood summer home. We’ve run this 43-foot salmon troller together for seven years, selling our catch to his father, who markets our salmon to restaurants, grocery stores, and food co-ops around the U.S.
Not to be confused with trawlers, which drag large nets across the ocean floor, trollers are hook-and-line boats that target as close as possible the intended catch with little harm to habitat. The Nerka putters along Southeast Alaska’s densely forested coastline, trailing four to six lines laddered with hooked lures. Each salmon comes over the rail individually, and is handled with care through the entire process.
From an efficiency standpoint, it doesn’t make sense to comb the sea for 18 hour days, for weeks on end, struggling to catch 100 salmon a day, one at a time. The challenges and risks far outweigh the financial payoff. Like family farming, our greatest reward is our lifestyle. Between the Gulf of Alaska’s infinite blue swallowing the horizon and the Tongass National Forest’s lush green cloaking the coast, our office is a dreamscape. With whales, sea otters, porpoises, puffins and other sea birds as colleagues, our job involves more than merely catching fish. Occupying a link in this food chain is a privilege; doing it sustainably is a responsibility.