Overfishing and the Non-Solution of Aquaculture

This four-minute video presents the clearest, most accurate explanation of issues close to our hearts we’ve found: overfishing and the peril of aquaculture. We are emptying our seas at an unsustainable rate. But there are real solutions at hand:

  • Our governments need to follow science-based harvest recommendations.
  • Understand why aquaculture (fish farming) merely robs Peter to pay Paul, and for most species is not a solution.
  • Purchase local, wild fish whenever and wherever possible – even if it costs more.
  • Write a note to the FDA (click here) urging them to follow the American Fisheries Society’s names for fish species so that restaurants and retailers have to honestly tell consumers what we are purchasing.
  • Use your dollars to show commercial fishermen that you are willing to pay for responsibly harvested fish as opposed to farmed fish and fish harvested by nonselective, rapacious factory ship fishing.
  • Become educated and talk with your friends.
  • Forward or share this blog post/video.
  • Join Trout Unlimited or another conservation group that works to protect fish habitat. (Check Charity Navigator to ensure that the organization you choose spends its dollars responsibly.)
  • Learn to fish. A single person selectively targeting fish from local waters for personal/family consumption is still the most ecologically sustainable method of fish harvest.

Thanks for reading. Jack & Barbra

Alaska’s Permanent Fund and Trout Unlimited

Daughter Maia works a pool in the canyon country of Oregon’s Deschutes River.

This past summer, we fell in love with the film Away We Go in which Verona De Tessant (Maya Rudolph) and Burt Farlander (John Krasinski) find themselves in the enviable, daunting and sometimes scary position of realizing that, although they are not wealthy, they can live virtually anywhere they choose to. Their story unfolds as a touching, insightful comedy as they criss-cross North America searching for just the right place.

Verona: I can do my job from anywhere. And all you need’s a phone, right?

Burt: Well, we don’t want to go back to Chicago, do we?

Verona: No, we did Chicago.

Burt: I used to picture myself in Alaska. God, I love that landscape.

Verona: Alaska?

Burt: Yeah.

Verona: You’ve never mentioned Alaska.

Burt: Wow, they pay people to live in Alaska.

Burt’s line about people being paid to live in this great state gets laughs from audiences, although for different reasons depending on who the audience is. While it’s not true that people are paid to live here, there is something called the Permanent Fund. Without getting into the complexities, Alaska’s Permanent Fund is a constitutional provision established in 1976 that, essentially, taps oil revenues allowing the state government to pay an annual check to every Alaskan resident once they’ve lived here one fiscal year. The amount of the check varies from year to year. The current five-year average is $1,341. This year’s payout was lower, but still appreciable at $878.

That’s where Trout Unlimited comes in.

Barbra and I feel a deep commitment to helping to conserve, protect and restore America’s cold water resources. This commitment flows naturally from our love of salmon and trout and the beautiful and often pristine environs they inhabit and depend upon. Protecting our cold water resources, though, is about more than protecting fish. Trout Unlimited has worked in concert with others to bring down dams that are no longer useful – thus restoring countless miles of free flowing rivers and streams. They work with vineyard owners and other farmers to help ensure water-wise land use. And all across the landscape, TU has, for decades, been instrumental in ensuring that mining, timbering and other resource extraction be carried out with sensible respect for its impact on rivers, streams and estuaries when sensible respect is possible, and that extractive industries be turned away when they can’t conduct their business without destroying watersheds.

At present, TU is in the midst of several critical battles. One of them involves a multi-national mining proposal that threatens the world’s greatest salmon estuary, Bristol Bay. The proposed Pebble Mine could wipe out runs that number into the millions of salmon, as well as fishing jobs and subsistence fishing that generations upon generations of Alaskans (and salmon consumers throughout the world) have depended on. TU is also on the vanguard in fighting against irresponsible extraction of natural gas locked underground in Marcellus Shale. The extraction requires fracking, and it is posing a major risk to the streams and rivers I cut my teeth on as a young angler in Western Pennsylvania.

Again, this isn’t just about trout and salmon. We humans, too, drink the water, grow our farms and forests with it, admire its beauty, and are responsible for passing down a legacy of clean water to future generations.

And so, presented with money that is essentially a gift from our adopted state, the choice on how to spend it was easy. This year, Barbra and I will become lifetime members of Trout Unlimited.

After vetting dozens of organizations, we came to feel that in TU, our contributions will support the causes closest to our hearts. Not just for us, but for generations to come.

To read more about TU’s efforts, click on the following links:

Trout Unlimited’s Home Page

Marcellus Shale Project

Bristol Bay

Maia on a seldom-fished hike-in lake raptly watching her fly line for a twitch. 

The Gentleman Angler

Before we moved to Alaska, we’d never seen fog flowing down mountains. I’m sure it happens elsewhere… This was one of those days of sunshine and patchy fog. Fog encircling the horizon. Fog pouring like a river through mountain gaps on Resurrection Bay. 

I like foggy days. Fog means you can start late and not miss the bite. When it’s foggy, sometimes, big things happen late in the day.

By the time Barbra and I got our C-Dory fueled up and heading out into the bay, it was 10:30 A.M. Most of the fleet – both the charters and recreational boats – had long since left the docks. There was a time when I would have been with them – when I had to be on the water early. Dawn. Before dawn. Early early. Trout streams in Pennsylvania, striper rivers in South Carolina, sea bass beaches in Japan….

Most days, the early morning bite is the best.

Fog changes that.

Laid out on the dock are six silver salmon, eight rockfish, a couple of greenling, three small halibut, and a 35-pound lingcod. A couple of the salmon and the halibut didn’t make it into this photo. All of the fish were filleted, vacuum-packed and flash-frozen, ready to travel with us to Point Hope. I asked Barbra to name her favorite on the dinner table. “The variety,” she answered, without missing a beat. We didn’t get up early for these fish, and we didn’t run far.

We could get up earlier. We could run further. We could catch more fish and larger fish.

We know that.

At some point in my life, numbers and size stopped mattering so much. I still like to fish. But most of the time, most days, the fish that interest me the most are the ones that are still biting after I’ve had a good night’s sleep, breakfast, a leisurely mug of coffee (not in a to-go mug, but in my favorite mug at my breakfast table) and have read the news.

“We’re gentleman anglers,” my older friend and mentor Bill Kodrich explained to me. Forty years ago, we were in a cafe, me with a slice of blueberry pie, Bill with a slice of apple pie and a cup of coffee. It was about ten in the morning. We were headed for Spring Creek. I’d never been. I was eager to go. I thought we should have been there four hours ago.

“We don’t need to hurry,” Bill said with a characteristic smile. “There’ll still be trout in the stream when we get there.”

I get it now.

Silvers and Pinks (And Otters)!

This curious fellow swam right up to our C-Dory, Gillie, to watch me rinse off a salmon Barbra had just caught.

Alaska. Every trip out on the water is a reminder that you could live here several lifetimes and never see it all. While sea otters are fairly common along the southern and central Alaskan coastline, we’ve never have one swim up to the boat. (Although, there were a trio that used to follow us as we walked the docks in Cordova.) This guy seemed genuinely curious – and maybe hopeful of a handout – as I rinsed off a Coho before putting it in the fish box on a recent excursion to Rugged Island in Resurrection Bay, near Seward. Meanwhile, floating on her back with a pup on her stomach, a mother otter watched us a little more guardedly and from a distance.

Fishing partner Bixler McClure got this shot of the otter coming over to investigate the boat. 

On any given sailing or boating trip out on the bay, you’re likely to encounter harbor porpoises, Dall porpoises, Orcas, whales, eagles, thousands of sea birds, leaping salmon, seals, sea lions and every once in a while you might spot the fin of a seven-foot salmon shark (they look very much like small great white sharks) cutting through the water. Bears come down to the beaches, and on rare occasions a wolverine might be glimpsed.

And, of course, there are the fish. Resurrection Bay lies between green-shouldered, snow-capped mountains – a dramatic backdrop. It extends over 10 miles before meeting the Alaska Gulf, and on many days the waters are nearly glass smooth, rippled only by a gentle breeze. On days such as these, the fishing is truly pleasant.
When the silvers (Coho salmon) show up – usually the run is in full swing by mid-July – the fishing is excellent, with six-salmon limits the norm. Skilled (or lucky) anglers often mix in a king or two, and after you’ve got salmon in the fish box you can switch tactics and target rockfish and halibut. There are bigger rockfish and halibut out in the Gulf – and more of them -, but if you stay with it you can find fish in the bay and you don’t have to deal with a long run.
The custom here is to take the fish out of your fish box and load them into a dock cart so you can wheel them up to one of the fish cleaning stations. Once we’ve filleted our fish, we take them to J-Dock to be vacuum packed and flash frozen. Fish cared for this way taste great even a year or more later.
 Below: Barbra got this watery photo of the otter swimming around Gillie.
Below: Three limits of salmon and a couple of rockfish, laid out, rinsed off and ready to take up to the cleaning station. This winter in Point Hope, every meal these fish provide will be a memory of our summer in Seward. These are the good old days.

Getting Wasted on Cheap Vodka

“Higher! Lift it higher!” Barbra strains to hoist a lingcod of about 30 pounds that fell to a jig in 100 feet of water. 

Six-thirty AM and virtually no wind. Gaff – check. Rods rigged and ready – check. Plenty of knife jigs, lead-heads, twister tails – check. A fifth of cheap vodka in a plastic bottle…

Check.

It was our friend Jerry’s last day in Seward, and he had just enough time for a quick out-and-back morning trip. We were looking for his first-ever halibut, along with whatever else might be interested in our jigs.

With Barbra at the helm of our C-Dory, cruising between 15 and 20 knots over calm seas it took us about an hour to get to a place we knew would offer a chance to pick up halibut without running all the way out into the Gulf of Alaska.

Sea birds, vast shoals of herring, porpoises, seals and off in the distance the misty spout of a whale – all against a dramatic Alaskan background of green-sloped, snow-shouldered mountains, glaciers and  rugged, rocky – make any trip out onto the bay a good one.

We got a few fish, too. Jerry nailed his first-ever halibut (not to mention a 50-pound-class lingcod – also a first), Barbra got her hands on her first 30-pound lingcod, and I hooked another nice halibut. In three hours of fishing, we caught maybe half-a-dozen lings, the halibut, Pacific cod, greenling, a brilliantly colored sculpin and over a dozen assorted rockfish including blacks, yelloweye, quillbacks, and a beautifully marked tiger.

We kept a yelloweye, the tiger (photo on the left), and a halibut.

Since the lings have to be released (the season doesn’t open till July 1, and it is permanently closed within Resurrection Bay), the only one we pulled out of the water for a quick photo was Barbra’s 30-pounder.

But she brought an even larger fish to the boat that day, and the way she caught it was a first for us – one that gave new meaning to the exclamation “Color!” fishermen often call out when they get the first glimpse of a fish coming up from the depths.

Laid across the mouth of one of the most beautifully marked lings we’ve ever seen – a 40 pounder with striking, amber-brown spots – was a bright orange yelloweye rockfish! The jig hook was planted firmly in the yelloweye’s mouth, but had no purchase on the lingcod. The ling’s jaws were simply clamped down on its meal – and  it was giving every bit as good of a fight  as if it had been securely hooked.

We released several nice black rockfish, such as this one Jerry caught.

I knew, based on reading about events like this, that as long as we didn’t raise the ling’s head above water, he’d continue to hold onto the rockfish like a dog playing tug-of-war with a rope. So what did I do? I grabbed Barbra’s leader and lifted the ling’s head above water, causing it to instantly drop the yelloweye and sink back into the depths. Oops…

We thus missed a chance for a really great photo – the bright orange of the yelloweye lying lengthwise across the jaws of a massive lingcod. Ahh… next time!

Interestingly enough, the yelloweye didn’t look particularly damaged. When we released it, it scurried straight for the bottom.

And the vodka?

Jerry and I had read about fishermen using cheap booze – not a .22 rifle, not a .410 shotgun, not a billy – cheap booze to subdue fish. Halibut are notorious for going crazy once they’re on the deck of a boat. They’ve been known to bust up tackle, wreck coolers and even injure their captors. But with a shot or two of alcohol on their gills…

When Jerry got his fish up on the surface, I gaffed it right behind the cheek and pulled its head up out of water. As soon as the fish opened its mouth, Jerry poured a couple shots of vodka down its hatch. The affect was amazing. The fish slumped like an overserved patron passing out on a bar, and we slid it over the gunwale without a struggle . Once we had it on the deck of the C-Dory, we splashed its gills with another shot of vodka for good measure and then hung it over the side of the boat to bleed it out.

Easiest time of it I’ve ever had with a halibut.

Even the little fish are cool: Barbra with a brilliantly marked Pacific sculpin that tried to eat a jig nearly as large as itself.

Bacon-Wrapped Smelts (Hooligans, Eulachons or Candlefish)

Freshly caught smelt prepared two ways: In the foreground, the fish was rolled in polenta. The smelt in back was dusted in seasoned flour. The fish were pan fried, wrapped in bacon and placed on whole leaves of Romain lettuce to be eaten from head to tail, bones and all. A sprig of asparagus and a few dollops of bright orange flying fish roe (tobiko) finishes the lettuce taco.

As I write this, one of the small rivers flowing into Resurrection Bay is jammed full of smelt. Specifically Thaleichthys pacificus, commonly referred to as hooligans. The AFS (American Fisheries Society) has settled on the name eulachon (pronounced you-luh-chawn), from the Chinook Indian name for the fish. Early west coast explorers and settlers called them candlefish because the spawning fish are so full of fat (about 15% of body weight) that when dried, they can be lit and will burn like a candle.

In the foreground: Polenta is especially coarse cornmeal. Seasoned with salt and pepper, rolling smelt in polenta gives these soft-fleshed fish a nice crunch when pan friend. In the back: another way to prepare smelt for the frying pan is by dropping them into a Ziplock bag containing seasoned flour and giving them a few shakes. Tarragon, fennel, marjoram and salt and pepper are a good start when seasoning these fish. Tongs make this a neat job. Note the asparagus in the pan on the stove.

The meat and bones of eulachons are quite soft. So soft, in fact, that when pan fried, the bones are barely noticeable. Their flavor is wonderful, but they definitely benefit from the addition of some crunch.

When the smelt are running in a river with a healthy population, getting enough for a meal or two is easy. On large rivers, a long-handled net might be necessary. But on this river, the fish were thick and close to shore. Two scoops of the net, and we had all the fish we needed.

Like their relatives, the salmon, eulachon are anadromous. They spend most of their life in the ocean, feeding on plankton, and then return to their natal streams and rivers to spawn, after which they die. Males arrive first and comprise virtually all the fish in the early part of the run. Later the females show up. Ideally, it’s the females you want, as a fresh fish laden with ripe eggs is a delicacy.

The males are quite good, too. In either case, cleaning these small fish (they average about eight inches/20 centimeters) is a simple matter of rinsing them in clean, cold water. There is no need to gill, gut or scale them.

A seemingly endless school of eulachons makes its way up an Alaskan river.

Fishing and Camping along Oregon’s Deschutes River

Edged by a thin strip of green, the Deschutes River is born in mountains southwest of Bend. Brookies – aggressive and abundant – dominate the headwaters where it flows out of Little Lava Lake. When the river hits Crane Prairie Reservoir, rainbows (and largemouth bass) dominate. Once the river drops into canyon country north of Bend, redbands come into their own. Although canyon trout typically don’t run large, there’s a good chance you’ll have the water to yourselves, as we did. Further downstream, steelhead attract attention from fly fishermen who spend hours swinging flies in hopes of that one, elusive, electrifying grab. (Click on any of the photos for a larger view.)

In June of 2009, Maia and I spent a week camped along the Deschutes River near Bend, Oregon where we were enrolled in an Orvis Fly Fishing School – an experience we highly recommend to any parent-son/daughter, husband-wife or fishing partner team looking to boost their skills and knowledge. (We’d love to take one of their saltwater fly fishing or wing shooting schools in the future.)

Tumalo State Park proved to be an excellent location for our headquarters. Tent friendly, it was both quiet and conveniently close to Bend and the region’s excellent fly fishing. In addition to the Deschutes Canyon, we also explored the nearby Metolius River, Lava Lake, Little Lava Lake and the Upper Deschutes.

Fishing an elk hair caddis, Maia coaxed a pair of the Deschute’s redband trout from this canyon pool.

The redbands of the canyon are not large, but numbers are good, the water is beautiful and the setting is dramatic.

The float tube launch on Lava Lake seems to lay out a path to Mount Bachelor, one of Oregon’s premier ski destinations.

As Maia and I were preparing to launch our float tubes on Lava Lake, a fly fisherman who appeared to be in his 70’s was just coming in. “Wanna see what I’ll be having for breakfast?” he asked with a playful grin. He then pulled from a wet canvas creel a fat, 18 inch rainbow. The silvery fish had undoubtedly been stocked as a fingerling and grown heavy on a diet rich with scuds and aquatic insects. “Been coming here for decades,” he said. “Fishing’s still good, and you can’t beat the setting.” Since we were after a trout or two for dinner that night, we were heartened by his success. And sure enough, in addition to a couple of smaller trout, a rainbow just shy of two pounds fell to an bead head olive wooly bugger in the short time we spent on the lake.

After a dinner of salad, pan-friend New York strip steak, freshly caught trout and multi-colored Peruvian potatoes, we relaxed in front of our campfire enjoying a finger or two of Scotch, reminiscing about the day’s fishing, about the fishing we’d had other days going all the way back to afternoons spent float fishing for bluegills and bass on our home river in Japan when Maia was only three, and dreaming about trips we’d take in the future…

Until I lived in Oregon, I’d never seen garter snakes hunt fish. This one was working the margins of Lava Lake.

We had read about Hosmer Lake’s unique (and quite challenging) Atlantic Salmon and Brook Trout fishing. Kicking around in our float tubes in water only slightly less clear than air, we could see fish – big ones – nearly 20 feet deep. The white edges on their fins gave the brookies away; the others, we surmised, must be the salmon. The fish were beyond us on this particular day, but what a lovely piece of water. Excellent nature watching, too – birds, otters, wild flowers along the shore, and, of course, the fish in aquarium-like conditions.

In the week we spent sampling the fishing near Bend, we barely scratched the surface. In addition to miles of river, there are several lakes accessible by vehicle and numerous  hike-in fisheries. Area campground fees range from reasonable to downright cheap, and Bend itself is a cool city of about 80,000 that merits time set aside for exploration.

There is a Lake…

At a remote lake we discovered by chance, the trout are not as long as your leg. Lots and lots (and lots) of 14 to 18 inchers though.

Weighing in at about 15 pounds (including flippers), Super Cat pontoons inflate quickly, can be worn like backpacks, and fish comfortably.

The walk in to remote waters is part of the adventure. On this particular hike, there were wildflowers, game tracks, berries, and a well-camouflaged covey of grouse perched in spruce trees.

Each summer, Maia, Barbra and I make it a point to meet up somewhere to fish, cook together, catch up with each other’s lives, and enjoy good wine and beer and stories. The fishing is secondary, but catching is definitely more fun than not catching. This is the kind of lake where you lose count of the fish turned, hooked or landed and settle into a gentle rhythm of casting, kicking and intense line watching, vigilant for the slightest twitch.

It is a beautiful and rare thing these days to fish a lake – no matter how remote – free from even a solitary scrap of litter. Such was the case on this lake. There was a hiking trail, and part of it traversed a log and board walk over a marshy area, but it was clear that those who know about this lake care about it. Save for a few mountain goats high up on a slope overlooking the lake, a pair of ospreys occasionally circling overhead and a small family of loons, we had the pristine water to ourselves.

On many remote (and not so remote) lakes, a size 8 or 10 bead head nymph dressed in olive, brown or black and jazzed up with something that sparkles is a killing pattern, and such was the case on this day. Lush beds of weeks were visible in the clear water. That’s where the insects were, and of course, the trout.

With a healthy population of trout and several size classes represented, we kept four smaller fish for dinner back at our campsite on a different lake. Evidence of a diet rich with scuds (freshwater shrimp), their flesh was as red as sockeye salmon flesh.

It’s difficult to improve on salt, ground pepper, and glowing charcoal when cooking just-caught fish. Accompanied with freshly picked sweet corn, roasted potatoes and a bottle of Chardonnay enjoyed around a campfire as the evening sky grew dark, our conversation was punctuated by an occasional pop from the fire and loons calling back and forth across the lake. 

Yelloweye & Grits: Breakfast Onboard Gillie

Yelloweye rockfish (Sebastus ruberrimus), a species of the Pacific Coast from Baja Mexico to Prince William Sound Alaska, is prized for its delicate flavor.

We’d spent most of the night on our C-Dory, drifting over deep water on Prince William Sound, admiring the moon and stars in the clear summer sky, talking about our life and occasionally dropping heavy, water-slicing knife jigs to the rocky bottom 160 feet below. Fishing was slow – a few small lingcod notwithstanding. The night was as still as a painting, the inky water mirroring the heavenly lights. With the engine cut off, the quiet was enveloping. When the yelloweye hit, I knew right away it wasn’t another ling. “Might be our yelloweye!” I said to Barbra as I worked the fish up from the depths.

And sure enough, it was. Barbra expertly scooped it up in the net, I did a quick fillet job, put it in a plastic container which I set in our cooler, and we headed back to port for some well-earned sleep. It was already early morning, though not quite yet dawn.

A few hours later when we woke, the sun was already high in the sky and the marina was bustling with activity. With daylight burnin’, we walked up the dock to the showers, blue skies and a few puffy white clouds overhead, deep green hanging on the mountains rimming the harbor.

Back onboard Gillie I put the Coleman stove on the aft deck, fired it up, and after Barbra made coffee I fixed a fisherman’s breakfast of southern-style grits topped with easy-over eggs and a couple of yelloweye fillets along with the collars – that especially sweet piece of meat that includes the pectoral fin muscle. (The collar looks a little like a lobster in the above photo.)

Not a fancy breakfast, but a special one. I kept the seasoning simple: a little sea salt and black pepper ground coarse. The steaming plates of food accompanied by French roast coffee made for a great start to another day in paradise.

Harvesting Chickens Alaska Style

There are days when it seems, as Barbra says, like you could put one of your socks on a hook and catch halibut. Two-fish limits are the norm even on slow days. This brace of 20 and 25 pound fish came back-to-back and fell for twister-tails on five-ounce jigs in 80 feet of water near Homer. Halibut this size are referred to as “chicken halibut” and make for fine dining indeed.

We love Alaska, but between the cold and our wanderlust, it’s unlikely we’ll remain here permanently. We dream about sailboats and warm beaches, about driving our camper all over Canada and the U.S., and about one day maybe owning a home on a few acres, complete with a clean, wood burning stove, a large vegetable garden, perhaps some fruit trees and of course a few chickens for eggs and for roasting. The good life comes in many forms!

One thing that has dismayed us as we’ve looked for our next utopia is the state of many of America’s freshwater fisheries. Log onto a few of our states’ department of natural resources pages, look at fish consumption advisories, and a pattern soon emerges. Mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) contaminate most freshwater bodies, and some even contain unhealthy amounts of DDT–a chemical we’d thought was no longer a problem. Warnings and advisories recommending limited consumption of fish are the norm rather than the exception all across America as fallout from coal fired power plants, cement plants and other sources have laced our waters with unhealthy amounts of toxins. In some waters, it is recommended that no fish be eaten. More commonly – in our view shockingly – anglers and their families are advised to limit their consumption to just one meal of walleye, lake trout, bass or other fish per week or even less!

That’s not very many fish dinners.

The good news is that, thanks to increased awareness which has led to increased regulation of industry, levels of contaminants on many waters are tending downwards. Yes, keeping toxins out of our environment is expensive, but when we take into consideration health issues and quality of life, letting polluters pollute is even more costly. We have the means to keep our country clean, and that’s precisely what we should be doing. If industries won’t comply, then, yes, we need our government to intervene.

Meanwhile, we feel very fortunate to live in a place where, with very few exceptions, people can eat as many meals of fish as they desire with the confidence that they are enhancing, not harming, their health. And so, at this point in our life, our “chickens” are of the finned variety. For now, our halibut omelets are made with store-bought eggs and Tillamook cheddar cheese. Maybe one day they’ll be made with eggs from our own chickens and cheese from our own kitchen!