Kazunoko Madness

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(Kazunoko is the Japanese word for herring roe sacs, highly valued for festivities around New Years. In the 1980s, when the Japanese economy was particularly strong, herring fetched up to a dollar a pound, and led to a series of frenzied fisheries that started in January in San Francisco Bay, where buyers would entertain fishermen in high priced hotel suites, and for the truly committed, ending at the edge of the ice pack in the bleak Bering Sea off Northern Alaska, five or six months later).

“The fish are showing up at Kah Shakes!” It was early March 1982, and the word spread like wildfire around Fishermen’s Terminal, Seattle, Viva Yo skiffswhere the herring fleet was getting ready. Flatbed trucks with ugly and ungainly herring skiffs, fresh from San Francisco Bay were lined up by the rented crane that would offload them to big boats ready to take them to Alaska. Smaller trucks loaded with pallets of groceries, big hydraulic herring pumps, and all manner of supplies were offloading as quickly as they could to the 70′ and 80′ herring mother ships that would buy fish from the smaller skiffs.

As soon as our supplies, groceries, and cannery freight was aboard, my crew threw off the lines and we followed the line of other boats, through the locks and down into the saltwater of Puget Sound, for the 70 hour run up to the Icicle Seafoods fish processing plant in Petersburg, Alaska. Usually when we make that trip up the Inside Passage during salmon season, we’re not in a hurry; we can travel just daylight hours, (but remember, in June there’s around 20 hours of daylight…) anchor up at night in sweet little coves, really get a chance to savor the coast.

Kah shakes tender nightHerring season isn’t like that.. it’s rush, rush, rush; when we got to Petersburg, did we even get time to wet our whistle at the Harbor Bar? No way; it was unload the freight, rig the herring pump and: “Quick, get down to Kah Shakes, it’s gonna pop..!” Roe herring fishing only starts when the fish are ripe, or ready to spawn, ripeness determined by sampling by Alaska fishery biologists. So, it was make a fresh pot of coffee and try to keep our eyes open for our 4 on and 4 off wheel watches for 18 hours down to Kah Shakes Cove.

As we approached, the outer cove was full with a dozen big support vessels, small freezer ships that froze the herring on board, their lights and generators turning night into noisy day. In the most protected part of the Cove, the ‘skiff’s’ waited: everything from 20′ plywood boxes with their crew living aboard a larger vessel alongsideKah shakes skiffs snow to shiny, aluminum, purpose built, herring gillnetters complete with full electronics, hydraulics, stove, and spartan quarters.

And we waited. Every day the biologists would go out and make a test set with their gillnet, sample the catch to determine the size and ripeness of the roe sacs. Three days, then five, ears peeled to the VHF radio each night to the biologist discussing the test results.

Then deep one still night, even over the hum of the generators, a hissing sound, like rain on the water: the herring, moving into the cove to spawn; the fish were ripe at last. At first light the radio crackled: “Noon opening for 8 hours,” and when the snow cleared, the spotter planes started their engines and took off to report to their boats where the best concentration of fish seemed to be…

The fleet scattered around the cove, and we got ready – testing the herring pump and weighing box to buy when the opening was over. At noon there was a radio countdown andgilled herring at zero the forty skiff fleet roared into action, setting their nets as fast as they could into where they thought the heaviest and best concentration of herring was. Fortunately, the fish were scattered more or less evenly around the cove, so there weren’t the occasionally violent confrontations and skiffs ramming each other that sometimes occurred when the fish were bunched up just in one area.

Then we cruised the area; sometimes the guys got a big set early; needed to unload before the ‘opening’ or fishing period was even over. Then at 8, we had half a dozen herring skiffs, deep in the water with their loads, either tied alongside or trailing off the stern. A biologist from Icicle came alongside in a skiff, set up his sampling equipment in the galley – each load had to be tested. Fishermen got paid depending on what the percentage of roe-bearing females was and the size of the roe sacs. Sometimes you’d make the big effort to get you and your skiff thPlywood Kah Shakesere, wait a week for the fish to ripen, catch ten or fifteen tons and then have your catch rejected because there weren’t enough females or the roe sKah Shakesacs were too small. But that spring our fishermen were lucky – good catches with high roe content, so most of them would end up with almost $2,000 a ton when it was all 0ver – most guys had between eight and twelve tons.

Our last boat was our biggest delivery: over 20 tons from a big beat up aluminum skiff with San Francisco Bay registration numbers still spray painted crudely on the sides of the hull. The skipper and crew were rough looking guys in black rain gear spattered with herring scales and gill plates. I knew them: some of Icicle’s highliners, regulars on the herring circuit. In a day or two, they’d load the skiff aboard one of the big tenders or support vessels, headed to the Bering Sea and the late spring fisheries at Togiak, and then Norton Sound, almost to the Arctic Circle. I asked him how San Francisco had gone for him.

“We rented a condo on the water right in Sausalito. Our buyer had a hospitality suite in the same building, free drinks and snacks every night.. when it finally went off, we got forty tons in three days. Not a bad way to spend a couple of weeks in January.”

By the time we got all cleaned up and headed up to Petersburg, the skiffs had all taken off as had most of the support fleet. A light snow was falling again and I looked out at the faint outlines of the hills around Kah Shakes and thought that almost a whole year might pass before there was even a boat in that remote bay again.