I just returned from an amazing trip to Southeast Alaska. I traveled there on self assignment to photograph the last half of a very unique commercial fishery – Sitka Sound herring sac roe. Each spring millions of Pacific Herring return to the waters of Sitka Sound to spawn, and along with them come a fleet of commercial fishermen eager to catch them right before the females release their precious eggs. You probably won’t find many of these herring eggs on the shelves of your local grocery store, as most, if not all of them are shipped overseas.
I had heard enough stories about the gorgeous scenery and exciting fishing action, so this year I decided it was time. I bought an Alaska Airlines ticket Homer-Sitka. And met up with two friends, Richard Nelson who is a longtime resident of Sitka, and Brad Heil, a fish spotting pilot. Richard graciously let me stay at his home, and Brad let me tag along with him in town, helped arrange logistics, and kept me up to date with the low down on the fishery.
The day I arrived everyone was buzzing about with just a couple hours before the fishery would open for the second time. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game tells the fishermen when they can fish, and has a ‘guideline harvest limit’ which once this limit has been caught they close the fishery till next year. One of the many exciting features of this fishery is the rodeo style openers. Sometimes the fishermen will only have 20 minutes to set their nets out, so needless to say there is some intense competition among the 50 some boats. And not only is the competition intense the fishery draws many of the biggest and baddest seine fishermen of Alaska and Washington.
The day of the third opening, Ken Jones allowed me to ride along on his boat, F/V Agave, for a couple test fishing sets in the morning. A sample of the fish caught were analyzed by Fish and Game to determine the ‘maturity’ of the eggs in the female herring. Shortly after the test sets were finished it was announced that there would be a fishery that day. Tom Stafford, captain of the F/V Infinite Glory, let me spend the opener on his boat photographing from up in the rigging and running around on deck.
The next opener a spotter pilot friend, Billy, let me photograph from the back seat of his Super Cub as we flew around above the fishing boats. The weather was clear every day I was there, which from what the locals told me is a rare event. It was a great time down there all around. Seeing the wildlife that follow the herring was incredible. Just driving on the road in Sitka you could watch Humpback Whales, Sea Lions, Bald Eagles, and thousands of sea gulls all feeding on the herring that literally spawn in downtown Sitka.
The trip home was another whole adventure on it’s own. I flew back to Homer with Brad in his bush plane. We were fortunate to have perfect weather for what turned out to be a stunning trip home along some amazing Alaska coastline. We took our time to shoot aerial photos of the Fairweather Range, Lituya Bay, Mt. St. Elias, the Malaspina Glacier, and other highlights of the Wrangel-Saint Elias National Park. I haven’t downloaded the photos from the return flight yet so nothing to show for now.
You can see a small selection of the photos from the Sitka Sound Herring sac roe fishery here. If you were there for the fishery and want to know if I got any photos of your boat send me a note and I’ll let you know what I have.
Some tech notes for the aspiring photographers reading:
I was shooting with my two main camera bodies once again. The Canon 1D mark II and the 5D. A shoot like this really reminds me why I love the 1D series so much with it’s powerful focusing motor and options, and incredible frame rate. Most of the shooting was pretty basic, mostly working to maintain a fast enough shutter speed to make sharp images from a moving boat, or airplane. The action was quick so I was keeping both bodies around my neck with a wide and telephoto lens ready all the time. I lost a few good shots to camera shake using the 100-400 zoom handheld on the boat. But some of my favorite photos from the shoot were also taken with this lens. The Image Stabilization really helps, but it’s still important to keep at least 1/500th sec shutter speed, and even at that I blurred a few potential keepers. From the 4 days of shooting I think I ended up with about 2,000 raw files. Just finished editing through them today and I’m archiving 311 photos with another 200 outtakes that I’ll keep for a special request. The other equipment used for this shoot – Canon 24-70 2.8, Canon 70-200 2.8, Sigma 12-24, a ken-labs gyroscopic stabilizer (for one short aerial shoot), circular polarizing filter, two commercial fishing boats and two bush planes!