Photo of Togiak herring in seine net. Bering Sea, Bristol bay, Alaska

It’s summer time in Alaska, and I’ve been busy enjoying the season. With so many great photo shoots this summer, the blog hasn’t been getting much attention. It’s August now and I’ve found some time to write about a photo shoot that took me out to Alaska’s Bering Sea this spring.

Cessna 175 tail dragger with Alaskan bush wheelsFor the last three years I have been joining a fish spotter friend, Brad Heil, on a two-week adventure out to Bristol Bay in the Bering Sea. We pack our camping gear (and my photography gear) into Brad’s Cessna 175 bush plane and take off from the Homer airport heading West out across Cook Inlet, over the active volcanoes in the Alaska Range, along the shoreline of Illiamna Lake, over the twisting rivers that drain down into Bristol bay, and along the coast line to the Northwest corner of Bristol Bay. Togiak Bay, and it’s neighboring bays are our home for a couple weeks, tent-camping on the beach and spending the days flying around this wild bit of the earth.

Photo of Togiak commercial herring fisheryBrad’s job is to tell the fisherman where the schools of herring are and direct them when setting their nets around the fish. My job during the Togiak herring fishery is to prevent us from having a mid-air collision with other spotter planes flying in circles above the boats. But, we all know the real reason I’m there. If I have to help Brad dodge other airplanes to stay alive, I’ll do it, but mostly I’m obsessed with shooting aerial photos.

Growing up in Alaska, I spent my summers working on commercial fishing boats, and have always loved flying in small planes. So, put me in a bush plane, flying above a commercial fishery with a camera in hand . . . life is looking pretty good.

photo of Togiak herring sac roeFor those unfamiliar with Alaska’s commercial herring sac roe fisheries, I will try and explain the basics. In the spring millions of pacific herring come to the Togiak bay area from somewhere out in the depths of the Bering Sea. They come to spawn in the shallow waters in and around Togiak Bay which is in the Northwest edge of Bristol Bay. The female herring develop large egg sacs in their bellies prior to spawning, and some people (mostly Japanese) like to take these eggs and put them in their own bellies. This photo at left shows Brad holding an egg sac taken from a Togiak herring.

Commercial fisherman during Togiak herring fishery in Bristol Bay, Alaska. The fishermen use boats called seiners to catch the fish. The boats are named as such because they use seines (type of net). The fishermen do their best with the help of their spotter pilot to wrap their seine (net) around a school of herring. Once they have the fish in their net the tender (bigger boat with large storage capacity) sends a skiff over to scoop out a sample of the herring which are analyzed to determine the percentage of the fish that are females with ‘ripe’ roe in them. If this number is not high enough the fish processing company will not buy the fish so the fisherman must let them go. Aerial photo of Togiak herring fisheryIf the percentage is good then the tender boat comes alongside the fishing boat and uses a pump to move the fish from the net into big refrigerated water tanks on the tender. A good set in the Togiak fishery can be as big as 800,000lbs of herring. The fish are chilled on board the tender as they are taken to a floating processor where the roe is extracted, packaged, and frozen before being loaded ontos very larger tramper vessel that will deliver the roe to markets in Japan.

I could go on for pages about this fishery and the adventures I’ve had with Brad out there on the Bering Sea, so if you want to know more ask in the comments and I’ll be happy to share. If you want to read more about commercial fishing see my blog post after I photographed the Sitka sac roe fishery

Click here to see a photo gallery with some of my favorites from the commercial fishery.