NOAA Teacher at Sea
Aboard NOAA Ship Rainier
July 8 — 30, 2013
Mission: Hydrographic Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Shumagin Islands, Alaska
Date: August 8, 2013
Current Location: 57° 47’ 35” N, 152° 23’ 39” W
My Teacher at Sea experience ended on the island of Kodiak where the Rainier docked for a few days to stock up on supplies and give the crew a much-needed rest. They departed Kodiak 3 days later to begin the next 2-3 wk leg of their survey season. I had the good fortune of staying on the island for 4 days to explore its unique natural landscape and rich cultural history.
As I walked around downtown, perused the storefronts and enjoyed a latte at Harborside Coffee and Goods, one thing was very clear to me: this town is centered around fish, not tourists. Shelikolff drive is an entire street lined with fish processing plants. Trident Seafood, housed inside an old ship sprawls out on the other side of town. The harbor itself is home to over 1000 fishing vessels, ranging from huge 125 foot crab boats to 18 foot set net skiffs. Xtra Tuff fishing boots are the preferred footwear by all the locals and smelling of fish is a natural occurrence.
When I was in the coffee shop, I noticed a young women in her late twenties with a toddler next to her, writing a letter to her husband who presumably was out at sea fishing. The letter had pictures of her son taped onto it and lots of hearts and colorful doodles–a gentle reminder that living in Kodiak is not for the faint-hearted. The life of a fisherman is physically demanding and maintaining relationships can be trying.
Kodiak has always been an industrious port and its people have always had a strong connection to the ocean. The first people of Kodiak, the Aleut from Kamchatka, inhabited the island 10,000 years ago and lived off the nutrient-rich waters for 7,500 years. They were true “nature engineers” using resources around them for fishing, clothing, dwellings and other needs. Nothing was wasted. Fishing with nets made of nettle fiber and sinew (tendon). Catching bottom dwellers with seaweed line and bone hooks. Using whalebone for door frames and sod for walls. Lighting the way with whale and seal oil lamps. Dressing in mammal skin and intestines.
I had the chance to see many original Aleut artifacts at the Baranov Museum in Kodiak. The most interesting piece was the Kayak splashguard made of mammal skin, the predecessor of the modern nylon kayak skirt used today. The translucent thin waterproof jackets made of mammal intestines also fascinated me. They looked very delicate but were actually strong and flexible when wet. Suspended from the museum ceiling, was an actual seal skin kayak or Bairdarka used by the Aleuts. They wrapped seal skin around a wood frame, tied the seams with sinew and then added a layer of seal oil for waterproofing. Aleut craftsmanship at its finest!
The Aleuts clearly adapted well to their island home, making use of all that surrounded them but never exploiting these resources. Sadly in 1784, this peaceful existence was abruptly terminated by the Russians who, armed with muskets and cannons, took the island by force. Having already decimated both the sea otter and native Aleut population around the Aleutian islands, the Russians under the command of Grigory Ivanovich Shelikhov established a permanent settlement in Three Saints Bay on Kodiak to capitalize on the remaining otter population in North Pacific waters. Following the success of the fur trade industry on Kodiak, the Russians expanded their colonization on the Alaska mainland, establishing several subsequent fur trade centers.
Russian conquest was bittersweet. They brought with them diseases and modern necessities such as flour, tea, tobacco and sugar. They built several structures for their needs including fur warehouses, a school, a hospital, a stone quay, a saw mill and an ice making plant. They forced the Aleuts to be their skilled craftsmen and otter hunters. Between old world diseases, murder and abuse, many Aleuts lost their lives and those left standing witnessed the slow demise of their ancient seafarer culture.
The 126-year Russian occupation of Alaska finally came to an end when tired and poor from the Crimean war with France and England, they sold the territory to the U.S. for 7.2 million (2 cents per acre) in 1867. With high-powered firearms, the Americans continued to slaughter the otters at an unsustainable rate. Teetering on the brink of extinction, an international treaty banning the killing of otters was signed in 1911. Post otter years, Americans tried their hand at other industries including trapping, whaling, clamming, cattle ranching, fox farming and gold mining. Salmon fishing though proved to be the most reliable and profitable natural resource so the U.S. quickly established several salmon processing plants around Kodiak. Wooden dories replaced Baidarkas and by the end of the 19th century, Kodiak had transitioned from a fur-trading hub to a fishing mecca.
Things progressed unchanged until World War II, when Kodiak seen as a strategic waypoint between Asia and the North American west coast, was transformed into a military town. The population went from 400 to several thousand in a short time. A huge self-sufficient navel base was built along with new roads around the island. In preparation for a Japanese attack, several concrete bunkers and underground bomb shelters were constructed. With all of this new infrastructure came indoor plumbing and electricity to the island. When Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, 1941 followed by Dutch Harbor on June 3, a Japanese attack on Kodiak seemed imminent but surprisingly the emerald isle went untouched.
Today Kodiak remains an important fishing port with a wide variety of crab and fish species (salmon, cod, halibut, Pollack) caught and processed. Modern fishing equipment and boats have replaced older, more natural gear but many of the fishing methods are still the same. Similarly, the factories along Sheikolf Drive have become more automated, with less human hands along each assembly line. Also, the fish industry as a whole on Kodiak has become much more regulated.
Kodiak is a fascinating place to explore because you can see several remnants of its past interspersed around the island: concrete WWII bunkers at Fort Abercrombie, Russian Orthodox church in downtown, old WWII ship anchors lying around, a 200 year old fur warehouse (now the Baranov Museum). Unfortunately, many historical landmarks were destroyed in the 1964 Alaska earthquake. The tsunami that followed the earthquake wreaked more havoc, killing 106 Alaskans and a family of 4 camping at Beverly Beach State Park near Newport, Oregon.
Besides a rich cultural history, Kodiak Island is full of natural beauty and an assortment of cool creatures. Rosalind and I got the chance to explore fossil beach on the south-eastern side of Kodiak where we collected many unique fossils. My top finds were a snail fossil and a shale rock with encased petrified wood.
After Rosalind left, I was blessed by another Teacher at Sea, Katie Sard, who spent the day with me on a spontaneous adventure around the island. We did all sorts of fun things like tide pooling, checking out WWII bunkers at Fort Abercrombie and eating Greek food at sunset at Monashka bay.
One of the highlights of my entire Alaska trip, was the float plane trip I took to the Kenai Peninsula on the mainland to see Brown bears. These are the 2nd largest bears in the world (next to Polar Bears), living off a rich diet of berries and salmon. I had never been in a float plane before and was impressed by how soft the landing and take off were. The aerial views were also incredible. I spotted 2 Humpback whales on the way over to the peninsula from Kodiak and on the way back another passenger spotted a pod of about 45 Orca whales! The pilot was just as excited as we were, and circled around this giant pod for about 10 minutes giving us all good views of their movement and sheer numbers. Incredible!
We landed about a football field away from the peninsula, and waded in hip deep water to the beach. The scenery was beautiful with snow-covered mountains as a backdrop and wild flowers and meandering streams in the foreground. This was perfect bear country! Within about 3 hours we saw the Brown bear Trifecta: Brown bear trying to catch salmon, Brown bear mother with 2 cubs and to cap it all off, Brown bears mating. All of these sightings were of different bears and within a stones throw away. I was surprised at how okay the bears were with our close presence. As I learned from my guide, human safety is ensured by the ability to read nonverbal bear clues which can be very subtle. For example, if a bear turns its back to you, it is saying “Please leave me alone.” You also never make eye contact with a bear or walk directly towards it. You want the bear to feel like he/she has plenty of surrounding space and an escape route if need be. Jo, our guide said that in the 20 years of leading bear tours, she has only had to get out her bear spray 3 times. And one of these times involved a naïve group of students eating Subway sandwiches in front of the bears!
The last day of my Kodiak stay was spent touring several fish factories where I got to experience the real backbones of this city. At all 3 factories, it was Pink salmon processing time which meant the machines were in full swing, with humans at various checkpoints along each assembly line. The machines did everything from decapitating each salmon to cleaning out its guts to skinning it. Each factory processed about 200,000 pounds of Pink salmon per day. In peak season with several different fish species being processed at once, the factories can see around ¾ million pounds of fish processed per day! At one factory, I learned that the big money comes from making surimi (ground fish) which is used as imitation crab all over the world. The most common fish used in surumi is the Alaska Pollock which is very plentiful in Kodiak waters. I am glad to hear that imitation crab is actually fish and not some other protein filler.
Check out these videos to see the factory process in action. It’s fascinating!!!
As you saw from the above videos, the most hands on section of the whole process is in the production of roe (salmon eggs). This is because the roe must be gently handled and graded (1-3 scale) in preparation to be sold to Japan. At $50 per pound, roe is a delicacy in Japan and often eaten raw over rice or in sushi. Also Pink and Chum salmon produce the most desirable roe called ikura or red caviar. This roe is about the size of a pea and is sold as individual pieces. In contrast, the smaller eggs of Coho and Sockeye salmon produce sujiko, which is roe still connected in the sac. Throughout each of my fish processing plant tours, I was curious to know HOW the roe was graded. To my surprise, none of the factory managers could tell me how and I unfortunately could not communicate with the highly skilled Japanese roe technicians.
So I looked it up and it turns out roe is graded using the following criteria: size (larger is better), salt content (lower is better), drip (zero is best), firmness (firm is better but not so firm the egg breaks), color (bright, red-orange outer color with a center the color and consistency of honey), luster (eggs should be shiny and slightly transparent).
It was fitting to end my Kodiak stay with some down and dirty fish factory tours as this is the lifeblood of the city (and Alaska) and a good representation of the Kodiak spirit. These factories operate 24/7 with workers on their feet for 12 hour shifts. From the Aleuts to now, the Kodiak people have always been a hardy bunch with an incredible work ethic, and the ability to adapt to one of the most challenging environments in the world. This is the ring of fire: weather and natural disasters are unpredictable. So why do people stay? It’s the sea. Beautiful. Vast. Mysterious. Full of life. She calls them back day after day, year after year. Welcome to Kodiak life.
Fun Factoid: The infamous Kodiak brown bear, the sole species of bear on the island of Kodiak, is a sub-species of the Alaskan mainland Brown bear population. Hunters come from all around the world to hunt this sub-species, paying thousands of dollars per expedition.