Alaska is home to nearly 34,000 miles of tidal coastline leading to wide expanses of ocean where the seafood you eat likely originated. From crab to cod, Alaska’s commercial fishing industry is the state’s second-largest (the first is petroleum-based business), providing a livlihood for thousands of families. Fishing is, and will continue to be, as much a cultural icon of Alaska as its mighty mountains, and visitors who arrive during the busy harvest months are likely to witness, firsthand, the hours of grueling work required to catch the world’s seafood.
Mother’s Day weekend provided us a special opportunity to follow a family whose lives have been intertwined with commercial fishing in Alaska since the 1970’s. Good friends, this family fishes between May and September around the greater Prince William Sound area from Whittier, a small deepwater port city 90 minutes south of Anchorage.
Each spring, dad hustles down to Whittier for a week-on-week-off (depending upon the harvest) schedule of fishing from the F/V Alexandra, a 42-foot floating business. Mom remains at home in Anchorage to manage the office and the couple’s three busy children, making trips back and forth as needs require. It’s a way of life familiar to the kids, but nothing beats the opportunity to meet the boat when it arrives back in port with a load of slippery, slimy fish bound for Copper River Seafoods in Anchorage.
This net-to-plate concept is vital for a greater understanding of Alaska’s ocean waters, especially since the 2015 season so far has been odd; less fish, more strange species showing up in strange places, and the industry is bracing itself for a fishing future dependent upon ocean temperatures. Thus, for those visiting Alaska, why not take an opportunity to simply observe commercial fishing by those actually busting their Xtra Tuf boots to support their families?
I’m not talking arranged tours, necessarily, althought those are available at several Alaska ports of call. Rather, the list below represents a low-key approach. Wander docks, talk to people, smell the salty air, and hear the deep rumble of a diesel engine. You might be surprised at how much your kids appreciate their next serving of salmon or halibut n’ chips.
Before you visit any of these fishing communities, take a look at the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute’s comprehensive website. ASMI is dedicated to the industry’s preservation through education of both consumers and vendors, and the available recipes (especially those just for kids), are worth a visit.
Then, visit these Alaska communities for a unique view into the different fisheries and lifestyles. This is, of course, a partial list, since there are many towns where tourists may learn more about fishing.
WHITTIER is an ice-free, deepwater port built during WWII to provide access to Alaska’s military installations should an invasion prevent other means of delivering equipment and supplies. Whittier was slapped together for function, not looks, and even today the town is a jumble of metal, concrete, and dirt. Even getting there is odd; visitors and residents must travel through the Anton Anderson tunnel, sharing time with the Alaska Railroad, as Whittier is located on the backside of Portage Pass and a rocky, steep mountain formation. But Whittier is home to beautiful fish and beautiful landscape, and the town’s funkiness is just part of the Alaska experience. Cruise ship passengers can disembark and walk the docks, mingling with fishing families clad in rubber overalls, boots, and caps pulled down over the eyes to protect from driving rain and wind. Fish are hauled from holds within view of observers, and everyone, from youngsters to older folk, know about the value of a catch. If you plan on staying for any length of time in Whittier, bring appropriate rain gear; this is one of the wettest places in Southcentral Alaska. Find more information about Whittier’s history and activities HERE.
VALDEZ is another Prince William Sound community, south of Whittier and located in a deepwater inlet that reaches 11 miles from the sound. Bountiful marine life resides here, including salmon, halibut, whales, sea otters, orca, and thousands of birds, which is why the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989 was so tragic. But the community is bouncing back, and fishing is still an industry of choice for many families. Visitors to Valdez can take a day cruise aboard a Stan Stephens Glacier and Wildlife Cruises vessel and learn so much about Valdez, and the fishing industry. The Solomon Gulch hatchery is a wonderful place to explore and watch fish struggle up the ladder to spawn in the summer months, too, and bears often frequent the area (bonus). Try the Valdez visitor center for more family fun, too.
HOMER sits at the end of the Sterling Highway on the Kenai Peninsula, about five hours from Anchorage. Spread out more than most fishing towns, a long, narrow spit of sand provides access to Kachemak Bay and the Gulf of Alaska, where salmon, halibut, cod, and snapper can be hauled aboard. We like Homer’s family-friendly approach to fishing, and organizations like the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies and Islands and Ocean Visitor Center in town do a great job educating visitors to the commercial fishing industry, and its web to the world. The Homer Spit is a lovely place to walk the beach at low tide, and observe boats coming and going, with otters bobbing along in the waves and gulls chattering overhead as the sail in or out of the harbor. The Homer Chamber has more information about the Kenai Peninsula’s valuable fishing industry, and links to the above organizations, HERE.
KODIAK is as connected to fishing as anywhere in Alaska, located across the Gulf of Alaska from Homer. A wild island with even wilder weather, Kodiak’s commercial fishermen are tough, and they need to be. Fishing from the Gulf is a tiring, dangerous job that can reap big rewards if successful, and everyone in this town knows it. The docks are full of colorful boats (and sometimes colorful language), but kids and adults not acquainted with fishing will learn a ton simply by asking questions. Take time to swing by the Kodiak U.S. Fish and Wildlife Visitor Center, too, where staff are well-versed in the industry and offer programs for kids on a regular basis. If you’re in town over the Memorial Weekend holidays, attend Kodiak’s Crab Festival for a let-loose opportunity by residents whose lives are woven with the fish they harvest. It’s a blast.
PETERSBURG is a small town situated near Frederick Sound in the Southeast section of Alaska. Lush evergreen forests push right up to the water’s edge, and glaciers glimmer a bluish color in the rare sunlight. A town with deep Norwegian roots, Petersburg is a charming place to visit with kids interested in fishing due to a deep commitment by residents to preserve the culture. Homes are painted in traditional Norwegian colors, a statue and ship mark the downtown park, and boats are used for everything, from carrying groceries home to providing the family income. We love the small boat harbor in Petersburg; often, sea lions cruise around looking for dropped fish or unwary dock fishermen (kids and adults). Lots of marine life clings to the pilings, and the Alaska Marine Highway stops here on a regular basis. It’s quiet without being boring, but busy when boats arrive with harvests. The vibe is personal and friendly, and we always enjoy a visit here. If you have time, walk up to the local museum for a look at Petersburg’s early days and learn how the fishing industry shaped the community, then and now.
I’ll leave you with this photo of three children (and AK Kid) greeting their father as he pilots back to Whittier. That’s the future of Alaska’s fishing industry, right there, built through a lifetime of awareness and close contact. Stewardship begins with knowledge, and a vacation can be a great place to start.