The following appears in the October issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
BY BRYCE DOLE
PHOTOS BY DENISE SILFEE
A thick layer of fog blankets the glassy waters of Orca Bay, where Steve Ranney’s vessel bobs gently in the early-morning wake.
It’s just past 5:30 a.m., our scheduled departure time, when I clamber aboard, nearly slipping off the moist ramp that leads down to the boat. Steve, his 22-year-old son Carl and a small group of seasoned fishermen welcome me along with the smell of brewing coffee mixed with the odor of yesterday’s haul. More fishermen arrive, so I step to the front of the boat, finding a seat in a small lawn chair to Steve’s left facing the stern.
I ask him exactly where we’re headed.
“No Tell ’Em Reef,” he responds with a grin. After decades trolling the waters near his home in Cordova, Steve has amassed a deep knowledge of the prime spots to angle vast bounties of halibut, lingcod and rockfish. As any captain would, he doesn’t wish for others to know the same.
Steve has graciously invited me and photojournalist Denise Silfee aboard to document a story that he described in an email months ago as “Unamerican at best and criminal at worst.”
ONCE A CONTROVERSIAL PRACTICE that many anglers called “playing with your food,” catch and release is becoming a more accepted practice in small Alaskan fishing communities such as Cordova, which rely almost entirely on the fishing industry. Overfishing in the Lower 48 has played a major role.
But when I ask Steve who aboard will be doing catch and release today, he and the others chuckle. “You’re not here to give up your catch, are you?” Steve says to Sean and Ron Newton, a father and son clad in matching red rain jackets.
Only one fisherman replies in the affirmative: Thomas Danenhower.
An endearing angler with decades of experience (the kind of salt-of-the-earth guy who includes your first name in every sentence he says to you), Danenhower worked in the commercial rockfishing industry for years off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, near the Channel Islands. But as rockfish were harvested more voraciously in the area, populations began to dwindle before his very eyes. Many of his coworkers lost their jobs.
Then, in 2002, federal officials banned commercial fishing for rockfish throughout California due to overfishing. Communities reliant on fisheries across that state were decimated as thousands of residents lost their jobs. Scientists predicted most species of California rockfish would take over a century to recover.
But nearly two decades later, rockfish have made a remarkable comeback. Catch limits on some species have now boosted over 100 percent. Officials say the regulations should bring back over 900 jobs in commercial fisheries and generate over $54 million in annual revenue across West Coast states.
AS WE SET OUT to deeper waters, I spend the first hour bragging to Danenhower, Carl and the rest of the passengers about my past experiences on commercial tuna fishing vessels off the coast of Oregon. I spend the following two hours with my head in my hands, spiraling into a dizzying seasickness on the choppy waters, which, on this warm summer morning, are relatively mild.
After swallowing three pieces of ginger and my pride, we reach our destination. Lines are immediately cast out into the dark depths of the sea.
Within minutes, a rod dips toward the water. Fish on. It’s a yelloweye rockfish, its scales glimmering with every shade of the sunset. Another one hits moments later. And then another. Some are kept, but many others are tossed back. The rapid-fire action continues for about an hour.
Things settle down. “When it gets quieter, that’s when you know the halibut are around,” Danenhower says.
Another rod dips. Fish on. This time it’s bigger than the rest. As the fish nears the boat, it suddenly bolts back down toward the sea floor – a sure sign that it’s a halibut. Eventually, the thrashing flounder is wrestled aboard. About a half-hour later, two more hit back to back, and the lines nearly become tangled. It’s a rush – almost chaotic. But Steve and the crew are calm and composed. All are keepers.
Then Danenhower hooks a big one. He struggles hard for what feels like an hour, but is only a few minutes. The fish nears the surface. A long, serpentine figure comes slowly into focus. It’s a massive lingcod. At just over 4 feet long, its dark scales of black, brown and purple make it nearly invisible in the calm, black water. With a gaping, oval-shaped mouth and 18 fanglike teeth, it couldeasily swallow my head in a single gulp – a true leviathan of the Alaskan deep.
Carl steps to the back of the boat, grabs the massive ling, removes the hook from its mouth and tosses it back into the water. “What a rodeo,” Danenhower says. “That’s why you come to Alaska.”
ON THIS DAY, DANENHOWER lets all his bigger fish go. He calls the larger Pacific halibut “treasures of the sea,” because, when over 60 pounds, they are almost always females. Those that reach 250 pounds can produce up to four million eggs and are essential for the balance of the Alaskan ecosystem. Danenhower dreams of a day when Steve’s Orca Adventure Lodge does only catch-and-release trips.
“The idea is to take some of these places that haven’t been impacted as much and keep them more pristine,” Steve, a catch-and-release advocate, says. For over 30 years he and the Orca Adventure Lodge have maintained fishing encampments that are among the best in the region, and it’s because they have remained solely catch and release.
“There are plenty of places around the state that have been overfished,” Steve says. “You take major ports like Sitka, Seward, Palmer – they’ve fished out all the major areas, even with pretty strict regulations.”
While Orca Bay has not shown direct signs of overfishing, Steve has watched as members of the local fishing community have started to adopt catch-and-release practices to ensure the sustainability of the fisheries.
“Coming up with more methods to release the bigger fish safely makes catch and release more of a choice rather than a regulation,” says Steve.
THESE DAYS, MORE GROUPS come to Orca Lodge for catch-and-release trips than ever before. But it wasn’t always like this and many remain hesitant to accept the practice. Studies have shown that fish taken completely out of the water for periods of up to 30 or 60 seconds undergo extreme stress and pain – much like a person running as fast as they can for a half-hour and then being submerged underwater for a minute.
Others are concerned for the mortality rate of releasing fish with a swim bladder – an organ used to control buoyancy. When brought to the surface, a fish’s swim bladder inflates dramatically due to the change in pressure, which can lead to barotrauma.
In barotrauma, the eyes of a fish bulge out of its socket and the stomach out of its mouth. Rockfish that suffer from barotrauma are also much more susceptible to predation, which often proves fatal. Almost all the rockfish caught on Steve’s boat displayed signs of barotrauma.
Brittany Blain, an Anchorage-based assistant area manager with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, has been studying catch-and-release practices for years. During her master’s program, Blain conducted a study on the mortality and reproductive rate of releasing rockfish with deep-water release mechanisms. Her results were surprising.
By placing a weighted hook through the lower soft jaw of a rockfish and allowing the fish to fall to the depth where it was hooked, Blain found that over 65 percent of rockfish would survive through barotrauma as opposed to the 22 percent released at the surface.
The surviving fish also proved to be highly reproductive for up to two years after being caught. One healthy fish tagged in the study was even recaught over eight years later.
“We had no idea that these tools could be so successful,” Blain said.
Because of studies like Blain’s, all Alaskan sportfishing boats must have a deep-water release mechanism on board starting in 2020. All rockfish released must be dropped either to the depth they were caught or to over 100 feet.
Blain, an ex-Cordova resident who spent years on sport and commercial fishing vessels in the Prince William Sound, has also seen the attitudes of locals change toward catch and release.
“Some people sport fish for fun while others are just looking to put fish in the freezer,” she said. “In a place like Cordova, more people want to just put it in the freezer. But they’re still mindful people. They’ve enjoyed these fish for so long and they just want to keep it that way.” ASJ