“Pull up! Pull up! Now reel in as you point the rod down… Reel like crazy! Now pull up! If it runs let it run…” In many cases – on the banks of a Scottish Loch, say - there’s a Zen-like calm to fishing. Cast, reel, repeat… Cast, reel, repeat… In such circumstances, actually catching a fish feels disruptive. Standing on a tiny boat bobbing on Sitka Sound, attempting to outwit salmon and control your seasickness, however, is a very different prospect. This is the real deal. You’re not in Alaska for the Zen-like calm, you’re here for the sport: this is, quite literally, Man Vs Food.
The fishing advice above from both our captain Travis and his colleague Ariel helped me land a Ling Cod after what felt like an hour of arm-straining battle but was actually five minutes. As the beast was hauled on board, Travis said “I think he’s too big…” And, indeed, he was: I’d landed a 38inch fish, two inches above the allowance for non-residents. After a quick photo, the cod was released and I got a pleasing alternative to the classic fisherman’s tale: the one that got away… voluntarily.
As it happens, there is a lot about Alaska that does calm the soul, not least the view. Think Scotland crossed with The Lake District, multiplied by a thousand, with endlessly shifting vistas of ocean, mountains, pine trees, sunshine, mist and rain (and often all of the above simultaneously). Simply put, Alaska may be the most beautiful place on the planet. That strict enforcement of fishing rules also leaves you with a feeling of wellbeing. Walk around Tokyo’s Tsukeji fish market, an area the size of seven, eight football pitches, with every inch covered in seafood and it’s hard to shake the impression that we’re plundering the oceans. Take a trip to Alaska though and you’ll be relieved that there is at least one place that’s got it right. Simply put, Alaska has the most sustainable fishing industry in the world – and has done since before “ecology” became a buzzword.
Indeed, the Alaska State Constitution, dated 1959, declares that “fish… and all other replenishable resources belonging to the State shall be utilized, developed and maintained on the sustained yield principle”. It’s not rocket science – don’t overfish and there will always be more to catch in the future – yet few countries seem to grasp this. With over 50 years of experience, Alaska’s statistical analysis and understanding of fish stocks is second to none. Every year they declare the “Acceptable Biological Catch” (ABC), the maximum (and very, very small) percentage of the entire biomass within the Bering Sea that can be sustainably harvested. The “Total Allowable Catch” is then a smaller percentage of the ABC figure. Remarkably, as strict as these regulations are, the Alaskan fishing industry still caught 5.5bn pounds of seafood in 2012, which equates to 56% of seafood production for the entire US. It’s also virtually self-policing: after all, this is a region where local fishermen voluntarily paid a tax to fund non-profit hatcheries to potentially increase fish stocks, even though they wouldn’t see an obvious return for 12-15 years.
It’s also a region where boat captains politely enforce the laws even when it comes to visiting journalists. Happily, other fish – several salmon, a few rockfish – weren’t quite so fortunate as that Ling Cod but none were wasted. Ariel and Travis expertly gutted them – disappointingly, my lack of sea legs meant I couldn’t face the traditional ritual of eating the still beating heart of your first salmon – and the fish formed the basis of many excellent meals at Talon Lodge, our residence for this all too brief few days as guests of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. ASMI works with the State, its fisherman and food processors to increase awareness – and consumption – of Alaska’s wild, natural and sustainable seafood. On this impressive evidence, they might just have the easiest job – and the best “office” – in the world.