Commercial fishing primer handsome, helpful

Posted: Thursday, May 13, 2004

Commercial fishing always has been a pillar of Alaska's economy and a way of life for many of its citizens. Sea Grant, a government program designed to foster fisheries, has published "Ocean Treasure: Commercial Fishing in Alaska" to inform the public about this vital industry.

The book is a real catch. It presents reams of meaty information in an accessible and attractive package of color photographs, easy-to-understand charts, technical drawings and explanatory sidebars.

"Our intent is to provide easy-to-digest, authoritative information about the history, fishing techniques, species harvested and management of this colorful, complicated, controversial and fascinating business," writes editor Kurt Byers in the preface.

The result is a portrait of Alaska's commercial fishing sector at the beginning of the 21st century, a perfect "Commercial Fishing 101" text.

That sector remains a huge component of the state's livelihood. It is the second-largest source of private employment, has endured for more than a century and relies on renewable resources. Its impacts reach far beyond the coastal communities.

"Alaska's nearshore and offshore waters produce about half the U.S. seafood harvest every year, with an average dockside value of $1.4 billion," the book tells us.

"Anchorage ... has the state's largest population of commercial fishermen, even though the city is not home to a resident fishing fleet and does not have facilities to receive direct delivery of fish from vessels. Fairbanks, located in the central interior of Alaska more than 350 miles from the nearest saltwater, counts scores of commercial fishermen among its residents."

Professionalism shines thr-ough this book. Terry Johnson, an experienced Marine Advisory agent now living in Homer, wrote most of the text. A team from Alaska Sea Grant, based out of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, assembled the book. The team included specialists in diverse aspects of fisheries such as aquaculture and marketing.

The result is succinct and comprehensive, touching on everything from abalone to zooplankton. It outlines the industrys history, boats and gear, aquaculture, hatcheries, the biology of targeted fish and invertebrates, processing, marketing, management and subsistence fisheries.

"Ocean Treasure" defines terms like "surimi" and "flupsy," tells how to pronounce "geoduck," explains how and why people collect sea urchins, shows the difference between trawlers and trollers, and illustrates how to distinguish among cod, blackcod and lingcod.

It does not shy away from controversies, discussing issues such as allocation, bycatch, fish farming, damage to the sea floor and marine mammal conflicts.

"Commercial fishing is an exciting yet troubled industry," Johnson writes. "About the only thing to be said for sure about its future is that it will continue to change."

Most of the book is straightforward and impersonal, informative rather than analytic or passionate. One notable exception is a section on the occupational dangers of fishing. It tells about Peggy Barry, the mother of a college student who drowned when the seiner he worked on sank off Kodiak. She lobbied Congress and helped form the 1988 Commercial Fishing Industry Vessel Safety Act.

Another unusual section discusses the gear Natives developed prior to European influence, with photographs of a basket trap, bone-barbed spears and a baleen lure. Rounding out the book are an extensive glossary, a bibliography, an index and a section explaining Sea Grant, its publications and the public information project that produced this book.

"Ocean Treasure" is the rare book that can engage a curious tourist with no background and yet teach a seasoned fisherman something new about other fisheries. It would be perfect for high-school or college students learning about Alaska.

Reference books don't get much better than this. "Ocean Treasure" is like a dinner of fine Alaska seafood. Just because it's nutritious doesn't mean it can't be delicious as well.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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