In Southeastern Alaska, the first commercial fishermen to encounter salmon are members of the troll fleet.Trollers are small fishing vessels operated by one or two people who fish with a number of lines with baited hooks or artificial lures. Of all the commercial salmon fishing methods, trolling may be the least efficient from the standpoint of intercepting fish. Trollers must search for fish in the open ocean; net fishermen by contrast, wait in areas where salmon are known to school in the migratory route. Trollers are allowed to fish beyond the inshore limits set for net fishermen, and generally have more days of fishing time.
Troll-caught fish are usually “ocean caught” or “brights”, that is, they are caught before maturity when they move inshore. They are attractive fish, somewhat smaller, perhaps, than those caught by the net fisheries, but in full vigor of their ocean period. Only coho, king and pink salmon are taken in any number by the troll fleet and all three species, when delivered by a competent fisher, command a premium price. The volume of troll-caught fish is much smaller than that for net-caught fish. Troll-caught salmon generally make up less than 10 percent of the total Alaska catch of all species of salmon. What they lack in quantity, troll-caught salmon make up in quality.
No fish is treated with more care from the time it leaves the water until it is delivered to the retailer’s door. A sharp rap on the head quiets the fish before the hook is removed; a thrashing fish could bruise itself or dislodge scales. The fish is then gilled and gutted, and usually bled. Ice is carefully packed in the body and head cavity, and the fish is laid on a layer of ice in such a way that the body cavities can drain freely.
The surrounding ice is arranged so that no fish comes in contact with another fish, and so that all liquids drain away from the fish and into the vessel’s bilge, from there it is pumped overboard. If the vessel has freezing capability, the fish is blast-frozen much the way it is ashore, dipped in fresh water to form an ice glaze, and placed carefully in the hold. Almost all troll-caught fish go into the fresh, frozen or smoked market. The small number of fish represented in the troll catch, combined with their uniform attractiveness, make them the most valuable, pound for pound, of Alaska salmon.
The greatest number of Alaska salmon are caught in gillnets of one type or another. Most gillnetting is done from boats (“driftnetting”), but a number of gillnetters operate from shore (“setnetting”).
Either type of gillnetting involves laying a net wall in the water in the path of the fish and waiting for the fish to put its head into the mesh. When it does, the gills become entangled in the webbing, and prevent the fish from escaping. Most gillnet vessels are small one-and two- person boats. State law dictates that gillnetters in Bristol Bay may be no longer than 32 feet. Most gillnetters outside of Bristol Bay are in the 32-to 42-foot range. A gillnetter uses a net from 900 to 1800 feet long, a choice made by the state of Alaska for fisheries management reasons.
Some gillnetters are equipped to carry their fish in ice, or even in refrigerated holds. In areas like Bristol Bay, where fishing can be extremely heavy, a gillnetter may be forced to deliver every few hours simply because the small vessel will not hold the quantity of fish caught in a day. In such cases, the boat’s hold is usually divided into several bins, and each bin is lined with a fabric “brailer bag” When the gillnetter comes alongside the tendering vessel, the brailer bags are gently lifted aboard, emptied and returned to the catcher vessel. The brailer bag system reduces handling of the fish, and has contributed significantly to improving the quality of the catch.
Large numbers of salmon are caught with seines in Southeastern Alaska, Central Alaska and Western Alaska up to the tip of the Alaska Peninsula. No purse seining is allowed west of the Alaska Peninsula on the north side. Purse seiners are generally larger than gillnetters, but by Alaska law may be no longer than 58 feet. Seiners are larger than gillnetters, so that they can operate in the sometimes stormy fjords and channels found in some parts of the state. A purse seine is a net which is set in a circle and can be drawn closed at the bottom.
Because salmon migrate in tight schools, it is not unusual for an Alaskan seiner to catch 250 to 1,500 fish or more with one set. In addition, the salmon’s tendency to swim and jump on the surface reveals the school’s location as it moves through the water. When not actually engaged in setting or retrieving the net, every person on a purse seiner is watching the water for a sign of fish.