One Way to Catch Salmon In Alaska: Onboard the Purse Seine Owyhee

Salmon Season in Alaska

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If you want to catch a lot of salmon in one go, this is the way to do it. While in Alaska two weeks ago, I watched skipper Scott McAllister and his crew onboard the Owyhee pull in 20,000 lbs of chum salmon, all in under an hour. That is a pretty phenomenal set, I'm told, and it was also spectacular to watch. Here's how it happened:

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There are three different kinds of commercial fishing boats in Alaska: 1) Trollers, which use lines and baited hooks to bring in fish, 2) Gilnetters, which set big curtain-like nets in the water to entangle fish, and 3) Purse seiners, like the Owyhee, which catch salmon near the surface of the water by letting out a large net drawn in a circle, and closed at the bottom (like a purse!). This strategy allows seiners to catch huge numbers of salmon at one time.

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A look at purse seining.

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When we pulled up to the Owyhee and got onboard, the crew was preparing to launch another set.

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The process starts when the captain maneuvers the boat into an area where he thinks there are a lot of fish. (He can often tell because salmon have a tendency to swim and jump on the surface of the water, which makes the water look like it's effervescent!)

Once the captain has the boat in position, he signals to his crew member onboard a little skiff. This skiff has the net attached to it, and this signal means the skiff can take off and pull the net away from the boat. The guy running the skiff has a huge job — it's his responsibility to set the net in a wide, circular position precisely where the captain wants it.

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You can see the skiff way out there on the water, setting the net.

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Once the net is set, the captain and his crew wait for 20-30 minutes to let the salmon swim into the net. When the time is right, the crew then close the bottom of the net — like a draw-string purse — and start to reel it in.

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Reeling in the net, and it's getting closer and closer!

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Owyhee captain Scott McAllister, waiting for the net to come in.

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Also part of the preparation: opening the door to the below-deck holding tank, where much of the fish is stored. You can see the water in the holding tank is a little bloody: purse seining, while it is very effective at catching a large amount of fish at one time, also has higher casualties. Fish can get bruised, torn, or decapitated, so the overall quality of the fish tends to be lower than if you were trolling, for example, with a line or hook.

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The net's coming up!

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Holy moly fish!

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No, seriously. This is a lot of fish. A lot of fish. 

It's actually about 20,000 lbs of chum and pink salmon, and I'm told that is an extremely good round, or set, of fishing onboard a seiner.

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This is too much for the boat to store for too long, so they're off to find a tender, which will weigh and transport their catch to shore.

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A pleased-as-punch crew pose for the camera. They can't rest for too long, though. Seiners try to do as many sets a day as they can, for as long as they can, which usually amounts to around 15 - 20 sets per day.

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Thanks, Scott, for letting me aboard!

(Information for this post was gathered during a press trip sponsored by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. All views and opinions expressed in this post are the personal views of the author.)

(Images: Cambria Bold; purse seiner illustration via Alaska Seafood)

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