2016: Kodiak Seiner Heads South in Search of Anchovy

Huge Schools of Anchovy Found in Columbia Estuary (Copyright PMarsh)

The 58′ combo-seiner FV Anthem was launched in 2012 at Hansen Boat Company in Everett,Wash., and is based in Kodiak, where it follows a predictable Alaskan schedule: purse-seining for salmon in summer, trawling and pot-fishing in winter. But 2016 has not been a typical year, beginning with the forecast for salmon in Prince William Sound that wasn’t encouraging. The boat’s co-owners, Sam Mutch and Matt Hegge, started considering alternatives and consulted with their herring spotter Frank Foode.

His home is in Hoqiuam on the south Washington coast and he had heard of an interesting new possibility in that region–anchovy at the mouth of the Columbia River. Research on line and by phone confirmed that the northern anchovy had recently returned to the north-west coast in very large numbers, and was not attracting any attention. The partners decided it was worth sending one of their two seiners south, despite the uncertainty.

The northern anchovy (Engraulis mordax) is a short-lived pelagic filter feeder that consumes various types of plankton. It is typically found from British Columbia to Baja California and re-appeared in the NW at the same time the sardine fishery was closing, Marine scientists haven’t yet figured out this phenomenon, but the quota set by the Pacific Fishery Management Council was 10,000 tons–one per cent of the estimated bio-mass—and access was open.

The only item of gear they really needed was a fine-mesh seine net. The high cost and time-lag to order a new one would have ended the discussion right there, unless they could secure a good used net. There were a few available in California with an asking price around $50,000. But they found a decent 11/16”mesh net in Bellingham for a fair price and bought it sight unseen.

They called one of their skippers, Barry Schauff and he agreed to give the fishery a try. He has 30 years experience on the water including several years operating a whale-research boat, and has been running their older seiner, the FV Devotion, for ten years. This is another Hansen 58 footer with a beam of 23′ built in 1982. Since anchovy is a high volume fishery, they offered him the Anthem with its significantly larger capacity.

It only took a day for Barry to assemble his crew: Tony Pirak, his high-school buddy and experienced lead man and John Kappeloff, originally from Minnesota, who had run the Devotion’s skiff for ten years. Both men live in Kodiak, but cork man Lars Ursin, 28, is from the small village of Port Lyons on the north end of Kodiak Island. They had the boat shipshape and ready to leave in a day and a half, and set off south on June 22 for the 1240-mile voyage to Astoria, Oregon.

Approaching the Straits of Juna de Fuca at a steady 9.2 knots, Barry decided to save time by continuing down the Washington coast and having the net sent from Bellingham by truck. After 5 ½ days at sea, they safely crossed the infamous Columbia Bar for the first time at slack water and docked the Anthem at the Port of Astoria’s Pier 2, where the local trawler fleet lands their catch at Da Yang Seafoods. After checking in with the processor and Oregon Fish & Wildlife, they loaded the net, and were soon ready to head out into the estuary to see if the reports of plentiful fish were true.

The Anthem has a super-wide beam of 28 feet, giving it a large capacity of 240,000 lbs. (107 long tons). They left the dock with about 50,000 lbs of ice, leaving room for up to 190,000 lbs of anchovy. “We headed over to the old north channel on the Washington shore opposite Chinook,” the skipper recalled. “I soon saw them on the sonar, showing as a really big target. They are pretty skittish, but by the third set everything lined up nicely and we hauled in a full load.”

The crew’s daily routine was set by the need to be on the grounds at slack water, since the tide can run up to 7 knots at maximum spring ebb. That meant departing between 3 am and noon for a short commute downstream 3-4 miles until the river narrows, to get clear of the extensive sandbars. The work didn’t finish when they reached the dock, since the processor didn’t supply an unloading crew. That meant the crew had almost no time to get off the boat. If the holds were pumped dry by the early afternoon, they would make a second run and the unloading would go on until late at night.

In the first two weeks, they caught and delivered about 500 tons–but they also recognized they were seeing losses through the 1′ mesh panel in the middle of the net, and when they caught it on an underwater obstruction, they decided to cut the larger mesh out. The spent a day at the dock to spread the 1200′ x 150′ net along the dock–that was where I spotted them while making one of my regular visits to the port. The crew were happy to explain the basics of anchovy fishing, and Barry invited me to come out with them and see for myself. (That was an offer I couldn’t refuse.)

But first, they planned to move a mile upriver to the downtown waterfront and the old Ocean Beauty processing plant. It had been closed for a couple of years and was re-opening under a new owner, Sea A Inc. of Los Angeles, specially to handle their catch. I was on the dock before sunrise the next day; a few minutes later, we were passing under the big Highway 101 bridge. In the wheelhouse, Barry and I both sighted a single white light ahead. It was the first sport-fishing boat of the day showing nothing but a flashlight.

This was the first week of the Buoy 10 fishery—the annual ritual that brings thousands of Oregonians onto the water in all manner of craft. Fifteen minutes later a group of small boats crossed our bow at top speed, all racing to be first to start trolling on the north channel. By first light, we were also on the north side of the estuary and Barry was searching the surface with binoculars while keeping an on the sky for any birds gathering.

At 6 am, with a slack tide, the crew prepared for the first set, and Kappeloff slipped over the transom into the skiff. Unfortunately, there was no response when he pushed the starter button. After a quick search, he found the bilge pump float-switch was jammed against the floor and the pump had run the battery flat overnight. The other two crew scrambled into the engine room to pull a spare battery out of the gen-set circuit, and managed to pass it up the ladder and lug it around the net without delay. They lowered it over the stern and the skiff’s engine soon roared to life.

We were back in business and by now, the fog had lifted and the Washington shore was visible. Now we saw we were surrounded by a dozen sport-fishing boats. Barry commented that some of them would soon be calling Fish & Wildlife to demand to know who gave us permission to fish on their river? Putting that thought aside, he went back to the Furuno sonar, where a large red shape was filling the top half of the screen.

Anchovies feed on large zooplankton and often form into large swirling schools near the surface during the daylight hours. Barry made the call and the crew set the seine in about 40′ of water. From the movement on the surface, it looked like we were going to be in the fish at the first try. But before the crew could begin hauling, the middle of the cork line was pulled under by the weight of the school. Anchovy are extremely fast and can dart away at the first sign of danger; the net emptied before our eyes.

The second set also looked good, but only produced 10-15 tons that the Canadian Westek fish pump soon cleared. The crew assured me that they usually did better than that. It was now around 8 am; the sun began to break through the morning clouds and the sportsmen had all drifted upstream of the bridge. From the wheelhouse, we saw a couple of humpback whales, so there were definitely fish in the area.

The third set went smoothly and there was every sign of a good haul–until a lashing on the end of the lead line parted. There was no choice but to winch the net alongside, drop the leadline, and watch the whole school swim away. “That why we call it fishing not catching,” said Barry philosophically as he climbed back up to the wheelhouse.

Tony fetched his tools and replaced the lashing, then stitched the knot to make sure it held. The gulls seemed to be gathering in greater numbers and again the boat headed straight towards them. We had the fourth set laid out before 9 am, and again it looked promising. I reckoned we had worked through enough problems for one day, surely, the fourth try would do the trick?

This time the skiff’s John Deere roared to life, the corks stayed on the surface, and all the lines held. But now there was another issue to work out–too many fish! Even with its wide steel hull, the Anthem was heeling noticeably, and as the net closed it was clear that the catch was huge. Barry climbed down to the deck and started to pay out the corkline from the purse winch. The corks dipped and tons of anchovy escaped to live another day.

The gulls all ate their fill while the pump went over the side and into the net. The crew took up their places as a silver stream of fish filled the de-watering chute. The flood kept coming for the next 45 minutes, putting a smile on the crew’s faces. The two tanks were filled to the deckhead, while the by-catch amounted to nothing more than a couple of crabs and a few jelly fish. It had taken longer than expected, but now we had our full load and could head back to the dock.

There were over 40 men on-call to process the Anthem’s daily catch, freezing it for export to Asia and Europe. The anchovy were all about six inches long and weighed around 25 grams, which is just right for processing Barry showed me. “I’ve learned to think in grams not ounces, because that’s how the buyers weigh them,” he explained. “This size has the highest fat content.” He noted with some satisfaction that it was all destined for human consumption rather than bait.

I asked him if he had any favorite piece of gear and he confidentlyreplied: “A boat designed and built by Hansen. This is the first extra-wide boat Gary (Hansen) built and he put everything just where we wanted it. It all worked great from day one.” He reckons the added beam doesn’t burn much extra diesel, and that cost was easily met with a few big catches in Prince William Sound, and a typical day on the Columbia.

The Anthem is powered by a Caterpillar C 32 ACERT that puts out about 750 hp continuous, the two gen-set are John Deeres–the house unit is a 45kW, the 4025 puts out 165 kW and is actually the same 8 liter engine as the skiff. It has twin PTO’s on the front to run the hydraulic system. The RSW is by Cold Sea and is neatly installed on the starboard topside framing behind the big gen-set.

On clear days, if the fish are hard to find, Barry will call on his spotter Foode, who keeps his Piper Super Cub at the Astoria-Warrenton airport, which is also a Coast Guard air base. The second time I went out on the second run of the day and was able to see how quickly a good spotter can put the boat right on top of a big shoal. By mid-afternoon, the ebb was increasing from 2 to 3 knots, and the pane quickly directed us to a catch that again exceeded the boat’s capacity.

We weren’t too far away from the ship channel where a couple of cargo ships were approaching, so Barry ordered the 750 lb anchor dropped in a depth of only 30 feet, and the skiff began pulling with its 375 HP maximum power as a back-up. On the hottest day of the summer with the temperature into the 80’s, the crew picked up the pace, started pumping, and the anchor and skiff kept the boat clear of the channel.

Then it was a slow trip under the bridge and back to the dock with the ebb now up to 4 knots. The skipper took the Anthem well upstream, turned it around, and let the tide carry us back down to the pilings under the plant. He slipped the Cat into reverse to bring us to a stop, and used the bow thruster to pull the bow into the dock. It was 6 pm and the holds weren’t emptied until midnight. It was still unusually hot in the galley and forepeak and the crew busy keeping an eye on the hold and setting up fans on the foredeck and below to funnel some cool air down the hatch.

The next week, another snag stopped them in their tracks and ripped a large hole that allowed another big catch to escape. Barry radioed the processor to send the crew home. They went back to the port dock and laid out the net for another repair session on the hottest day of the year. They were back fishing the next day, hoping this was the last “day to remember” in the saga that was the Anthem’s first year of anchovy seining.

The only other boat involved in this “micro fishery” was the FV Pacific Venture working out of Ilwaco on the SW tip of Washington. They store their catch in a net pen in the Ilwaco harbor and sell to commercial and sports tuna fishermen. With the frenzy of sport men on the river, no one on the lower river seemed to be aware of the low-profile anchovy fishery, or the the amount of local business it was generating. the only time anchovy made the Astoria news was in 2014 when there was a big die-off in the beach town of Seaside, 18 miles south. The fish quickly began decomposing on the shores of the Necanicum River and attracted thousands of gulls. The stench kept the tourists away for several days!

PS Northern anchovy are an important forage fish for other fish, birds, and marine mammals and do not migrate far seasonally They appear to expand rapidly in numbers and area when feeding and spawning conditions are favorable, but collapse even more rapidly when ocean conditions change. Anchovy and sardines are the world’s single largest fisheries by landed tonnage.

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