Kugyasigciqukut parag’uutakun. - We are going to go fishing (seining) on the boat.
Visit any dock in the Kodiak Archipelago and you will find an array of fishing vessels. Skiffs, seiners, tenders, and crabbers are part of the rhythm of life in Kodiak and its Alutiiq communities.
Over the centuries, Alutiiq people have used many types of fishing boats. Before the arrival of Westerners, Alutiiq hunters pursued fish from sleek ocean-going qayat (kayaks). As Western vessels replaced Native boats, Alutiiqs learned to fish from wooden dories. From these boats, powered by rowing or by small sails, fishermen caught cod with hand lines tied to the gunnels. Other people fished for salmon with seine skiffs. Also propelled with oars, these boats were fourteen feet long and they could carry thousands of pounds of fish.
Canneries had steam powered launches, but in general motorized boats began to impact fishing practices in the late 1930s, as small outboards became available. In those days, a ten-horse kicker cost about $800! Power dories, owned mostly by canneries, helped fishermen tow nets and dories loaded with salmon, but they were often used for traveling. In the decade following World War II, more Alutiiq families began to acquire fishing boats. Boat building became a profitable winter activity. Craftsmen made skiffs, dories, and even purse seiners from local spruce.
Photo: The Nirvana, a salmon seiner from Uganik Bay, at work in the waters off Kodiak Island. Chadwick Collection.
Una sagiq ang’uq. - This halibut is big.
The continental shelf waters surrounding Kodiak contain large concentrations of marine fish. Halibut, cod, pollock, and other species breed and winter in these productive, deep waters. As winter storms dissipate and the weather warms, bottom fish move into shallower coastal waters to feed. Here halibut (Hippoglossus stenolepis) can reach impressive sizes, some topping four hundred pounds.
For Alutiiqs, halibut and other marine fish represent a predictable and delicious source of fresh spring food. Harvesting begins in April and continues through the summer months. In the past, fishermen in skin-covered kayaks used hand-held wood and bone fishing rigs baited with clams to lure bottom fish. Once hooked, the thrashing fish was pulled to the surface and clubbed with a wooden billy shaped like a small baseball bat.
Today people catch halibut on hand-held jigs, fishing poles, and with commercial gear. However it is caught, halibut remains a favored subsistence food. It is eaten fresh, and like salmon may be dried in strips for storage. Children in Old Harbor love dried halibut as a snack.
Photo: Sven Haakanson with a halibut.
Iqalluarpat amlertut kiagpak. - Herring are plentiful this summer.
Pacific herring (Clupea pallasi) are small marine fish that inhabit the near shore and continental shelf waters of the Gulf of Alaska. They spawn in at least thirty-five bays around Kodiak, with concentrations in Marmot Bay, Chiniak Bay, Sitkalidak Strait, and the fjords of western Kodiak. Each spring, herring mass in shallow waters to spawn. They prefer protected rocky coasts with dense bottom vegetation, where their sticky roe clings to eelgrass, rockweed, kelp, and even boulders. There are some traditionally used spawning sites, but spawning locales vary from year to year in many regions. Wherever they spawn, herring are highly visible. Their milt turns coastal waters milky and attracts the birds and sea mammals that feed on their roe.
Although adult herring are a potential source of food, modern Alutiiq people primarily harvest herring roe. Subsistence fishing begins in May, during peak spawning, and tapers off by July as the fish move offshore to feed. Alutiiq families collect the spawn stuck to seaweed, which they boil for just a moment. Elders flavor this dish with seal oil.
Herring remains are notably rare in Alutiiq archaeological sites. This does not mean that prehistoric people ignored this plentiful resource. Archaeological sites full of stone net sinkers occur in many coastal sites well situated for herring fishing. Perhaps Alutiiqs harvested herring or herring roe with these nets. The soft roe would not leave any traces for archaeologists to find.
Photo: Herring drying in Old Harbor. Photo by Fred and Mary Bailey. Andrewvitch Collection.
Aq’alartut iluani. - There are jumpers inside (the seine).
Jumping salmon are a conspicuous sign of summer around Kodiak. Scan the surface of the ocean in June and you will see pink salmon hurling themselves out of the water as they head for their spawning grounds. Jumping is an adaptation that helps salmon clear obstacles as they move upstream. As fish near freshwater they begin to leap. In Alutiiq, the word for jumper, aq’alartuq, literally means “it fell into the water.”
Different species of salmon have different jumping skills and patterns. While all Pacific salmon jump, even large kings, silvers are the most avid jumpers, often clearing the water completely. Pink salmon are also strong jumpers, although they tend to flop to one side as they land. Chum salmon are the poorest jumpers. Obstacles that will not impede other salmon can stop chum from migrating upstream.
Jumpers help Kodiak fishermen locate schools of salmon. Boat captains will drive slowly, scanning for acrobatic fish before making a set, and anglers will cast out in front of a jumper, tossing their line in the direction the fish is moving. Sometimes, jumpers will tell you when fish are present when you least expect it. Villagers know that kings will jump in winter as they feed in ocean waters near shore.
Photo: Jumping salmon. Courtesy Sven Haakanson, Jr.
Iraluruat tang’rniitaartut! - Jellyfish don’t look very good!
Jellyfish are plentiful in Alaska waters. These ancient marine creatures are not actually fish but invertebrates related to corals and sea anemones. Jellyfish have no brains, no heart, no eyes, and no ears, yet they are effective predators. To capture food, they use tentacles armed with poisonous, stinging cells. When their tentacles touch prey, thousands of tiny stinging cells fire, delivering a potent nerve toxin.
Some jellyfish are more poisonous than others. Around Kodiak, the lion’s mane jellyfish (Cyanea capillata), a large, bright-red species, delivers an intense sting that is much more painful than the sting of moon jellyfish (Aurelia aurita), a small clear variety.
Jellyfish have long been a problem for Kodiak fishermen, particularly for beach seiners and those who work unloading purse seines on the decks of fishing boats. Fishermen report releasing entire nets full of fish when large quantities of jellyfish are hauled in with the catch, because they are so painful with which to work.
It is important to take care of a jellyfish sting immediately to minimize its impact. Alutiiqs wash the area and then apply a soothing agent. Some people use canned milk, particularly if the sting affects an eye. Others may employ vinegar or cool urine. Even with careful treatment, stings often produce red welts and may leave a scar.
Image: Jelly Fish, acrylic and oil paint on birch wood, by Lena Amason. Purchased for the Alutiiq Museum collections with support from the Rasmuson Foundation.
Aamasuut cuklliuluteng taitaartut ugnerkami. - King salmon are the first to come in the spring.
King salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha), also known as chinook, are one of five varieties of Pacific salmon that spawn in the Kodiak region. They are the first salmon to arrive in the archipelago each year, heralding the beginning of the salmon fishing season. Kings may be present in ocean waters by mid-March, but don’t usually enter streams until mid-June. According to Alutiiq lore, the first fish captured each year had to be eaten completely, with the exception of its gills and gallbladder. This showed reverence for the animal and ensured an abundant future supply of fish.
The largest of the Pacific salmon, kings require streams with a lake at their headwaters for spawning. Although they have been introduced to some streams, they are only indigenous to the Karluk and Ayakulik rivers, both on southwestern Kodiak Island. Fish headed for these streams migrate through Shelikof Strait, with a peak returns in late June. Given their very limited distribution, kings are the least abundant of Kodiak’s salmon. Only about 13,500 of these fish return to the archipelago’s streams each year.
The large size of king salmon and their rich, oily meat make them a highly coveted wild food. However, this delicious fish was thought to interfere with the effectiveness of some plant medicines, so an Alutiiq healer might advise her patient not to eat king salmon while being treated with herbal remedies.
Photo: Sven Haakanson, Sr. with a king salmon. Rostad Collection.
Nanwaq cikumauq. - The lake is iced up.
Although no place in the Kodiak Archipelago is more than eighteen miles from the ocean, lakes and rivers are important topographic features for both people and animals. In addition to drinking water, fresh watercourses provide access to char, trout, salmon, and waterfowl and an avenue into the interior.
Although ponds are common, there are few lakes in the archipelago and most are fairly small. Karluk Lake, the largest, covers only 14.7 square miles. These topographic characteristics reflect Kodiak’s glacial history. Most streams descend directly out of steep, glacially carved mountains into adjacent bays. Lakes and larger streams tend to occur in a few valleys not completely covered in ice during the last glacial epoch.
Elder Larry Matfay remembered ice fishing for steelhead on a frozen lake. Covered with a blanket, he would watch for fish through a small hole in the ice. The blanket blocked the sunlight, allowed him to see the fish, and kept the fish from spooking. As the fish began to swim by, he would use a leister—a multipronged spear—to capture it. Small fish lures carved from ivory and found in archaeological sites suggest that this practice may be quite ancient, perhaps more than two thousand years old.
Photo: Early morning at Olga Lake, 2005.
Kugyasiq aturtaaqa. - I use the net.
Alutiiqs captured salmon with a variety of tools. Streams were dammed with logs or stone weirs and the fish trapped behind them speared with special fish harpoons. Larger quantities of salmon, and perhaps herring and Dolly Varden, were captured with nets woven from nettle fiber and porpoise sinew. Each net was equipped with bark floats and stone sinkers-prehistoric versions of the cork and lead lines found on modern seines. Floats kept the top edge of the net on the water’s surfaces and sinkers weighted the bottom edge and helped to keep the net open. Large stone anchors secured the net to the riverbed or ocean floor.
Archaeological data illustrate that Alutiiqs began using nets about 3,800 years ago. Sites from this time period contain collections of stone sinkers-small, flat beach pebbles notched at either end. Why did Alutiiqs begin using nets? Some archaeologists believe that Kodiak’s population was rising and that people need to capture greater quantities of fish to feed their communities.
Photo: Men beach seining in Afognak Bay, ca. 1961. Chadwick collection.