Photo: The scurge of commercial crab pots
I woke early before sunrise as usual, something that always happens whenever we are sitting on anchor overnight. This time I could distinctly hear the sound of a boat engine echoing through the hull, normally this would not be unusual but in this region the anchorages are so numerous and remote that rarely do we find any other vessel anywhere near close by. Occasionally we might be joined by a fishing boat looking for shelter or sometimes we may even head for an anchorage we know is used by fishermen so that we can barter some cans of beer for fresh fish, but not here, not here in Dundas Bay.
The vast area of Dundas Bay, like Idaho Inlet and Salt Lake Bay is difficult to enter because of fast flowing currents and notoriously difficult navigation. That's why no one ever comes here. It's an incredibly remote wilderness bordered by the highest mountains in southeast Alaska, towering snow-capped monoliths that create stunningly flat-calm anchorages which can be safely used without seeing anyone or any other vessel for many days on end. We can fish for halibut and easily track down grizzly bears to video film ashore, we listen to wolves howling through the night and during the long days countless bald eagles screech and constantly squabble between themselves. Here the humpback whales are so numerous the three of us rarely mention them when they spout and dive all around us. That's why we stopped to anchor in Dundas Bay for one last time once we'd taken the reluctant decision to finally leave Hoonah.
So hearing the sound of a boat engine now made me wake and get up immediately. Rarely am I up through the night in Alaskan anchorages checking if everything is ok, I always look to a good nights sleep in good calm conditions, then waking in the early morning dawn to put on my coffee pot and to make Marie's English Breakfast tea... at least three cups of hot tea before Marie even deems to acknowledge me. But right now I straightaway stuck my head out of the hatch to see what was going on sensing full well my horrible suspicions. Sure enough, I was instantly appalled - the exact same thing had happened again.
Crab pots... hundreds of them all around us. Across the Inlet a large commercial crabbing boat was sowing row upon row of crab pots, the pot marker buoys floating in perfect lines once they'd been released over their stern in quick succession by a double manned mechanical conveyor. I watched them in the greyness of the dawn, with the thick early morning mist drifting slowly in the absolute stillness of the cold air. It had happened before, over and over again in the last couple of months or so, in Neka Bay, Excursion Inlet, Freshwater Bay, Whitestone Harbour and in all the secluded anchorages throughout Chichagof Island’s incredibly scenic Frederick Sound. Fishermen we'd spoken to both in Hoonah and in Pelican had said the same thing, it was occurring in every secluded bay and cove within a fifty mile radius of Hoonah. The local fishermen were up in arms and taking matters into their own hands because the shear numbers of crab pots was causing them problems too - and no one messes with Alaskan tough-breed fishermen, they generally don't bother too much with trivial formalities or registering their complaints through proper channels, we'd before watched open bar fights when it came to arguments over the whereabouts and the shear numbers of large commercial crab pots... it's an emotive subject. The problems come when trying to manoeuvre a boat between these close lines of marker buoys, not only can you not see them when entering somewhere in rapidly fading light, their buoy lines foul propellors, catch fast around keels and jam rudders, generally requiring someone to go into the water to cut the fouled line free... and that's no mean feat in these cold Alaskan waters believe you me.
Our own immediate problem right now would be manoeuvring to raise our anchor. Before attempting this we'd no doubt drift and turn as the tide changed and with the nearest half a dozen or so pots sown only a few feet from us this would cause a serious problem. The crab boat still not too far away had taken no consideration of us and was probably acting in the usual hostile manner to deliberately drive us away. They had no ownership or sole right of access, it was just an outwardly intimidating act to gain supremacy... King and Dungeness crabs are numerous around here, something which had been the subject of much talk in the Tlingit frequented Office Bar and also amongst the fishermen we knew well in Hoonah. And Ken from Island Rover
and other sailboat skippers we talked to had come across the same fast growing problem everywhere they dropped anchor too.
Of course, the problem is solely down to visiting cruise ships. The brand new cruise ship dock located at Icy Point outside of Hoonah has recently been completed to serve the Disney style cannery museum and the fast growing bear-search safari tours into the interior of Chichagof Island. The museum itself has been renovated to serve only the cruise ships docking there. It's not real, it's not even closely authentic and nothing like the real Alaska it's trying to portray. It's a typical American falsehood that serves exactly what cruise ship tourism expects to be served... craft shops, fast food outlets and re-enacted ethnic dancing that supposedly represents the way Americans and Chinese think the real Alaska is. Each ship brings in up to five thousand tourists in one go, no longer do the ships have to ferry their passengers ashore, now they can simply walk ashore and make their way around this small remote community of only eight hundred and eighty people.
The largest and most successful of the eating establishments inside the Icy Point Salmon Cannery Museum is the new Crab Shack franchise operation, it's hugely popular and accessible only from the cruise ship. The Icy Point Huna Corporation also has the contract to resupply all of the cruise ships that dock there, to restock all the onboard restaurants with the Alaskan favourite that tourists simply love to consume - fresh King and Dungeness Crab. So the Huna Corporation and Cruise Ship Partnership Consortium that run Cannery Point have awarded lucrative supply contracts to big commercial out-of-town crab supply operators operating out of Seattle and Juneau, nothing at all to the local crab fishermen who've traditionally fished for crab for many generations out of Hoonah, Elfin Cove and Pelican. Knowledgeable local Tlingit and redneck Alaskans who know a thing or two say the entire crab population hereabouts will be wiped out within five years, it's already happened in Ketchikan and Juneau, in Skagway and in the northern Alaskan ports of Anchorage and Seward.
Right now in the glorious stillness of early morning dawn we ourselves had an intensely irritating problem. Not the ongoing issue of predatory capitalism that I constantly bore folk with until they yawn their heads off before invariably changing the subject, but one of what we now had to do to extract ourselves from this minefield of potential danger. First I called the skipper of the crab boat now positioned off our bows on our VHF radio. I'd like to tell you I invited them over for early morning coffee and tea, that they refused because they needed to be back home with their wives and kids but that's not the conversation we had. It's best that I don't relate the conversation that ensued in the beautiful secluded anchorage of Dundas Bay, except to say it made little difference - 'Stupid Limey Bastards' don't belong around here apparently though I objected to being called a Limey... of course, it's always difficult when you come between a commercial skipper and his money.
After the sun finally poked its nose above the eastern ridge-line I stirred my crew with English tea and steamed hot coffee, Marie took one look around the anchorage and she knew straightaway we had a problem. Henry, still in his glorious younger years is easily corruptible, readily provoked and open to my own view of things that I accept aren't always rational. He ranted his angry opinions and I smiled to myself somewhat contentedly. We raised our anchor relatively easily because our considerable experience told us how, but it took a good few hours to extract ourselves between the floating marker buoys with the precariously changing tides that often swept us out of control. We left Dundas Bay out into the infamous Inian Pass to then make our way to Elfin Cove.
For lunch we ate gloriously delicious still fresh dressed crab - courtesy of Yankee Maid
. We ate King Crab sandwiches together with on the edge cucumber, three types of fading green leaves and bitter coriander coated limes...
Footnote: Of course, everyone has the right to travel in any way they choose... and this includes cruise ship tourists who've paid the price of their ticket to see Alaska in the cruise ship style they crave - but they do not and never experience the real Alaska. Commercial America is exceptionally slick in its ability to recreate Disney style dreams and that is what the cruise ships deliver. Furthermore we ourselves cannot demand these secluded anchorages purely for own sake and we make no claim to do so. But we do have the right to our opinions just like anyone else.
We see first hand the often appalling effects from the decline in fish catches that generations of fishermen have suffered - laid up boats, social dilapidation and paid off crews. There are few rich fishermen who really do risk their lives repeatedly throughout their working lives, there's little sign of the wealth you'd find in the world of investment banking for example. Over-fishing is a worldwide problem that is, in my opinion, probably unresolvable. In this instance relating to the Icy Point Salmon Cannery Museum you must consider there is no gain to the local community who are themselves in dire need of this type of contract driven income if they can get it, but they can't. They don't have the commercial awareness, the capacity, the infrastructure or the resources to supply twenty five thousand crabs per week from their own backyard to the cruise ship tourist industry on this scale.
Consider also that cruise line conglomerates put nothing much back into local communities. Captive passengers are fed their meals onboard in all-inclusive vacation packages or invariably tempted to part with their cash within the controlled commercial environments that passengers are introduced into, such as the Icy Point Salmon Cannery which is part owned by the cruise ship consortiums themselves in partnership with the Huna Development Corporation. These same arrangements exist in Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway and elsewhere where the cruise ships dock. Furthermore, ethnic businesses, restaurants and local crafts in these locations who endeavour to make a living from cruise ship tourists are required to pay the cruise ship lines fifteen percent of their sales takings or face being shut down. Many local businesses will readily show you the lawyer's letters they've collected over the years.
There is a counter-argument. The cruise ships will point out they have to pay a local landing tax for every passenger who heads ashore, this tax is paid to local community authorities and is cited as the benefit local communities receive... though many Alaskans will tell you a corresponding amount is deducted from community Authorities when they receive their State Aid. Of course, this landing tax is added to the price every passenger pays to buy their vacation ticket - the cruise lines rarely pay any amount of tax to anyone. The ship itself will be registered in a foreign tax exemption port such as Liberia, Nassau or the Cayman Isles under a system known as 'Flags of Convenience'... just take a look at the stern of any cruise ship and you'll see straightaway the strange looking name from where the ship has supposedly sailed, but in actual fact has never ever been there. Of course you already know the huge cruise line organisations themselves will divert their own lucrative revenues somewhere offshore in complex tax avoidance schemes that are completely legal. Tax revenues are therefore a moot and emotional point to argue.
Perhaps I can convince you that predatory capitalism benefits only those it's meant to benefit in this new world of globalisation. Certainly not King and Dungeness crabs... perhaps in that strange world where Disney gives them a voice and an ability to talk rationally, they'd have a few things to say about the Icy Point Salmon Cannery Museum.
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