660 tons of herring: The Anderson family fishing story, from Summit County to Chignik, Alaska
March 26, 2017
It was 1988 at the end of spring and dawn of summer in Togiak, Alaska, as fishermen lined the docks, eagerly awaiting the start of herring season. With only a half-hour window to fish that day, the herring season was one of the shortest and most intense fisheries out there — no place for amateurs.
Of the 239 seiners (aka boats with fishing nets) present, 30-year-old captain Dean Anderson stood out on his craft: F/V "Susan Gale," a 49-foot fiberglass beauty named after my mother. In the following 30 minutes, my dad made one of the largest sets in herring history: 660 tons of fish worth roughly $600,000, a job that took two tenders and 48 hours to pump out. There was no Internet that astonishing day — just one camera and a few fishermen to witness the scene.
Serene yet powerful, sentimental and nostalgic — those are the words that come to mind when I gaze at the snapshot of one of the largest herring sets ever made. It's taken 27 years for me to highlight this family gem, to immortalize commercial fishing at its prime and paint a portrait representing more than just a boat, but of a legacy shaped by the captain himself — my dad.
Mapping out the past
Even though the 1988 herring photograph shows the grand side of my dad's work as a captain, being a commercial fisherman is far too romanticized in the movies and reality shows. Sometimes, he would put so much in to only get so much out, due to weather, crew, risky decisions — things beyond his control.
A bittersweet realization is that my dad's golden catch fell on the 10th anniversary of his father's fatal mid-air plane collision in the same region. My grandfather, Raymond (also a fisherman), was a spotter pilot involved with discovering new herring grounds back in 1978 when he died.
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Out of that tragedy came a triumphant image a decade later — an image that reignited the legacy of herring exploration my grandfather left behind and highlighted his son's miraculous harvest in the same area.
My dad comes from a rich lineage of tough, hard-working patriarchs and strong-willed matriarchs. He started working the skiff for his dad's boat at age 12, and one can rewind 100 years back and 5,000 miles away to Scandanavia, where his great-great-grandfather, Oscar Lindholm, signed up to be a seafarer at the age of 13.
Born Sept. 28, 1863, on Åland, an island off the southwest coast of Finland, Oscar worked on ships for years before sailing to North America. He jumped ship in San Francisco and wasted no time getting involved with the Alaska Packer's Association (founded in 1891) and lucrative fur-trapping trade up north. Soon enough, Oscar arrived in Alaska to make a living as a fisherman and a trapper, eventually settling in a place called Chignik Lagoon. There, he married a native Aleut woman, Anne Stepanov Phillips, and had five children. The family pioneered the Chignik Salmon Fishery for generations.
My dad told me that Oscar's early fur-trapping base was in Mitrofania, where my great-grandmother was born. This mystical place just east of Perrysville is one of my dad's favorite fishing grounds, found about six hours by boat from Chignik.
The village part of Mitrofania is abandoned, but it is where Oscar and his wife had their first two children. One of them was my great-grandmother, Albertina. She who later married a fisherman, Pete Anderson, and took off alone with her four young children — one of them my grandfather, Raymond — on a tender boat bound for Seattle. This was during World War II and Japanese sub sightings were common off the southeast coast of Alaska. It was a treacherous two weeks, but they made it alive and whole surviving off only potatoes and dried fish.
Raymond later returned to Chignik to fish and launch Anderson Fisheries with my grandma, Margaret (né Lindsey, a second-generation Alaskan born in Seward). They had four children — Gene, Neil, Dean and Rhonda — and settled in Seward during the off-season.
All four kids were involved with salmon, cod, herring, halibut and crab fisheries in Alaska. My grandmother, a savvy and formidable woman in her time, carried on the family business after Raymond passed unexpectedly in 1978. Today, she is a respected and admired Anderson matriarch known throughout her local community and the state of Alaska.
3,000 miles for work
Chignik, home to my family's fishery, rests on the western Pacific Gulf on the Aleutian Peninsula, found west of Kodiak and east of Dutch Harbor. One can only get there by boat or small plane.
At just shy of 100 residents, this place comes alive in the summer: veteran captains eager to cast their nets again, seasoned crew returning to their respective boats, greenhorns just joining — and my mom.
It's where a college girl ended one summer after hitchhiking more than 3,000 miles for work, met a local fisherman and the rest is history. My mom often gives us glimpses of her so-called "courting life" at sea in the summer of 1978:
"Your dad thought it would be funny to leave me on an iceberg," she told us, explaining one of my dad's endless pranks, "And just start circling around it."
The permits to fish in Chignik are passed down from generation to generation. Most guys inherit their fathers' permits, if they are lucky. If not, they sell for a few hundred thousand dollars apiece — permits reached all the way up to $500,000 in the late-'80s — and that's just for the privilege to fish in this region.
Of the five local species — chinook, coho, chum, sockeye, pink — the best prices are for the "money fish," sockeye: In 1988, we could sell them for a record $2.50 per pound. That is when the Japanese were buying up salmon left and right, and our future competitors — the farm salmon industry — were taking notice.
In the mid-'90s, these outfits started infiltrating the market with farm-fed salmon, and that market would start to have a detrimental effect on wild fishing. It eventually reached a breaking point in 2001, when price plummeted to $0.65 per pound.
Fisherman went on a strike for a couple weeks that season, and when salmon stock plummeted again in 2006, it was due to the 2001 strike and ensuing over-escapement that caused a deluge of salmon to be born the next spring. There was not enough food in the lake for the fry to survive, and so many died off.
The commercial fishing market has been a roller coaster over the years, but both the farming and wild markets introduced salmon to a broader populace. People who never bought salmon before are now eating it, showing this seafood is not just a novelty, but also a fantastic protein source.
If you do your homework, you'll find that wild salmon are more sustainable. One of my dad's favorite mantras: "Friends don't let friends eat farmed salmon."
The Dean machine
When I was young we would take Pen Air small planes to get to Chignik, but our family started taking the M/V Tustumena ferry when airfare went up. We — my mom and siblings Shelby, Sierra and Memry — would always stumble off the ferry to greet my dad like a semi-homeless family, a little haggard from the ride over. I could never exactly tell from his face, be he always had a look either overwhelming emotion or gratefulness for our "help" during the summer.
My dad is such a character. The guy has more holes in his $20 Kirkland Signature pants than a $70 pair of distressed Abercrombie jeans. It looks like his pants were part of a shootout because the holes in the front align with the holes in the back — reminders of all the snags and tears he endures working in the engine room.
Along with the pants, dad also wears a makeshift belt he created with duct tape and a Grundin's suspender strap. It holds his Victorinox knife. He often loses weight within the first few weeks of the season opener, especially when my mom is not onboard to feed him. He feeds his boat hull with salmon to sustain his mental appetite, but it doesn't feed his stomach.
With so much work to be done, my dad forgets to eat. He has more strength to pull in rogue net than two guys his age put together. The first cologne I ever knew was my father's: a combination of diesel engine fuel and salmon, both masked by his signature Old Spice deodorant. His hands could pass for an 18th century topography map, his back often bothers him and he has developed a nagging "ringing" in his ears due to the not-so-melodic sounds of working on a fishing boat his whole life. My sisters remind him to get hearing aids, but he doesn't listen to us.
Regardless of age and a ringing in his ears, my dad's genuine enthusiasm, self-motivation and hard work ethic will forever keep him going in the world of commercial fishing.
On a boat
I felt like an outcast from friends when our family left the lower 48 for Alaska every summer. I pictured them spending the warm, summer months going to amusement parks, checking out aquariums and taking leisurely tropical vacations.
In hindsight, though, I had all of those, just packaged in a different way. My family's boat was the amusement park — an aquarium where jellyfish and starfish rained down on us when we brought in the net. Inside the cabin, all six of us would fight over the last avocado (long story short: it's really difficult to get fresh produce up there) or call out the person who used up all the reservoir water to take a shower in our 2.5-square-foot bathroom.
Travel takes a toll. My dad travels miles away to remote areas where there are no other boats because he insists that's where the fish are. Sometimes he is way off his mark and other times we hit the jackpot, but he taught me to keep casting the net in life. Even in downtime, my dad keeps us on our toes to get ready for the next opener. There is always maintenance to do: cleaning around the boat, sewing up net. You name it, he thought of it.
Growing up in this atmosphere, I learned that whether or not we had a good day or a bad day on the water, life happens in the hustle — it's not just the catch. Fishing is a story of unconditional love between man, boat and the heritage that brought them together. That's where my dad's heart will always be.
Author Whitney Anderson grew up part-time in Breckenridge and won state championships for track and cross-country at Summit High School, where she graduated in 2005 since moving to Colorado in 1996. She went on to compete for Duke University and graduated in 2009. She left her family's summer commercial fishing business soon after graduating to pursue her art and fashion endeavors full-time. Stay in touch on Instagram (@whitneylanderson_art) and online at WhitneyLAnderson.com.
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