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Changing Tides: A new blog post on the marine environment written by USRESIST NEWS Reporter Katherine Cart

Fishing Boat Dispatch # 2

March 1, 2021

I came to Amaknak Island by plane. The mountains the plane passes between were, in June, very green. The visual sense that the Aleutian Chain gives is of a treeless Hawaii – its geology is similar; the landscape is very young, and active volcanoes grow the islands sporadically. Extending like a hooked arm, the Aleutians delineate the southern edge of the Bering Sea. Amaknak rises from the North Pacific, 800 miles south of Anchorage. Around the smidge of land that is the Aleutian Chain, there is very little but sea.

Amaknak’s Iliuliuk Bay, where 300 foot vessels dock, offload fish, and fuel, drops dramatically to twenty fathoms. The basalt and andesite flows and pyroclastic rocks that form the cliffs of Mounts Ballyhoo and Split Top, and through which obdurate roads have been blasted, rise nearly two thousand feet from the bay edge. Thin soil, reddish, capped by tall grasses and shrub like a fur, holds tremulous purchase on the volcanic substrate. There is a wildness and fragility to Amaknak. With nearly three thousand residents, Amaknak is the most populous of Aleutian islands, and where Dutch Harbor provides anchorage to the North Pacific fishing and shipping fleets. Billions of dollars pass through each year.

The litoral margins of islands Amaknak and Unalaska house factories, supply stores, dynamite-blasted roads, and small mountains of CONEX containers that grow and shift and diminish as they are offloaded, filled with frozen fish product, and locked onto the decks of six-hundred foot carrier vessels. Semis move containers from factory to dock. Upon completing a two week trip, the lines of factory fishing vessels are caught by longshoremen, and crews of thirty or a hundred begin offloading into warehouse and waiting CONEX hundreds of thousands of pounds flash-frozen pollock, flatfish, rockfish, cod – reduced from individual entities to fillet, surimi, a gutted, buyable product. Everyday, at any hour, this churn twists. There is no night in Dutch Harbor.

I have walked across the island in winter, when the sun has set hours before and only rises perfunctorily. Darkness on the road is a brief punctuation between fluorescent, dazzling lights. Trucks drive back and forth and back again, from Westward Plant on Unalaska Island, to City Dock in Iliuliuk Bay, from Kloosterboer to town. Across the roads we have cut into the land, the dirt bleeds, sod hangs like skin, basalt is boney, black. There is the sense everywhere of wounds not quite healed. And very tired people scurry, moving fish.

Once, during the second world war, Dutch Harbor was a military base. Its ordnance formed Alaska’s Iron Ring and suffered in June of 1942 a Japanese air strike. You can see the remains of the fortification everywhere, and especially well from Mount Ballyhoo. Artillery digs make oddly geometric lines across the hump of Bunker Hill. Cement bunkers sit atop many hills, and beneath, into the rock, are bored caves like wormholes for storage and infantry movement. On Ulakta Head sits the highest battery in North America, at 897 feet. Below, anti-submarine nets once crossed the mouth of Iliuliuk Bay. On Hog Island, in spring, flowers nearly cover the gun shields of Fort Learnard. When the war ended, the U.S. navy leaked away, leaving the cement husks of conflict in the landscape.

Before the war, and before commercial fishing, and before Russian fur-trappers arrived in the eighteenth century and erected the green-steepled Church of the Holy Ascension on the slopes of Unalaska, indigenous Unangan people lived on the islands for thousands of years – though you’d be hard pressed to find their any obvious trace. The last several centuries of human development have been like the sudden, fitful seep of a volcano, radically amending landscape.

Beneath the water, we dig holes too. Trawlers whose nets scrape the benthos pull black mud, coral, old plastic, unsellable sculpin, sand lances and dollars, crab (last summer, a codend dumped five metric ton crab to deck – a slowly crawling mountain, up which deck hands ran, laughing), all to target this fish or that fish, at the whim of buyers. The seafloor we gouge with codends like bombs dropped from the sea roof is delicate spawning ground, quiet habitat in which competition has evolved for millenia. The act of trawl fishing seems to me much like spraying a machine gun through a forest, hoping to kill a deer. I don’t know how long it takes the mud to settle. Perhaps not so long as the ratifying of litigation that would eliminate wasteful fishing, but long enough.

 

Two noticeable heat “blobs” have bloomed off the west coast of North America over the last decade. In aerial heat maps of water temperature anomalies, the Bering Sea, during these events, registers a deep, brickish red. The color denotes an average temperature increase of 3ºC. Pacific cod, a fatty fish whose eggs are susceptible to heat flux took – and are taking – a beating. The alarmingly low cod stock, when I was collecting data aboard a pollock dragger last winter, limited catch size across fisheries and threatened to close areas to trawl fishing.

In 2019, another heat-bubble bloomed, moving from the South Pacific north, changing ecosystems, coastal climate, weather patterns. I saw, and became quite used to, many tons of northern sea nettle falling like giant raindrops from net to trawl alley. Jellyfish are impossibly durable invertebrates: they can survive in low-oxygen water when other species might seek cleaner currents. Warming trends boost plankton growth, diminishing oxygen. On a different boat, a factory vessel, there were, for a few days, as many jellyfish as pollock in my samples.

A broad sheet of sea ice seen on a clear winter dawn is a tremendous thing. It is soft and pinkish until the horizon, and behind you, the Bering Sea is black, gold, pink, translucent and green at wave tip – it is a field of rippling mirror. Sea ice, each winter, shrinks. Its southern edge moves north. Fish whose habitat is frontier ice move north. Do we follow?

Things are moving. We are moving. Of course, migration is a constant. Living matter seeks new ledges on which to root. Monarchs cross the Atlantic. Humans walk land bridges and steel bridges. Last week, the Perseverance Rover landed on Mars. Cold flamingos come down from the mountains, and the mountains rise up from the sea. The Earth grows callus in ridges, absorbing stampede, monsoon, quake and rot.

Looking at Dutch Harbor from Ballyhoo, I was reminded of a child’s playthings, spilt across a carpet. Blue-roofed houses, factories billowing fishmeal steam, roads that, from so high above, appear benign, even quaint. It’s impossible not to wonder what will happen to that place when, inevitably, we move onwards, perhaps northwards, and settle our boxes and buildings and giant semi trucks elsewhere. How long does it take an island to grow up, grow over, reclaim? And can the seafloor recover?

Learn More:

“New Marine Heatwave Emerges off West Coast, Resembles ‘the Blob’” NOAA (5 September, 2019), retrieved 27 February from: https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/feature-story/new-marine-heatwave-emerges-west-coast-resembles-blob

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