This reporter isn't swallowing a fish story told on Capitol Hill

August 11, 1996|By ROB KASPER

WASHINGTON -- IT IS TOUGH to get a straight answer to the question, "How's the fishing?" Especially in our nation's capital, where the practice of telling the whopper is an art form.

Recently at a Capitol Hill lunch honoring sockeye salmon, Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens told me that the fishing in his state has been terrific this summer. A little too good, in fact, the senator added, saying that so many Bristol Bay Reds, or sockeye salmon, have been caught in the chilly waters off the Aleutian Islands that exceptional measures have been taken to get more of the fish on more supper tables.

These measures include cutting prices. There are some real bargains out there in canned salmon, the senator said, sounding more like a supermarket manager than a senior Republican politician.

Other moves brought on by the salmon glut included setting up a free feed for members of the eating press and the Washington lunching community in the Dirksen Senate Office Building. The event featured salmon fixed six ways to Sunday and various testimonials to the health benefits of eating Alaskan salmon.

At one point in the luncheon, Senator Stevens proclaimed that eating salmon -- its bones as well as its flesh -- was good for the heart and for the nation.

At another point, Tommy Moe, an Olympic gold-medal winner for skiing, a native of Alaska and -- you guessed it -- a lifelong friend of the fish, said something like he never jumped off a mountain without eating a salmon and never gave a press conference without wearing his Bristol Bay baseball cap.

Mention was made of how the flavor of this wild Pacific salmon that we were eating for lunch was superior to that other kind of salmon, the farm-raised Atlantic salmon that most East Coast residents encounter in grocery stores and fish markets.

Like political candidates who avoid mentioning the names of their opponents, the friends of Bristol Bay salmon avoided making direct attacks on Atlantic salmon. Instead, Senator Stevens and others hammered away at what they believe are the positive flavor qualities found in wild Pacific salmon, and gave only fleeting notice to the mild-mannered, farm-raised Atlantic species.

Since I am an avowed fan of wild Pacific salmon, Senator Stevens was preaching to the converted. In my experience, however, wild Pacific salmon tastes much better the closer you are to the Pacific Ocean. If you take a wild salmon, ship it across the country and subject it to the workings of congressional kitchens, the flavor of the fish loses some of its superiority. The steam tables of Capitol Hill, in other words, are great levelers.

Bones and all

As for the eating of salmon, I do not quarrel with the senator's avowed method -- bones and all -- but, personally, I try to remove the bones before eating the fish. But, hey, it is a free country.

I do, however, have some trouble accepting the notion that the salmon fishing was super this summer. The senator and his colleagues have statistics to back up their claims that the waters were roiling with salmon. David Harsila, president of the Alaska Independent Fishermen's Marketing Association, and Dennis Phelan of the Pacific Seafood Processors Association told me at the lunch that Bristol Bay boats landed close to 30 million salmon this summer. This harvest was lower than last year's catch of some 40 million fish, but still a good year, they said.

While these statistics are impressive, they don't jibe with a fishing story my nephew told me. My nephew, a college student, worked on a salmon-processing boat in Bristol Bay this summer. He said the fishing was lousy. There weren't enough fish being caught to keep his boat busy, he said. He was paid by the hour and during his six weeks on the boat he got only 100 hours of work processing salmon, he said.

There are several ways to reconcile these conflicting reports on zTC whether or not Bristol Bay salmon were jumping into fishing boats this summer.

The first is to roll out the wrong-spot theory. The theory goes like this: Everybody else was catching fish in Bristol Bay, but somehow my nephew and the guys who were supposed to deliver salmon to his boat were fishing in the wrong spot. I have some experience with wrong spots. Before I go fishing on Maryland's Eastern Shore, for example, I usually read reports in newspapers describing the fish as being ravenous. However, as soon as I drop my line in the water, the ravenous fish seem to move to other spots, leaving me with fish that are on a diet. Such bad luck with fishing spots could run in the family.

Another possible explanation is that the salmon boats hired more workers than were needed. They staffed themselves with hourly workers in case there was a record catch. When the record harvest did not materialize, hourly workers like my nephew didn't take home big paychecks. That is the nature of seasonal work.

Statistics

The third explanation is that the Alaska fishermen and their friends in high places in Washington are telling a whopper. Sure, they have their statistics showing a catch of 30 million salmon. And maybe they can point to a drop in the price of canned salmon as evidence of a big catch. But they also have their pride.

Alaska, as we know, is the biggest state in the Union. We are always hearing stories of how Alaskans grow the country's biggest cabbages and get chased by the nation's biggest bears. Now they tell us they have this big salmon catch. I say to them, "Do you have snapshots showing people holding up stringers of salmon?"

They did run a film at the Washington lunch that showed guys in slickers bouncing around in boats. But I saw no snapshots of smiling fishermen clutching stringers. And as any fisherman can tell you, without snapshots to back up your claims, a report of a record catch, even one delivered on Capitol Hill, is just another fish story.

Pub Date: 8/11/96

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