Monday, June 30, 2008

Part four: - Sonar counts: Copper River Sockeye

Miles lake sonar station located along the Copper River near the historic Million Dollar Bridge. Submersed sonar transmits visual data to computer terminals enabling technicians to count fish passing by.

The commercial fisheries management procedure is a complicated one. Mainly because there are so many factors that can influence the health of a salmon run in any given year. Remember, there are at least 156 different stocks of red salmon that run up the Copper River, branching off here and there at the respective waters of their youth. They return five years after birth, so climatic and other factors for that year must be considered in the current year of their return. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game wants to see a certain amount of the fish make it past the fisherman in order to sustain the natural stocks. To prevent too many fish from being caught, the season openings are based on the amount of fish that have passed on up the river. How is this known? Through a fancy sonar counting system set up a short ways up the Copper River. Sophisticated sonar lets one actually see the fish swimming up the river.

Salmon appear as white shapes swimming by the sonar field.

ADF&G staff record a 10 minute digital movie file generated by the sonar and then count the fish that have passed by in that time period (one can count the fish with live sonar display on computer screens as well, but a digital file enables speed adjustment to aid in counting accuracy).

ADF&G technician counts salmon passing by the sonar field for a ten minute period every hour.

Based on that, a fish-per-hour count is generated, and total daily “escapement” numbers are posted on the ADFG Miles Lake sonar counts page. The system has been through statistical rigors and seems to satisfy the biometricians. For the dip netters waiting for these fish to reach the Chitina dip netting area, it takes approximately 10 to 14 days from the Miles Lake sonar station.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Part 3: Gill net fishing - Copper River Basin Sockeye

Bow picker Gill net fishing on the Copper River Delta

As part of an ongoing assignment (see part one and part two) covering the copper river red salmon, I traveled to Cordova, Alaska to join a commercial fishermen during the current, once a week 12 hour period for the Copper River gillnet fishery.

The great Copper River pours into the Gulf of Alaska in southcentral Alaska, depositing its turbid waters full of glacial silt and sand creating an array of shallow sand bars and and shoals. The fishermen of the Delta use bow-picker jet boats by majority, which enables fishing in these shallow waters. A 900 foot net is released into the water suspended above by small floats and a lead line below helps the net hang down in the current. The net (and boat) drift along with the current for about an hour or so, before a large wheel reels in the net along with the catch. The fish are caught in the net by the gills.

Hauling in the net

My special thanks to the generosity of commercial fisherman Bill Webber for letting a total stranger join him. Bill has more than 40 years experience fishing the Copper River Delta, and currently operates an innovative and progressive business where he processes his fish at sea and sells direct to restaurants in the lower 48. (Gulkana Seafoods Direct)

Sockeye salmon caught in the gillnet

This takes a blend of skills, which Bill implements well. The “processed at sea” attribute is one more effort to increase the quality of an already amazing product. Bill takes extensive care in handling the fish in order that they are not inadvertently bruised. In addition, they are live bled quickly, headed and gutted, then pressure bled, and quickly hand packed with ice and put in the hold. This practice is more common in the troll fishing industry, but he is introducing it to the gill net fishery. The fish are generally sent out the following day on Alaska Airlines jets.

Salmon coming over the bowroller.

Packing the hold with processed fish.

His boat named the “Gulkana” (one of the headwater rivers of the Copper) is fitted with satellite phone/internet and he can literally take orders from restaurants as the catch of the day unfolds! Which is a pretty slick operation.

Mixed in with the run of red salmon are the king salmon, and we netted a very nice one weighing in about 50 pounds. In case you are wondering, that single fish fetches about $700 on the (direct, processed at sea) restaurant market!

50 pound King salmon nets $700 on the processed at sea direct market.

Conditions were not optimal for photography, very flat light, gray sky and gray water. And the density of the fishing fleet (500 plus boats) has dispersed to other parts of Prince William Sound in part due to the economics of a low salmon run, reduced opening periods and the cost of fuel. It was a great experience and I captured a few o.k. photos.

Interestingly, the perspective I like the most was from the last set of the day, just before closing, when an increased sense of "I need to work this differently" prompted the idea of hanging off the bowroller for a look back as the fish came on board the boat. Of course, having another vessel to shoot from would have been optimal, but it was not available. Bill got a rope which we rigged up to enable me to lean back against it for support and shoot a few frames.

Hanging off the bowroller for a different perspective

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Harlequin Duck

Male Harlequin duck resting on rocks, headwaters of the Gulkana river, interior, Alaska.
Canon 1Ds Mark III, 500mm f4L w/1.4x, 1/2 sec @f45, ISO 100

Harlequin duck males are colorful birds with distinct markings. They favor fast moving water for feeding and can often be found resting on rocks along stream shores. They are attentive birds and apart from a blind, require a slow and incremental approach. For this photo session, small patches of clouds, shade and shadows required constant exposure adjustments since the white parts of the duck's plumage get overexposed in sunlight. After some decent preliminary shots, I began experimenting with longer shutter speeds to blur the moving water.

This can be technically challenging with a super telephoto lens, since the smallest vibration during the long exposure may cause a blur if not executed correctly. I used an appropriately strong tripod and ballhead, and set the camera on mirror lock up, with a 2 second delayed shutter release to prevent this. But, the birds move ever so slightly also, and they blink too, so I've learned to shoot many frames just to be safe. It was late enough in the evening to get a little reflective yellow color from the clouds, which contrasts well with the aqua blue of the mountain water.

I think the photo of the duck alone is a good image, but the creative challenge presents itself always: how to take a good image and make it unique—make it interesting—make it better. In this case, I think the blur in the water helps in two ways:

  1. It creates a sense of movement to an otherwise static scene presenting a contrast between the stillness of the duck and the fluid, moving scene in which it lives.
  2. It helps isolate the subject by softening the background and thereby creating an easy visual separation against the subject.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Moose Motherhood

Cow moose and newborn calf try to navigate Phelan creek in the Alaska range. The calf was nearly swept away by the current.

Phelan creek is located in Isable Pass in the Alaska Range mountains. At an altitude of more than 3000 feet, the snow pack melts slowly there, and in mid June, dense patches still remain. A cow moose and spring calf (perhaps 1 - 2 weeks old) were navigating the braided stream. Current from the stream and ledges from snow pack make this difficult for a tiny moose calf. At one point, the calf was nearly swept away by the current, so it huddled up in an eddy near the side of the stream.

Moose calf takes shelter in an eddy along the side of the stream while the mother examines a possible way out.

The cow moose repeatedly crossed the stream to the other side attempting to find a safe route for her calf, but returned quickly seeming unsatisfied. The cow then stepped up from the stream bed onto the snow pack and considered this as an optional route to the swift stream current. She did this a few times, returning each time to her calf. I wondered how that little calf would get up on the snow pack since I could barely see its head when standing next to it. At some point, the mother gave the command and the little moose calf rested its front feet on the edge, the cow stepped down into the water and slowly and carefully nudged the calf up onto the snow pack. Off they trotted!

With a little nudge the cow helps lift the young calf onto the snow pack.

Quite amazing to watch this snippet of natural life. With any time spent watching moose with calves in the spring one thing is evident--they are always on the run, since bears and wolves are eager to prey upon the little ones. Sometimes, moose calf mortality can exceed 70% by predators. Cow moose usually have twins, and whether she lost one already, or gave birth to one only I'm not sure.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

American Dipper Lamentations

American Dipper fishing underwater - not quite sharp

This is a story of attempt, not of success; of progress but not achievement--as I would prefer. On a previous blog I showed a few pictures of an aquatic passerine called the American Dipper, a very fascinating bird that hunts for bugs, grubs and fish underwater. I did make a return visit to the spot where the bird was vigorously collecting food to supply her ravenous chicks. My hopes were to get an over/under shot of the bird gathering food. This seemed like an epic task, given the time I had, and in some ways, almost ridiculous. But I spent a few hours observing the birds behaviours and decided on a location to set up the camera, which was placed in an underwater housing with a wireless remote enabling me to fire the camera from many feet away. I had another camera with a 500mm lens, and I would try to shoot the bird when above water, while waiting for it to swim by my camera. Miraculously, the bird proceeded towards the camera, swam right in front of it and I fired the trigger. The noise of the shutter scared the bird and it flew out of the water. But, miraculously x two, it returned again. I fired the trigger, but the host of things necessary for perfection in this attempt did not coalesce. Shadows, proximity to camera lens, direction of the bird, blah, blah, blah.

American Dipper almost in focus

But, it was an almost, and I may venture one more time to attempt this image. I spent the better part of the day watching, waiting and shooting while the Dipper was gathering food and feeding the chicks. Stay tuned, it would be surprising, but not impossible to get the shot.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Digital Composites

Nowadays, digital composites are everywhere. While editorial images should be honest and unmodified, there seems to be no limit with advertising and promotional works. We received a recent example of this when we got our copy of a Russian calendar featuring some of our polar bear photos.

Our photo as it appears in a Russian polar bear calendar

The original photo

I like what they've done by adding a horizon, which breaks up the white-on-white of the photo, and also adds some blue which goes well with the off-white of the polar bears. Take a closer look, and you'll see they also added catch lights to the eyes. When naturally occurring, these are a desirable and attractive element in photography. They add a sparkle to the eye and bring attention to it. However, it has to be believable when added digitally. Catch lights usually indicate a light source, so there should be some shadows in the photo, and this one was taken under overcast skies. They are also pretty extreme in the cubs eyes on top, and perhaps would be more pleasing toned down some.

An interesting thing about catch lights is they are often used to determine if a photo is faked. Sometimes it is obvious, if for example different people or animals in a photo have catch lights in different positions of their eye, or some are missing, etc. In some cases, advanced software is even used to calculate light sources and angles when it is critical to determine if a photo is legitimate.

We sometimes create digital composites and post them on our web site if we think some creative modifications can be made. When we do, we are sure to make a clear statement in the photo caption information, and confirm with the client that it's OK before completing a sale.

Here are two examples:

This totem is not really a composite because it originates from only one file, but so much "digital lighting" is done that we list it as a digitally modified image.

This photo was created from several photos for a request for a commercial fishing boat in a clearing storm. The original boat was photographed on a sunny day, and several layers of mountains, clouds, and rain were added.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Grow antlers grow

Young bull moose along the Alaska Highway Canon 1Ds Mark III, 500mm f4L, 1/125 sec @ f6.3, ISO 640

On a trip into the Alaska range, about 150 miles from Fairbanks, I saw more than 10 moose feeding along the roadside about 9-10:30pm or so. Interestingly, they were predominantly young bulls. Those that travel the roads in Alaska realize that the observation of bull moose along the highways diminish considerably as the summer progresses. I believe this is for a particular reason, namely the rich green spring grasses, often growing in the open areas along the road, offer that vital nutrients needed to cast those extensive antlers that grow so quickly. The willow leafs have not opened yet, (a favorite food of the moose), so they are opportunistically feeding.

Young bull moose feeds on spring grasses along the Alaska Highway Canon 1Ds Mark III, 500mm f4L, 1/80 sec @ f6.3, ISO 640

As the green growth unfolds throughout the tundra and taiga, moose browse more preferentially, in obscure, protected areas, consuming huge quantities of vegetation. The velvet that encases the moose antlers (antlers are made of bone and horns are made of a keratin substance) encase blood vessels that richly nourish their growth and development. Generally, bull moose are rarely seen again until autumn (late August/September) when the mating season motivates them to pursue mating dominance. At this time, antlers are fully grown, and the nourishing sheath of velvet is rubbed off to reveal textured antlers of bone. The focus on food shifts to mating!

Clouds, the art of the sky

Dramatic clouds reflect in tundra pond, interior, Alaska
Canon 1Ds mark III, 16-35mm f2.8L, 1/15 sec @ f14, ISO 100

Clouds move with an inspiration singular to their great immensity and shape. Not only do they cast their color catching shapes across the sky in dramatic form, but they repeat themselves in the landscape on ponds, lakes and rivers. For a landscape photographer, a cloudless day provokes no excitement. It may be likened to a novel or play without conflict. The placid uniformity of blue, while consoling in some ways, does not carry the power of a tumultuous, dynamic sky. Two things to consider about a landscape photo at the close or beginning of a day:

First: look for the sky on the ground, when it is there, you may now work with reciprocating shapes and reflective colors--both strong for composition. Alaska abounds with water bodies; countless rivers, lakes and small tundra ponds give many opportunities to point your camera down yet shoot the sky.

Second: in the context of Alaska's nightless summers, forget about sleep. I am lured by the former, but not so fond of the latter. It really does not get dark for much of the summer, depending on the latitude, and during June one could photograph for 24 hours! Capturing sunset and sunrise light means courting the midnight hours.

While on a recent photo trip--timed for the late drama of evening light--I captured these few images, which illustrate how clouds can be a critical element in a compelling landscape photo. In this case, it may be argued, they completely make the photo.

Part #2: Smolt - Copper River Basin Sockeye

Heading for the Ocean

Sockeye salmon smolt head for the salt water after feeding and growing in Summit lake for one year.

This is part two of a lengthy photo series I'll be doing through the summer and autumn, focusing on the Gulkana hatchery and its role in enhancing the Copper river Sockeye salmon that migrate its waters. Click here for part one.

The life span of a Sockeye salmon is four to five years. Eggs are laid in fresh water streams/lakes in late summer/autumn where they incubate over the winter and hatch in the spring. The little fry spend a year feeding and growing in the lakes and as soon as the ice melts in late spring the one year old salmon (smolt) head for the salt water. This outmigration process takes place in the darker hours of the night over the course of a few weeks/months, depending on the lake (usually ending around the fourth of July says hatchery manager Gary Martinek). Why in dark hours? Well, there are a lot of creatures hungry for these shiny little fish. Predators such as lake trout, terns and gulls take a heavy toll on the fish.

About the only way to track fry survivorship in the lake is to approximate how many make it out as smolt. The Hatchery sets up a trap at the mouth of the lake to do just that, and through a measurement regime calculates the total number of out-migrating smolt.

These little fish vary in color when viewed from the top, but if you get a glance at their sides, they are a flash of silver! It's amazing that a 3 to 4 inch fish can make it all the way down the river to the Pacific Ocean, but nature is loaded with mysteries, and the migrating salmon is one of the big ones. For those that reach the salty waters, they will feed for three or four years, and return again to the waters of their youth to spawn their successors. The next few chapters of this story will focus on the consumers of these fish, like me and my friends, fishermen, and others who tap into this great food source.

Smolt caught in the outmigration nets are counted and released to continue their way down the Gulkana river, to the Copper river, out into the Pacific Ocean.

Notes on the Underwater Photo:

First of all, thanks to the Gulkana Hatchery guys for keeping some of the smolt in a pen for me to work with.

Yours truly using a wireless transmitter and underwater housing to photograph the smolt.

I used an EWA marine underwater housing, which is cumbersome but does the job of keeping the camera dry. Attached to the top of the camera inside the housing is a wireless reciever (Pocket Wizard) that enables me to trigger the shutter remotely from a hand held transmitter. Since the little salmon fry are pretty skittish, you can't have your hands in the water or they get freaked out. I set the camera on AV priority--the light was changing quite a bit with sun and clouds--and pre focused the lens to the closest focus distance. From there it is experimentation. I increased the depth of field in subsequent photos, but I like the positioning of the fish in this frame the best.

Canon 1Ds Mark III, 16-35mm 2.8L, Ewa-marine underwater housing, 1/2000 sec @f4.5, ISO 1000.

Friday, June 6, 2008

American Dipper

American Dipper hunts for small insects in fast moving water.
Canon 1Ds Mark III, 500mm f4L IS w/1.4x (700mm) 1/400 sec @ f8, ISO 400

Closeup crop almost reveals the eye of the bird.

The American Dipper is an aquatic passerine. What is that? For those who don't know, the order of Passeriformes are more commonly called perching or songbirds. This unique bird gathers bugs and small fish in fast moving streams. It's quite an interesting bird to watch, and I had the brief opportunity last week to grab a few photos. It was in the heat of the day with contrasty light. Its a challenging bird to photograph since it requires a long lens, difficult focus parameters, the bird moves fast, and you are never sure what the moving water will look like when frozen in time. My hope is to attempt some underwater shots as well as some above water. This image is an almost, as you can barely make out the eye and the beak, as the water flows over the back. I plan to return for a more calculated photo endeavor. I'll post my results.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Part #1: Fry drop - Copper River Basin Sockeye

Pilot Doug Glenn drops a load of salmon fry into Crosswinds lake from his crop duster airplane. About 10 million fry in total get dumped in the lake over a two day period. Mount Drum, of the Wrangell mountains in the distance.

My first encounter with the Copper River and fish was in 1982 when my uncle pulled a 65 pound King Salmon from its dirty gray waters. Since then, I've been utilizing the personal use fishery, dip netting red salmon (sockeye) nearly every year since. The river is fed with 156 distinct "stocks" of red salmon, says Gary Martinek the hatchery manager. One of these significant stocks is the Gulkana Hatchery, located near the mouth of Summit lake. In my eyes, its an untold success story, and few people seem to realize that this small hatchery, on average, contributes up to 60% of the red salmon catch throughout the basin. For this reason, I decided to take on a personal assignment documenting the hatchery, fish, and users of this wonderful Alaskan resource. It will likely be picked up by a magazine as a feature story.

Recently, that is late May, I went to the hatchery to photograph the transport of 10 million little salmon fry (they are about one inch long), which were loaded into a crop duster airplane and dropped into a nearby, non-road accessible lake. Through a little experimentation, the optimal drop distance seems to be about 200 feet. The process runs pretty smooth by observation, but they have spent many years perfecting it. Throughout the summer, I'll be documenting different phases of this subject, so check back for more images.

Hatchery employees gather the fry from the raceways

Crop duster ready for loading, the plane takes off down the Richardson highway.

Loading the tank with fry.

Salmon fry visible in the little window from the cockpit of the airplane

Crop duster plane tank filled with 450 gallons of water/fry