Sitka is alive with activity! The herring have returned to our waters to spawn. Fish, fishermen, whales, birds and sea lions are crowding our oceans and coasts and the streets are starting to smell fishy.
Check out this little video SCS helped produce with Ben Hamilton that showcases our deliciously fresh fisheries-from stream to plate!
The value of salmon fisheries for ecosystems, industry, personal, sport, and traditional use is unquantifiable in Southeast Alaska. The lakes and streams of the Tongass National Forest contribute the vast majority of this pivotal resource- producing 79% of the annual commercial harvest, about 50 million salmon each year. In its efforts to manage the Tongass for salmon, the US Forest Service invests in a variety of projects that ensure continued high productivity of fisheries and watershed resources. ‘Fish Pass’ installation has proven to be a powerful and effective option- an integral component of the Forest Service’s tool-kit to boost salmon production from Tongass systems.
‘Fish passes’ are constructed to bridge waterfalls that historically restrained salmon from accessing quality upstream spawning and rearing habitat. To protect the natural integrity of this lush national forest, the Forest Service adheres to a ‘minimalistic yet effective’ construction policy- minimizing environmental alteration while maximizing fish access. The vast majority of watersheds in the Tongass remain unaltered with only the most strategic and promising barriers selected for fish pass installation. Passes take many forms varying from nonstructural ‘step pools’ blasted out of natural bedrock to the Alaskan Steeppass ‘fish ladder’ that harnesses water current to push exhausted salmon to the top of barrier falls. Whatever the type, Fish Passes follow the same basic principle- allow more fish access to more area.
Increased spawning and rearing habitat translates into less competition for space and nutrients with more salmon surviving to adulthood. Following this basic principle, the Forest Service has successfully improved production of Tongass fish. Fish Passes have opened access of 443 stream miles and 4,931 lake acres to spawning and rearing steelhead and salmon. Exact fish counts produced by increased area are difficult to calculate and are estimated by projecting the average number of fish produced given particular habitat quality by the amount of increased area. Conservative estimates suggest an average of 86,855 coho and sockeye and 227,500 pink and chum salmon adults added each year as a direct result of this increased area made available by fish passes. At the current rate of a dollar and ten cents per pound for coho and sockeye and forty two cents a pound for pink and chums, fish pass produced salmon add an impressive estimated $8,598,930- over eight and a half million dollars- to Southeast Alaskan economy over a ten year period.
Unfortunately, like everything man-made, structural fish passes require maintenance to remain effective. There are approximately fifty fish passes across the Tongass- about fifteen operating in the Sitka Ranger District alone. The majority being between 20-30 years old, structural fish passes are reaching the point in their lifetime where they require considerable work. Managing this forest and recognizing that salmon are one of the most important outputs that benefit both humans and the overall ecosystem means continued investment in projects like fish pass construction and maintenance.
We are fortunate to have learned from mistakes made across other regions of the world where wild salmon populations were pushed to extinction. We are even more fortunate to boast a talented fisheries staff and a holistic fisheries and watershed program that manage and protect the future of this valuable resource. Fish passes are one of the significant activities within this program that ensure wild Alaskan salmon continue to sustain the communities of Southeast Alaska and that the Tongass continues to rear the salmon that are base of the last remaining sustainable fisheries in the world.
Sitka Trail Works provides visitors and residents of Sitka with a series of well managed trail systems- offering outdoor enthusiasts the opportunity to travel at ease through some of the most beautiful and unique habitats on earth. The Sea Lion Cove hike, located on Kruzof Island, winds through an incredible diversity of habitats over a relatively short distance.
Beginning on a rocky shore, hikers scramble across rugged coast terrain stopping to admire bears grazing on distant estuaries. Next, the trail slips past a large forested lake before bending through a misty rainforest stand, streams and small waterfalls. For me, the overwhelming beauty of these areas far surpassed the annoyance of the few slips, trips, and falls I took. Keep in mind however, the importance of wearing shoes with powerful grip when attempting any trail in the Southeast. When the wood planks that make up managed trail systems become wet they become incredibly slippery too. Pack a positive attitude with your rain gear, snacks, water, and camera!
The trail also brings hikers through muskeg, an incredibly unique and almost eerie wetland habitat found throughout Southeast Alaska, before culminating in Sea Lion Cove. The cove boasts a truly breathtaking view- an open sand beach nestled within forest and estuary beside a dramatic ridge line. Littered with drift wood and brilliantly colored seaweeds and shells, hikers could spend hours combing the sand for treasures- pack a ziplock for collecting. Be sure to find a comfortably worn slab of driftwood to relax on and eat your packed lunch before hiking back.
All in all, if you are looking for a day hike that packs the most diversity for your effort, the Sea Lion Cove trail system is a must! Muskeg, mountains, forest, rushing streams, a lake, estuary and a sandy beach (coveted and rare to this area) Sea Lion Cove has it all. Although, finding transportation to Sitka’s brilliant neighbor -Kruzof Island- can sometimes be difficult for those of us without access to a skiff, Sitka Trail Works offers transportation and company once a year on a guided hike. A great way to meet new people with similar interests, enjoy a diversity of habitats, and bring home a few beauties for the beach combing collection, Sitka Trail Work’s guided Sea Lion Cove hike is a no-brainer.
Supporting organizations like Sitka Trail Works is a must for retaining recreation opportunities for a wide demographic. If one were to attempt to traverse the Sea Lion Cove route twenty years ago when the land was transferred from the US Forest Service to the state, they would have experienced impassable, eroded, boot-sucking mud pits through trampled muskeg ecosystems. Three years of hard work combined with private, foundation, and agency grant funds led to the restored beautiful plank trail system you can enjoy today.
Learn more about Sitka Trail Works, Sea Lion Cove, other trail systems, and review a schedule of guided hikes check out: sitkatrailworks.org.
Honored in tradition, loved, feared and respected across every ocean on earth, killer whales have tantalized our curiosity for lifetimes. I had the opportunity to face these intelligent animals on Alaskan waters while cruising with Pauli Davis of Gallant Adventures. The encounter was humbling, unforgettable, and reminded me that truly wild places like Sitka Sound are absolutely unique, and that it is imperative that we protect wildlife on these pristine coasts so that we can continue to have interactions like these. Seeing these whales helps us retain our connection with the natural world and instills a respect for the animals with which we share it.
Enjoy the little video I put together on the encounter.
Events will take place August 17th-19th
CLICK HERE for the full program schedule and description of events.
What on earth is biodiversity? A measurement of the variety and concentration of lifeforms in a given area, biodiversity is often used by researchers to gage the overall health of ecosystems. Who and what lives here? What mushrooms, bugs, crabs, whales, seaweed, owls, deer, and salmon share Sitka as their home? By documenting and better understanding the organismic makeup of Sitka, organizations like SCS whose mission is to protect treasures like the Tongass National Forest, can take appropriate measure to defend the habitats that these plants, animals, fungi, and insects depend on.
This year’s BioBlitz offers a fun and educational opportunity for the Sitkan community to help scientists perform a rapid (24-hours only!) biological survey of a 7-square mile section of Sitka. Have you ever wanted to learn more about local plants, owls, or insects? Maybe your family is eager to set night-time insect traps within the largest remaining temperate rain forest in the world. Fun options are abound for everyone at this year’s BioBlitz, providing unique opportunities to learn from experts and professional naturalists from across the state on their surveys. Help us document, celebrate and protect the biodiversity that makes this magical place unique!
Join us to kick off the event on Friday, August 17th at 7:30pm with a discussion of Southeast Alaska’s fascinating biodiversity presented by biologist and author Bob Armstrong.
Blitzing will begin Saturday, August 18th at noon and run for a full twenty four hours. There will be many opportunities to join scientists on survey teams and various activities for all ages!
What comes to mind when you hear the term conservation? Petitions, polar bears, politicians, researchers? David Attenborough? Did heavy equipment tearing up a rainforest floor come to mind? Unlikely. Nestled deep within our earth’s largest temperate rainforest- conservation takes unique form.
This summer, the Sitkoh River Restoration Project mobilized a team of heavy equipment operators on the Tongass National Forest of Southeast Alaska. The US Forest Service, Trout Unlimited, Sitka Conservation Society and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game raised $318,000 and hired Aqua Terra Restoration to repair critical salmon spawning habitat damaged by clearcut logging in the 1970s. Logging adjacent to the river banks left the Sitkoh without adequate erosion control and the fallen timber salmon need. Dump trucks, chainsaws, and excavators converted blueprints and years of planning into wooden structures and a redirected riverbed that will return healthy fish habitat and stability to this damaged system.
Salmon habitat restoration is relatively new to the Tongass and constitutes a key part of the Forest Service’s transition from old-growth logging to young-growth management, forest restoration, and investment in other industries-such as fishing and tourism. Across the forest, similar river and stream restoration projects are in various stages or have been completed with great success. Multiyear, complex, and dependent on powerful partnerships this rich form of salmon habitat restoration is by no means easy. However, in a land where salmon are lifeblood to both ecosystems and residents, protection of this critical resource is absolutely vital.
Habitat restoration benefits fish, fish-dependent ecosystems, and fish-dependent economies. It also provides career opportunities to skilled ecologists and equipment operators passionate about safeguarding our environment- people who prefer hardhats to suits, the company of bears to water cooler gossip and all in all want to build something good for our earth as opposed to something that’s only good for industry.
There are over 70 damaged salmon-producing watersheds on the Tongass and the Forest Service estimates $100 million dollars are needed to repair them. Salmon and trout alone contribute more than $1 billion to Southeast Alaska’s economy and employ some 7,300 people. It is critical that salmon become the top management priority of our country’s largest national forest; managing for salmon employs restoration workers on the ground, benefits local subsistence and the fishing industry, and conserves salmon-dependent rainforest ecosystems.
The Tongass is one of the last remaining forests with healthy and abundant wild salmon runs. Making this species the Tongass’ top priority makes sense for the ecosystem, the economy and anyone who loves to catch, eat or simply view wild salmon.
I am a New Englander, born and raised inland of Boston with only superficial exposure to the fishing industry. My past seafood vocabulary includes: lobstah, steamahs, chowdah, cod, haddock, and Sam Adams Summer Ale. My previous understanding of salmon, apart from grandiose images of grizzlies welcoming ballets of jumping fish into gapping jaws, was that there were two types: farmed and wild. For years, I welcomed forkfuls of homogeneously colored salmon steaks into my mouth- oblivious to the colorful salmon hierarchy that exists outside the supermarket freezer- the hierarchy where chinooks rule as king.
Five thousand miles from home, my expanded Southeast Alaskan vocabulary now includes an entire continuum of warm colored flesh. Five different salmon species inhabit these waters. What’s tricky is that each one answers to at least two names. Pinks are humpys, chums are dogs, sockeyes are red, cohos are also silvers. With all these different names, methods of fishing them, flesh qualities and arguing attitudes to which fish is best, I’ve struggled to get a full grip on all salmon. One salmon however, the chinook, I think I’m starting to get.
The most coveted among lip-licking salmon know-it-alls, the chinook’s other name is appropriately ‘king’. Assuming the throne as the largest pacific salmon, chinooks boast fatty, succulent, buttery, pink -and on rare occasions white- flesh. The meat demands high market value, constitutes the smallest percentage of the salmon harvest, and draws avid anglers from across the country to Alaskan waters to usurp their first king. And so, this New England girl, whose most memorable fishing moments previously include hooking my brother and barfing in the cabin of a charter while my cherub-cheeked grandfather hooked haddock with his Northshore cronies, agreed to cruise the Alaskan coast in pursuit of her King.
Chatter on the docks warned chinooks to be abnormally elusive this season. I, however, retained faith. My salmon sensai Greg Killinger, is no novice to the art of hooking kings, claiming hundreds of these desirable fish since moving to Sitka long ago. I bought my day license and king tag and set out.
The sun was hot and bright, stripping layers of clothing from my fellow fishermen and I all day- odd for an Alaskan rainforest. We enjoyed a Friday on deck, admiring a clear view of Edgecumbe- Sitka’s neighboring volcano- and shared the sea with rival boats and behemouth humpbacks.
This is the grocery store of rural Alaskans. Here, you don’t compete for parking spots, shopping carts, or the last rump roast. You instead battle swells, compare wits, and scan the horizon for jumping fish. ‘Subsistence’ is the political term used to describe this cherished anachronism and as enjoyable as the practice is to visitors, it certainly means much more to residents. A powerful traditional value for food is celebrated here. In remote and rural Alaska, where a bag of groceries can cost a small fortune, people also depend on their ability to harvest rich nutrition from the forest and surrounding waters. Each year, by boat and on foot, rural Alaskans harvest this rainforest’s bounties and return home to fill freezers and stock pantries with venison, fish, and berries- a feat that packs with it incredible pride.
I was thinking just how good that would feel, was wondering how the meat of white-tailed deer compares to Sitka black-tail, and was rubbing my somewhat queasy stomach when these thoughts were welcomely interrupted by a sudden STRIKE!
The fishing rod that had spent a great deal of the morning dutifully hunched over in waiting, sprung to attention! Greg scrambled to the rod, tightened the line and placed it in my hands. He looked through my eyes, to the hidden angler within, and said something along the lines of…”This is a king. Your King. And if that reel goes overboard, your hand had better be attached!” The rest of the catch is a hilarious blur of shuffling bodies, me squealing, eager voices shouting ‘keep the pole upright’ ‘to the left of the boat, to the right, and reel faster’ all silenced by WHACK- a strike of the gaff, sacrificing royalty on deck.
I admired the beautiful sheen of her scales, hugged her fat slippery body to my fleece, estimated her length and weight, and grinned for pictures with my prize. We caught a rainbow of other fish during the remainder of the day but like the over-eager, impatient, cookie jar invading child I am, I couldn’t help peering into the ice chest at her beautiful body and the meal she promised.
And so, I caught my king and ate her too. I know she was a female because bright red eggs were revealed while we cleaned her flesh on shore. We also recovered two full herring from her stomach… this was easily the most intimate experience I’ve had with my food and now my food’s food to boot- how wonderfully gross.
Beside a salad bursting with freshly harvested salmon berries and beach asparagus, my king’s meat made for a delicious fresh meal. Harvesting your own food is an honorable tradition that evokes pride, love, and harbors incredible respect for the animal, its habitat, and for the family and friends with whom you chose to share with. The rest of her meat is flash frozen and vacuum sealed, awaiting future travel back to the east coast where I will return home to my family as a unique type of provider. I certainly haven’t made an awful lot of money as a conservation intern in Southeast Alaska but I am beyond rich with experience, newfound respect for America’s last frontier and am hopeful my parents will accept a cooler full of fish flesh as starting payment on my college loans…
A special thanks to my fishing buddy Greg Killinger for sharing his knowledge of these coasts and for helping me reel in my very first king!
What started as an idea to put second growth timber to practical use in 2007 has since taken shape as the most frequently used cabin in the Tongass National Forest. The Starrigavan Cabin Project combined local watershed restoration, community recreation and practical vocational training to produce a forest service cabin that four years later, continues to enrich the lives of Sitka locals and transients alike.
Many watersheds across the Tongass National Forest have been clear-cut and harvested for old growth timber. The resulting land is referred to as ‘young growth’ or ‘second growth’ and differs from its original landscape in various ecologically critical ways. Many plants and wildlife such as salmon and black-tailed deer, require the unique assets old growth landscapes offer; the encompassing health of larger ecosystems such as the temperate rainforest of the Tongass National Forest, depends on the existence of old growth. For that reason, organizations interested in protecting intrinsically and economically valuable lands and watersheds often turn to restoration efforts such as ‘thinning’ of second growth forests to accelerate the return of young forests to old growth conditions. A byproduct of restorative thinning is not surprisingly: second growth timber!
Unfortunately, second growth timber here is not as unique and economically marketable a commodity as Alaskan old growth. However, finding local economic use has proven not impossible and in light of the success with the Starrigavan Cabin project, second growth timber is becoming a beautiful and sustainable alternative to environmentally damaging old-growth clear-cutting.
Dustin Hack, a local Sitkan participant in the 2-week log home building class that resulted in the Starrigavan cabin (see above video), is pursuing the economic possibility of “a nationwide market for Alaskan second growth wood”. He explains that participation in this construction class opened his mind to the prospect of using second growth timber for wide-scale timber framing and applauds that “the US Forest Service, conservationists, city and tribe are all behind the effort to use second growth wood to build an economy here in Sitka.”
Although, one hundred and fifty cabins are available for recreation within the Tongass National Forest, the Starigavan Cabin is both the first ever produced using local second growth timber and the first cabin accessible (weather permitting) by vehicle. Therefore, not only did this cabin demonstrate a charming and functional use of second growth timber, it’s subsequent presence continues to extend forest stewardship to those unable to access Southeast Alaska’s more remote cabins.
The restoration work that resulted in the wood, the class that provided local vocational training, and the production of the Starrigavan cabin itself have left a truly significant legacy here on Baranof Island. A tangible demonstration of the shift from unsustainable old-growth harvesting to second growth restoration timber, this project is a reflection of a truly resilient and innovative community working to protect the vast landscape they are fortunate to call home.
To reserve your stay at the Starrigavan Cabin please visit: www.recreation.gov
To learn more about restorative thinning practices please download our briefing sheet by clicking here
Sitkoh River Restoration Begins!
The Sitkoh River Salmon Habitat Restoration Project got started last week. SCS staff, Trout Unlimited Alaska, local high school students, and other volunteers have been helping work at the site alongside contractors and Forest Service staff. On Wednesday June 13th, the crew hosted a fly-in visit by journalists, fishermen, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Habitat Division Director who took a tour of the project to see what was going on.
The visitor’s were thoroughly impressed. Randy Bates, Director of the ADFG Division of Habitat stated, “The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is happy to participate in a project like this that will restore high value fish habitat and restore the productive capacity of the original stream course.”
Wayne Owen, the Forest Service Alaska Director of Wildlife, Fisheries, Watersheds and Subsistence commented to the press during the visit that “Salmon are the lifeblood and economic base of Southeast Alaska. The Tongass is the fish basket of North American and Southeast Alaska produced a billion dollars in economic activity from the salmon produced on the Tongass.”
SCS applauds the efforts of the State of Alaska and the United States Forest Service in recognizing the role that the Tongass National Forest plays in providing and producing the salmon resource that is so important to the 32 salmon-dependent communities of SE Alaska. We hope that the Sitkoh River Restoration project is just the start of more efforts to put the watersheds that were damaged by historic logging back together so that they can return to full ecosystem functionality and produce all the salmon that they were once capable of.