Much has changed at Sitkoh Lake since the late 1970’s. What was once an epicenter for industrial logging is now a center of activity for forest and watershed restoration. During the summer of 2012, the Sitka District of the United States Forest Service (USFS) went into the Sitkoh Lake Watershed to restore tributary streams and repair some of the damage that was caused by industrial logging. This logging occurred at a time when we didn’t understand the value of the yearly returns of salmon compared to the short-term gains of clear-cut logging.
In the late 1970’s the area around Sitkoh Lake was heavily logged and many roads were constructed in close proximity to the nearby streams. Unfortunately, the resulting degradation in wildlife and stream habitat made survival more difficult for the area’s Sockeye, Coho, Pink, and Chum salmon. To rectify this issue, the Sitka Ranger District of the USFS has invested resources to restore and monitor these important streams.
Rivers and streams in old growth forest naturally have large logs and other root masses that create ideal habitat for juvenile salmon that spend the first years of their lives in this slow moving, deep water. These natural structures help to create deep pools, oxygenate the water, and provide cover from predators. When the area around a stream is heavily logged, the natural material that can create this salmon habitat is lost. As a result the stream becomes straighter, shallower and less ideal for juvenile salmon.
To fix this problem the crew from the US Forest Service installed a number of man-made structures called “upstream V’s” that replicate these natural structures. These upstream V’s help channel the stream’s flow and create deeper, slower moving water ideal for juvenile salmon. However, these are temporary fixes that will hold the stream bank together until the trees along the stream grow large enough to naturally create this habitat diversity for spawning salmon.
This project in the Sitkoh Lake Watershed is important because these salmon runs help support many of our local communities. Many commercial seine and troll fishermen depend on these fish for their livelihoods. These runs also support our local subsistence fishery that so many residents depend upon for their sustenance. Considering these qualities, it’s fair to say that these streams are the lifeblood for the nearby communities of Angoon and Sitka.
Forest Service projects like this that “manage the Tongass for Salmon” are extremely important investments in both the ecosystems of the Tongass as well as the economy of Southeast Alaska. But this project is just a start. There are still hundreds of miles of salmon streams that have been impacted by historic clear-cut logging that still need restoration.
SCS is working to make sure that this project is only the beginning of a long-term focus of Tongass management that focuses on our Wild Alaska Salmon Resource.
Have you ever wanted to can salmon but haven’t been able to find good instructions?
Brian Hamilton, a local fisherman and connoisseur of wild foods, is here to help. He has put together a very detailed explanation of the process he goes through when catching, cleaning, brining, smoking, and canning salmon.
My hope is that these instructions help others in their quest to preserve some of our local delicacies.
Here are Brian’s instructions:
“A Brief Outline of Catching, Cleaning, Brining, Smoking, and Canning Salmon.
- Once fish is caught (and killed), cut or remove gills to allow blood to drain from fish.
- Keep fish cold. ( I run a stringer through their gill flap and tie them to a rock making sure their bodies stay submerged in water).
- Once fish are caught, clean them as soon as possible.
* Try not to let fish get discolored which usually results from letting them sit to warm and too long before cleaning.
Cleaning: (this is done easily in a double sink with a large counter space next to it)
- Rinse each fish in cold water removing any large external debris.
- Place fish on counter. Hold tail with non-dominant hand and use a sharp fillet knife to cut a shallow incision from the anus to the fish’s bottom lip.
- Gently remove all organs from stomach cavity, being careful not to rupture the intestines or rectum (they contain green waste that spreads quickly and could damage the quality of the fish meat).
- Use the tip of the fillet knife to cut open the thin membrane that covers the spinal fluid. (Spinal fluid resembles thick, coagulated blood).
- Rinse out spine and stomach cavities thoroughly with cold water.
- Cut two spine deep slits on each side of fish: 1 behind the gills and the other just in front of the tail
- Cut fillets off each side (I hold the tail with my non-dominant hand and run the fillet knife from tail slit to gill slit, keeping knife lightly pressed against the spine. Try to remove as much meat as possible. Bones are ok.)
- Cut fillets in half and rinse thoroughly. Dry scale side down with a paper towel, removing as much slime as possible.
- Place fillet halves into brine (see recipe) and discard fish carcasses. *
*For bear safety it is strongly recommended that the fish carcasses and organs are bagged and frozen then dumped in your street garbage the morning it is picked up.
Brining- water, sugar, salt
- In 2 quarts cold water, add just enough salt to float and uncooked egg and then thoroughly mix.
- Then add 2 cups brown sugar and thoroughly mix again.
- Add fish and let fish sit in fridge for 12 hours.
Smoking- (plug in smoker 30 minutes before smoking)
- After fish has set in brine for 12 hours, remove from brine and thoroughly rinse. Set rinsed fillets, scales down, on clean smoker racks (leaving about 1 inch between fillets helps smoke rise).
- Pat fillets with paper towels and then let them sit for 30 min in a cold, dry, clean place.
- Load fillets into smoker, starting with the top rack.
- Fill the wood chip pan with wood chips.
- After about 2.5 hours, check wood chip pan. DO NOT REMOVE THE ENTIRE FRONT COVER. If chips are exhausted, discard and refill wood chip pan.
- After another 2.5 hours, unplug smoker.
Supplies- Mason jars w/ lids and rings, pressure cooker.
- Thoroughly wash and rinse mason jars, rings, and lids and set them out to dry. (It takes about 1 jar per 2 fillet halves, but have extras just in case).
- Remove lowest tray of smoked salmon fillets from smoker and set on counter.
- Remove as much skin as possible from each fillet, then pack fish into jars. Bones are okay!
- Fish can be lightly stuffed into jars but make sure there is at least 1 inch of empty space between top lip of jar and the highest point of fish in jar.
- Place seal lid and ring onto each jar and lightly tighten each ring. Rings should just barely “catch” before you stop tightening. This will allow heat to escape jars during pressure cooking.
- Place jars into pressure cooker and stack if your pressure cooker is large enough. Make sure a rack is in place (included with pressure cooker) so jars aren’t sitting directly on the bottom of the cooker.
- Fit as many jars as possible in the pressure cooker.
- Follow instruction manual for pressure cooker for amount of water and vinegar to add.
- Run a paper towel along the top rim of the jar to thoroughly clean off any debris.
- Place lid on pressure cooker and latch close, heat escape vent should be open and/or uncovered.
- Put pressure cooker on a stove and heat on highest setting.
- Once water boils, steam will emit from the heat vent. Once steam is emitted in a strong, steady stream place cover on heat vent. Once pressure builds up, the pressure stop will rattle around and eventually pop up.
- Pressure will slowly build on the pressure gauge. Once 11 psi is reached, turn down heat setting and try not to allow pressure to exceed 11 PSI.
- Start a timer for 100 minutes and constantly adjust stove heat up and down to keep pressure at 11PSI.
- After 100 minutes, turn off stove heat and move pressure cooker to a non-heated stove surface. Pressure will slowly decrease.
- After about 30 minutes, pressure will reach zero and the pressure stop will drop, carefully remove lid from canner making sure to keep the steam away from your face and arms.
- Jars are extremely hot. Using hot gloves or a folded towel, remove each jar slowly and place on a towel or heat resistant surface. The fat from the fish will be built up in the jars and still boiling. Some jars may be broken, so carefully remove those jars from the bottom with a metal spatula or similar tool. (As long as shards of glass are not present and jar breakage looks clean, the fish should be safe to consume.) Leave jars to cool for a couple of hours at room temperature.
- As jars cool, the lids will compress and seal with popping sounds, which completes the sealing of the jar. If any jar is cooled and not sealed, they are not safe for storage and should be refrigerated and consumed soon. Sealed jars are usually safe at room temperature for at least a year or two.
- Store jars in a cool, dry place.
- Eat often.
Anyone that tells you there is a trail between Hoonah Sound and Lisianski Strait because “it’s on the map,” has never been there on foot. This is because there is no trail there! An SCS Wilderness Groundtruthing team recently explored that area on the Tongass and confirmed that the only trails available are the ones made by deer and bear.
The purpose of this expedition was to look at habitat connectivity and bear use. Members of the expedition were wildlife biologist Jon Martin, mountain goat hunting guide and outdoorsman Kevin Johnson, photographer Ben Hamilton, and SCS Executive Director Andrew Thoms.
SCS is interested in this landscape because of the protections given to these areas. The land between Hoonah Sound and Lisianski Strait is protected as LUD II – a Congressional roadless designation status meant to protect “the area’s wildland characteristics.” The lands between Lisianski Strait and Goulding Harbor are part of the West Chichagof-Yacobi Wilderness where management is to “provide opportunities for solitude where humans are visitors.” Management language aside, the most important thing about these areas is that they are large, contiguous protected areas where an entire watershed from the high-ridges to the estuaries is left in its natural condition. This means that these watersheds are able to function with no impact from roads, logging, mining, or other human activities.
What this looks like on the ground is a pristine habitat teaming with bears, deer, and rivers and lakes filled with salmon and trout. There are also many surprises: on this trip, we found a native species of lamprey spawning in a river creek that no one in the group has ever seen before (and the group had over 60 years of experience on the Tongass). We also found fishing holes where trout bit on every cast, back-pools in river tributaries filled with Coho Smolts, forests with peaceful glens and thorny devil’s club thickets, and pristine lakes surrounded by towering mountains.
If any place should be protected on the Tongass, it is these watersheds. The Lisianski River is a salmon and trout power-house and produces ample salmon for bears that live in the estuary and trollers that fish the outside waters. One can’t help but feel grateful walking along the river and through the forests here, thankful that someone had the foresight to set this place aside. Clear-cutting logging wild places like these provides paltry returns in comparison to the salmon they produce and all the other life they sustain.
These watersheds that we walked through are success stories and teach us how the temperate rainforest environment works in its natural unaltered state and how much value they produce following their own rhythms. The actions taken in the past to set these areas aside give us pause to think about what we should be doing today to invest in our future and protect ecosystems that are similarly important ecologically.
Scientists have identified over 77 other watersheds across the Tongass that produce massive amounts of salmon and have ecological characteristics that need to be protected. Some of these watersheds are slated to be logged by the Forest Service. Even worse, pending Sealaska legislation could result in some of these watersheds being privatized, sacrificing protection for salmon streams and spawning habitat. With your help and involvement, SCS is working to protect those watersheds and landscapes so that we can ensure the consideration of long-term health and resource benefits from these watersheds over the short-term gains of logging, road-building, or privatization. It is our responsibility that we make the right choices and that future generations are grateful for what we leave them to explore and benefit from.
If you want to be part of SCS’s work to protect lands and waters of the Tongass, please contact us and we’ll tell you how you can help. If you are inspired, write a letter to our senators and tell them to protect salmon on the Tongass and manage it for Salmon: here
Above: TROLLERS, like the family salmon troller pictured above, made sure that TRAWLING was not allowed in the Eastern Gulf of Alaska. TRAWLING is an unsustainable method of fishing that results in massive bycatch. TROLLING is a much more targeted fishing method and is more sustainable.
The Sitka Conservation Society signed onto a letter raising the alarm that trawl caught fish were being purchased by a local fish processor. Trawling, the practice of dragging a net through the water or along the bottom of the ocean and indiscriminately catching everything in the path of the net, has proven to be one of the most wasteful types of fishing and one of the most environmentally damaging. Trawling has been outlawed in Southeast Alaska east of 140 degrees West Longitude thanks to the foresight and advocacy efforts of fishermen, conservationists, community members, and local government in 1998.
Trawl fishing is very different from the types of fishing employed in Southeast Alaska today. Not to be confused, trolling employs hooks and line and is one-hook, one-fish. Likewise, seining and gill-netting are highly targeted to specific places, times, and types of fish and is closely monitored to ensure fish harvest does not exceed the population needed for long-term population viability. Halibut and Black-cod Long-lining is also a one-hook, one-fish fishery that has tight controls on by-catch and harvest levels. Crab and Shrimp fishing in SE Alaska uses pot and traps and has little impact to the seafloor and does not kill the by-catch.
SCS is concerned about trawling because of the harm is can cause the environment and the threat that it poses to the local economy that Sitka has worked so hard to develop in ways that balance human needs and environmental protection. This is an issue that clearly demonstrates that protecting fisheries is both about protecting the natural environment of the Tongass Temperate Rainforests where salmon begin their lives and being vigilant on what takes place in the ocean ecosystems where the fish grow and mature.
To listen to a radio story on Sitkan’s concerns on trawling and the threat it poses to fisheries, livelihoods, and the environment, click here.
To read the letter that the Sitka Conservation Society signed, click here.
Elizabeth Cockrell, Sustainable Salmon Intern with the Sitka Conservation Society will explore the role fishermen played in the development of Alaska’s sustainable fisheries and management policies on Sunday, August 5th, 5pm at Kettleson Memorial Library.
Sitka Conservation Society will hold a Community Salmon Bake fundraiser on Thursday, July 19th at 6pm at Harrigan Centennial Hall. Tickets cost $20 per person ($15 for children 12 and under). Dinner will begin around 6:30 and feature local salmon, delicious sides, and local rhubarb sundaes! Door prizes will be given away. Funds raised support salmon education and outreach programming at SCS. Tickets will be on sale at Old Harbor Books at 20l Lincoln Street.
When I first moved here seeing devils club would make me cringe. I would lament at its pervasive cover. Inevitably when hiking, I would grab onto a stalk for support or bushwhack through a thicket of them. I noticed on a recent hike that my feelings for devils club had changed significantly. I was excited to see the plants, the larger the stand the bigger my grin. Now I see devils club as a medicine, a prolific and powerful resource in the Tongass. Its healing qualities seem to cure any ailment and have been used by Tlingits for thousands of years.
Last week, I met with one of our families to learn the process of harvesting the plant. Always harvest from a large stand and leave little impact. Be careful to harvest stalks above new buds so the plant can put energy into those shoots. Before clipping a branch, thank the plant for its medicine and healing properties.
Over the weekend, 4H Alaska way-of-life members located a stand of devils club, harvested a few stalks, scraped off thorns, and peeled off the green bark. I had already made the devils club oil by heating the dried bark gently in a double boiler for three hours (the longer you infuse it the stronger the medicine). Together, we added beeswax shavings to the warm oil to make a salve. Its applications are limitless: chapped lips, sore muscles, bug bites, buns, etc.
**It is of utmost importance to be mindful in your harvest, maintain respect for the plant and its natural environment, and harvest only what you can use.
In the Tongass, people live with the land. We are constantly learning from it–learning how to build communities that are part of the landscape rather than a place away from it. In this blog we want to share with you some of those lessons we’ve learned and the experience of learning them first hand.
If you are not automatically redirected to the blog page, click here.
The Sitka Conservation Society’s Fish to School Program has nearly completed its first full school year with raving reviews, community support, and strong partnerships. These local fish lunches are served as a hot lunch option through the school lunch program. Lunches are available to all students, totaling about 700 students with about half of those students consistently eating hot lunch.
In just one year we have seen local fish lunch consumption rates almost double at Blatchley Middle School (BMS), at an average of about 39%. I remember a lunch at BMS where a student tempted her friend to try the fish fillet. She was very skeptical but after trying it couldn’t get enough and began to feed her other friends! Check out this video on Fish to Schools at BMS by local filmmaker Hannah Guggenheim.
At Keet Gooshi Heen Elementary (KGH), where fish was introduced this fall, we are seeing rates of about 30% participation, with a few lunches peaking above 40%. Students consistently rave about the local fish lunches. One elementary school student at a recent lunch said, “I don’t like the fish lunches, I love them!” Other students tell me that they always get fish when it’s on the menu even though they generally pack lunches from home.
This spring we were delighted to collaborate with two new schools, Pacific High School (PHS) and Mount Edgecumbe High School (MEHS). PHS has a unique school lunch program with students serving as cooks for their classmates while learning commercial kitchen skills that lead to a job-ready Food Handlers Certification. In this program, they prepare unique dishes, including Caribbean rockfish with sweet potato fries, rockfish marinara, and crispy-baked rockfish.
MEHS finished off the school year with their first fish lunch after a year-long, grassroots student campaign to get local fish into their school. Student organizers from the Alaska Youth for Environmental Action (AYEA) Club led the charge by raising awareness about the environmental benefits of eating locally-harvested fish and polled students to see if they wanted to see fish at their school. 90% of students said, “Absolutely, yes!” Their efforts culminated in mouthwatering fish tacos this April.
Education programs were integrated into the third and seventh grade classes along with fish lunches. Students followed the cycles of fish from their native habitat to their lunch tray by interviewing local fishermen, hearing stories from Alaska Natives, dissecting and filleting salmon, and preparing tasty dishes with a local chef. Cultural knowledge, nutrition, and food systems were woven throughout the program. Local fish lunches paired with the Stream to Plate Curriculum brings students closer to their culture and the backbone of Sitka. Serving students local fish and exposing them to the fishing culture, connects them to their home and develops a sense of pride for being a part of a community that supports itself on the best (tasting and managed) seafood in the world.
The Sitka Fish to Schools program was awarded the Best Farm to School Project in Alaska for the 2011-2012 school year. It is a community-wide honor, recognizing all of the stakeholders involved in the program: food service, local seafood processors, fishermen, school district, principals, teachers, and community volunteers. Alaska’s First Lady, Sandy Parnell, came to a local fish lunch to recognize our local efforts in Sitka. We are thrilled that she personally came to show her support for our creative use of local foods in the school lunch program. We hope her interest will continue to increase the profile of this program and that we will see continued support for these efforts statewide.
The Sitka Conservation Society hopes that this program will create closer connections between our community and the natural resources from the environment around us. Through its implementation, youth and stakeholders will gain an increased understanding of how we use and depend on the land and waters of the Tongass. With the fish on our plates at home and at school, we will, as a community, make better decisions on the management and future of those resources that we intimately depend on. Further, we hope that this program will influence the USDA, and the policy makers who direct it, to focus on a more sustainable school lunch food system by using local sources for food. And, importantly, our school districts will teach children about local natural resources and the jobs and livelihoods in our community by using hands-on, real-world learning experiences.
Each May in Starrigavan Valley, nearly 100 7th Graders from Blatchley Middle School in Sitka spend a couple days doing hands-on stream restoration and monitoring. In the classroom, the students learn about watershed ecology and salmon habitat. Then they hit the field and help professional watershed managers actually install in-stream wood structures to rebuild fish habitat. They also monitor water quality and changes is stream structure. This project has a slew of partners that includes the Sitka Conservation Society, Sitka Ranger District, Sitka School District, Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game, National Park Service, and others.