“Living with the land” means having knowledge and familiarity with the natural environment that surrounds you. Part of that knowledge is knowing what are the edible plants in the environment and when they are ready for harvest. On the outer coast of Alaska in the Tongass National Forest, that also means knowing what seaweeds are edible. Knowing Seaweeds means knowing when they are in best conditions for harvest, how they are processed, and what they can be used for.
Although there are great books on identifying plants and seaweeds and recipes for preparing, sometimes the best information (and most locally pertinent), comes from spending time with elders and listening to what they have learned over their lifetimes.
In this video, SCS staff Scott Harris, Tracy Gagnon, and Adam Andis spent a morning with long-time SCS board member Bob Ellis and absorbed some of his wisdom about seaweeds in the intertidal zones of the Sitka Sound.
Join the Sitka Conservation Society on their last boat cruise of the season!
On Tuesday, Aug. 19, SCS will set sail with Allen Marine tours to explore the salmon of Sitka Sound. Lon Garrison, aquaculture director at the Sitka Sound Science Center will be on board as a guide and to answer questions. Come learn about the importance of salmon to the Tongass National Forest and have some fun on a Tuesday night!
Tickets are on sale at Old Harbor Books beginning Aug. 5. The cost is $40 per person.
The boat cruise will depart Crescent Harbor at 5 p.m. and return at 8 p.m., boarding begins at 4:45 p.m.
Don’t miss the last chance to take a SCS cruise this summer!
The Sitka Conservation Society sponsored a boat cruise through Sitka Sound and Nakwasina Sound on Sunday afternoon, bring visitors from Florida, Columbia, New York, Ireland and even some native Sitkans around the waterways and salmon habitats of the area. Led by SCS director Andrew Thoms and SCS board member Kitty LaBounty, guests on the Allen Marine Sea Otter Express, enjoyed gorgeous vistas, a bear siting, watching salmon jump and bald eagles soar and just before heading back to Crescent Harbor, a humpback whale gave everyone a close up flick of his tail as it descended to the deep.
But, while aboard the Sea Otter Express, guests also learned the southeast Alaska sea otter story, a tale fraught with controversy that acts as a simple reminder of the importance of any one species to The Tongass National Forest ecosystem.
Sea otters are the smallest marine mammals and are members of the weasel family. They spend almost their entire lives in water, often only going on land to give birth. Sea otters usually stay in groups called rafts of all males or females with their pups. These furry creatures are often seen floating and grooming around kelp beds and the rocky islands of Sitka Sound.
With no natural predators, sea otters have free reign over their territory. They eat shell fish and sea urchins and spend their days playing and grooming their fur. Because they do not have a blubber layer to keep them warm in the ocean, their fur is vital for their survival. Otters have the densest fur of any animal in the world with 300,000 hairs per square inch. And that is what has gotten them into trouble in the past.
During the late 1700′s and early 1800′s Russian fur traders almost completely wiped out the population of sea otters in Alaska. What some researchers believe was a population of 150,000 to 300,000 had been reduced to a mere 2,000 sea otters along the Pacific Northwest Coast by 1911. And it wasn’t just the fur industry thriving. Without the sea otters to eat them, clam and other shell fish populations grew and so did a whole system of fisheries that became very profitable in the region.
As you can tell from the pictures, the sea otters have returned. Hunting restrictions and reintroduction programs have restored the sea otter population along the Alaskan coast. Now, an estimated 12,000 live in Southeast Alaska.
But, the story is not without controversy. Those profitable shell fish fisheries I mentioned are now struggling to compete with the renewed sea otter population. Some argue that those fisheries became profitable in a time when the natural environment had been altered. There is also the topic of kelp to consider. Sea otters also eat sea urchins that kill off bulk kelp populations. The kelp is a great place for fish, particularly herring, to spawn and now with the sea otters back eating sea urchins, the kelp populations can thrive again.
Removing a species from its natural habitat can have profound effects on an ecosystem, as the story of the sea otters has shown. Even without natural predators, the sea otters play an important role in The Tongass National Forest ecosystem and help keep the environment in balance.
- Keep it low in fat and sodium
- Bake the fish!
- Don’t use any special appliances. These recipes will be replicated in local schools in big quantities, so don’t make it too complicated.
There were XTRATUFS everywhere! Though, a few souls did venture into the tide pools without them. On a foggy and misty Sunday morning, some brave adventurers, sponsored by the Sitka Conservation Society, ventured to Kruzof to learn about intertidal species. The shore was spotted with sea stars and there was quite a bit to learn about this wilderness that presents itself just a few hours every day.
Did you know there are 2,000 species of sea stars?
Not all live here in Southeast Alaska, but this region has the highest amount of diversity of these species.
Sea stars – sometimes referred to as starfish – are not actually fish. They do not have gills, fins, or scales. They pump nutrients through their body with salt water because they do not have blood. They have at least 5 legs, but some have as many as 40!
This is a sunflower sea star. These guys can be up to 3 feet wide and weigh as much as 60 pounds. They feed on clams and crabs and can move pretty quickly through the water. Well, they are no cheetahs, but they get around.
The biggest predators of sea stars are other sea stars. When sea stars feel threatened, they have the ability to shed one of their legs (which they will regrow later) so that a predator might eat that leg and leave them alone.
We hope you enjoyed learning as much as we did!
It was a fine cloudy morning with a touch of fresh breeze on June 11th; just another typical morning here in Sitka. My supervisor, Conservation Science Director for the Sitka Conservation Society (SCS), Scott Harris arrived at the Forest Service Bunk house (where I live) at 6:45 a.m. to pick me up. All I was told is that we will be setting traps to look for an invasive crab species that could potentially reach the waters of Alaska. I was super excited since I am not at all familiar with trapping crabs. On our way, we stopped to pick up Bethany Goodrich, SCS’s Tongass Policy and Communications Resident. Our first stop was at the Sitka Sound Science Center and Taylor White, the aquarium manager, greeted us. We loaded small containers with dead herring fish as bait before placing these containers into the six crab pots.
At 7:30 am in the morning, members of the Sitka Conservation Society and Sitka Sound Science Center were already busy, loading the boat with crab pots, and getting ready to take off to Sitka Sound to monitor the waters of the invasive crab species, the European Green Crab. As SCS’s Salmon Conservation Intern, I was eager to learn about the methods of monitoring invasive species in Alaska.
Currently, the European Green Crab is not known to occur in Alaska, but are currently found as far north as British Columbia. European Green Crabs first entered the United States in the mid 1800’s, coming by sailing ship to the Cape Cod region.Since then, the crabs have become well adapted to the environment and flourish in the waters of United States. However, with the increase in numbers, European Green Crabs have created negative impacts on local commercial and personal fishing and caused habitat disturbance thus affecting other native species. These crabs heavily prey on tubeworms, juvenile claims and juvenile crabs. In recent years, with the increase in the European crab population, there has been a strong decline in the populations of young oysters and other smaller native shore crabs. With its increasing population European Green Crabs have the potential to outcompete the native Dungeness crab for food and habitat. Thus, our mission of setting up the crab pots is to capture and halt the invasive European Green Crabs as early as possible in their invasion.
Shortly after we finished placing the bait, we headed towards Scott’s boat, Alacrity and placed the baits while waiting for Lynn Wilber, a PHD student from the University of Aberdeen in the United Kingdom. Once Lynn showed up, we headed out to the sea. As we headed out to sea, the panorama before me reminded me of the scenes from the discovery channel’s series “Deadliest Catch”, except for the fact that the water that we were in was a lot calmer.
We went out to where the water depth was about 30 ft and Scott plunged the first metal anchor that was attached to a marker buoy into the water. Attached to the buoy was a long heavy rope line and on that line we attached the crab pots using metal clippers. Each crab pot has to be 5-arm length apart from the other. One by one, we deployed the crab pots in to the water and at the end of the line, we attached another anchor with a marker buoy attached to it.
The next day, around the same time, we headed out to the sea to see if we had captured any European crabs in our crab pots. Keeping with the protocol, we had left the traps for the whole 24 hours. As we pulled in each trap, we discovered a bunch of sea stars, 1 rockfish and a male and a female Kelp Greenling and luckily no European Green Crabs. As part of the protocol, we also measured the salinity of the water because this is an area where the freshwater from Indian River fuse with the ocean and thus the salinity can fluctuate from time to time. Another reason for measuring the salinity is that the European Green Crabs are known to be tolerant of freshwater. Thus it is important to monitor the water chemistry, to determine if it is suitable environment for European Green Crabs to become established.
This process of monitoring happens every month in an effort by the staff of Sitka Conservation Society and Sitka Sound Science Center to protect that valuable native species of Alaska and to stop the invasion of the European Crab species as soon as possible. Forests, streams and the ocean all combine to provide a favorable habitat for salmon. To keep our fisheries healthy, we must continue to monitor and implement restoration projects in all of these three areas.
It’s amazing to see how far Fish to Schools has spread. Sitka wasn’t the first community to serve local fish in schools , but we put the program on the map. By telling our story, advocating for policy change, and sharing resources we’ve been able to support Fish to Schools efforts across the state. And it’s happening! Alaskan fish is now served in nearly every school district in Alaska.
I just finished up a few visits to four Southeast Communities: Kake, Hoonah, Hydaburg, and Kasaan. I was working with the Sustainable Southeast Partnership to check out what’s happening in each community and connect them to resources to strengthen their programs.
I started in Kasaan on Prince of Whales Island (POW). It’s a tiny village of about 60 people with a traditional schoolhouse and 10 kids. They started serving Alaskan fish in 2013 but it comes from the Anchorage area. Kasaan is surrounded by water and subsistence is a way-of-life—finding local fish isn’t the problem. But as it stands only commercial fish can enter a school meal program, so we’re looking at how we can circumnavigate that and support the fishermen who live on POW.
Next was Hydaburg, a village of about 400 people and 50 students. They have a similar story, Alaskan fish is offered but it comes from up north. They have commercial fishermen but the closest place they can deliver is in Craig. There are a few logistical challenges to get local fish in Hydaburg schools, but the interest is there to make it possible.
Then I was in Kake, with about 550 people and 110 students. They have been serving fish from Wasilla but have a local seafood processor in town. The processor up north portions and packages fish in a way that makes it easy for the school—but it doesn’t support the local fishermen or processor right in town. It’s convenient yes, and that’s important; schools just don’t have enough staff in the kitchen to cook foods from scratch. While the local seafood processor can’t match the level of processing they are currently used to, they are willing to do some minimal, custom processing for the school so Kake can serve Kake fish next year!
I finished my round of visits in Hoonah, where a strong program already exists. This town of about 750 residents and 100 students, has seen local halibut in schools since 2012. They serve salmon as well but also source it from up north. They are willing to give local salmon a shot next year and hope the pin bones won’t be a big (time) issue.
All four districts I visited have been purchasing local seafood through the Nutritional Alaskan Foods for Schools grant. It’s created an incentive to purchase local and also offsets the high food costs for small, remote communities. Kasaan, Hydaburg, and Kake all specifically spoke to the economic importance of purchasing locally for their communities.
Every district also seemed open, even enthusiastic, to the Stream to Plate curriculum. Principals and superintendents were excited to pass it along to a few of their teachers, who could implement and adapt the lessons to their classroom and community. Teaching students the backstory to the fish on their plate will empower them to make food choices that extend beyond taste. These children are our future fishermen, seafood processors, entrepreneurs, resource managers, and consumers of Alaskan seafood.
All in all, the response was positive and I’m excited to see what happens. Each community has an active community catalyst through the Sustainable Southeast Partnership to follow through on Fish to Schools goals. I’m here on standby as they make small and significant changes.
Ten years ago, in anticipation of the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act occurring this year, in 2014, the United States Forest Service launched what it termed the Ten Year Wilderness Challenge – an endeavor aimed at bringing to the over 400 wilderness areas under the Forest Service’s management a level of care needed to protect and preserve their wild character. As of 2009, the Sitka Conservation Society has been one of the organizations partnering with the Forest Service, specifically the Sitka Ranger District, to bring this goal to fruition.
This past week, I was lucky enough to find myself on the first Community Wilderness Stewardship trip of the season, traveling north to the Baird Islands. Bordered to the east by Slocum Arm and on the west by the Pacific Ocean, the Baird Islands are part of the West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness Area, successfully designated wilderness in 1980 by the famed Alaska National Lands Conservation Act. And after spending four days in this area, it’s fairly easy to understand why the citizens of Sitka fought so hard to rescue this land from logging operations. Over the course of the trip we were awoken by whales in the morning, tailed by playful sea lions, protected from the elements by huge old-growth trees spreading their branches above us, and at all times were looking out on panoramic scenes of untouched mountain and open ocean. Nature, it would seem, is doing alright in Southeast Alaska.
And it is; but we also found signs that the work of conservation is not yet over. On a few of the small islands in the chain, we discovered an invasive species of plant, possibly curly dock, which, without monitoring and control, could constitute a threat to the ecological health of Southeast’s native species. We also came upon lots of human trash, which, along with the potential harm it may have on the ecosystem, is also obviously an aesthetic affront. As well as doing general inventory on site use and monitoring for signs of permanent human presence, we therefore also spent a lot of our time picking up trash and pulling out plants.
One of my favorite moments from the trip happened in the midst of one such garbage pick-up. As I was, rubber gloves on and trash bag in hand, helping clean up the beach on which we were camped, Paul Killian, an individual at the crux of the partnership between SCS and the Forest Service, walked by me with a particularly heavy haul of trash. I made a comment about what a good load he had gotten, to which he smiled and said, “It’s not staying in my wilderness!” I liked the way that Paul had phrased that: “my wilderness.” It reminded me of a fact I often forget – although one that each time I remember amazes me no less – which is that by virtue of being American citizens, we are all shareholders in these vast and beautiful tracts of land. Our public lands, constituting about a third of the United States, are, in essence, land being held in trust for the American people – for us. It is land about which each of us is allowed to have and exercise a voice. There is thus something very personal about these public lands; and nowhere do I feel this more acutely than when I am actually out in the wild, enjoying and appreciating these areas. Herein, for me, lies one of the true values of experiencing wilderness: it turns the theoretical concept of conservation into a concrete and emotionally-driven desire to take good care of our earth.
My first trip to the Alaskan woods and waters made me very excited for a summer of working with various peoples and places in Southeast as SCS’ wilderness intern. Being in the Baird Islands reminded me that even after an area obtains official wilderness designation, these lands remain in need of protection and voices to speak for them. Luckily, I also got to see firsthand that these places remain very much worthy of protection, and that there are people willing to lend their voices and hands to the continuing cause.
If you’re interested in volunteering for SCS, be sure to check out our site’s Wilderness Page. It has all the information on how you can get out and explore Southeast Alaska while making a difference and helping SCS promote the cause of conservation!
The day we headed out from Hoonah was like most days in Southeast Alaska. Grey clouds diffused the light and an almost imperceptible rain left everything damp. We were headed to the Inian Islands, a cluster of knobby isles on the western end of Icy Strait, just inside the entrance to Cross Sound. Our trip held a dual mission: to conduct volunteer wilderness monitoring for the Forest Service and to gather traditional subsistence foods for the Hoonah locals on the trip: Owen James and Gordon Greenwald, our boat captains and wizened culture-bearers, two young men named Randy and Sam, and another adult volunteer, Kathy McCrobie.
The Inians along with two other large islands make up the Pleasant/Lemesurier/Inian Island Wilderness. The PLI Wilderness is one of 19 areas within the Tongass National Forest designated as Wilderness, the highest form of protection public lands can receive. The islands are also historic gathering and hunting grounds of the Huna Tlingit, the native tribe who call this section of northern Southeast Alaska home. Because the Inians are close to the open sea, they are rich with unique flora and fauna. A trip to these distant islands is an opportunity to collect delicacies not common in interior waters near Hoonah. For instance, one of our subsistence targets was black seaweed, a species that thrives in the cold, wave washed intertidal zone of the outercoast, but is rarely found more than a few miles into the Southeast archipelago.
The outside waters can be a harsh place in the summer and downright inhospitable in the winter. Although the Huna Tlingit are seasoned open ocean travelers and motorized skiffs make the 40-mile journey from the village of Hoonah to the islands much more manageable than a Tlingit canoe, it is still a sizable trip for locals. The same factors—difficult access and a short season—also make it difficult for the Forest Service Wilderness Rangers who are headquartered in Hoonah, to access these areas that they are tasked with managing and protecting.
On the first day of our trip we arrived at the Inian Islands after a few hours of skiffing over unusually calm waters. Our first stop was at lowtide on a rocky beach, the perfect habitat for Black Katy chitons, one of the traditional foods commonly called Gumboots which we hoped to return with.
The beach also looked like it could be a prime camping area, so while the rest of the crew flipped rocks and pried unsuspecting chitons from their hiding spots, I headed up the beach to look for recreational impacts. Monitoring impacts from visitors is one of the tasks the Forest Service has asked us to assist with. Wilderness areas are intended to preserve nature in its wildest state, but trash, campfire rings, and other signs of previous visitors detract from the wild character of these places. Also, once a site has been impacted, the trend is a downward slope to a trashed site. To prevent cumulative impact, we check known campsites and cleanup and naturalize any human traces we find. Fortunately, this site was in the same condition it’s probably been in since it was uncovered by the glacier, so I spent some time flipping rocks and adding to the gumboots collection.
As the tide neared its apex, Gordon pointed out a small rock island set apart from the larger Inian Islands. For generations, this rock had been the prize destination for Huna families. Set far from land and too small to support trees, the rock is the perfect nesting ground for seabirds like gulls and cormorants and we had timed our trip perfectly to harvest the new eggs. As we approached the rock in skiffs, Gordon and Owen explained the protocol: as the swell surges, we run the skiff up to the rock, one person jumps off, and he pulls the bow away before the swell drops the boat onto the shore, then reset and try again for the next person. Before they maneuvered the skiffs toward the rock, they carefully taught the boys the traditional method to appropriately harvest the eggs. If done in an ecologically responsible way, these practices will be able to continue forever. (Learn more about the regulation regarding egg collection by Alaskan Natives).
As we approached the rock in skiffs, Gordon and Owen explained the protocol: as the swell surges, we run the skiff up to the rock, one person jumps off, and he pulls the bow away before the swell drops the boat onto the shore, then reset and try again for the next person. Once on the rocks, Gordon instructed Sam and Randy to only take eggs from nests with multiple eggs, always leaving one behind.
Sam was the first to make the jump. The birds immediately erupted in a cacophony of squawks and feathers. Randy and I traded apprehensive glances. I made an excuse that I needed to pack my camera gear in drybags before I could jump…really I just wanted one more chance to see how it was done. Randy landed an impressive leap, despite receiving a bootfull of water. I followed him up the rock. As a non-Native, without subsistence rights to the eggs, my job was to enjoy the view. Blankets of birds flapped above us. The few green tufts of grass made a stark contrast to the guano-bleached stone and the blue-grey sky and water. It took no time for Sam and Randy to collect plenty of eggs to share with family and elders back in Hoonah. With concentration, steady boat handling, and good timing, we all made it safely back aboard the skiffs.
As the day went on, I was impressed with the way Owen and Gordon pointed out new landmarks to the two young men. Every remark about a headland or bay included not only geographical references, but also historical, cultural, and subsistence context.
That night, while we ate chowder made with local salmon, smoked octopus and cockles, I reflected on the education Randy and Sam had inherited on this trip. I have no doubt that they were more interested in learning about hunting spots, edible shellfish, and traditional stories than they were about the Wilderness land designation of their home. But, I would like to think that by relating the cultural values and subsistence practices of the Inian Islands along with the Wilderness values that will continue to protect this place for those practices, they have a better chance of retaining a favorable perspective of public lands, too.
In the end, the idea and values of Wilderness are stories, stories that must be repeated and retold to maintain their relevance. Gordon and Owen have endeavored to pass those stories to Hoonah youth. My esteem and thanks goes out to them for including the value of respect for public lands in the stories they tell.
In 2010 local fish was absent from the school lunch menu–now, less than four years later local fish is offered at every school in Sitka. It all started at Blatchley Middle School and along the way Keet Gooshi Heen, Pacific High, Mount Edgecumbe High, Sitka High, and SEER Schools joined the ranks. With a hugely successful trial lunch at Baranof Elementary, they have agreed to participate regularly next school year. Each year we take steps towards a sustainable Fish to Schools program.
I love this program for so many reasons. I love how it brings the community together–fishermen in the schools, parents joining students for lunch, local fish supporting local processors, testimonials on the radio. And I love that it’s taken the whole community to make it successful–schools investing in the idea, food service preparing meals from scratch, teachers opening up their classrooms, parents encouraging their children to choose fish for lunch, students eating fish, and local citizens taking a stand politically by advocating for state support through letters and testimonials.
Nothing makes me happier than hearing stories of children trying fish for the first time through Fish to Schools and loving it. Or students who used to hate fish, now eating it at home prepared just like Chef Colette made it in the classroom. Or the stories of children pointing out different fishing boats on the water that they learned in Stream to Plate.
Fish to Schools is a program that brings together community around food–a food that is so culturally, traditionally, and economically important to Sitka. If we can teach children that salmon require respect–respect in their harvest and habitat–we will continue to have a thriving fishery that supports subsistence, recreation, and commercial needs for..ever. We hope this program lays the groundwork on how fishing works and inspire children either support or become involved in the industry. We’ve had a few successes in the 2013-2014 school year. Here’s a snapshot we want to celebrate with you.
- Baranof Elementary School joins the ranks!
- Our story has been featured in a number of Alaska and national media outlets including National Fisherman Magazine (check out the Northern Lights column and follow-up story currently going to print) and Chewing the Fat, a WBEZ radio podcast in Chicago. We’re featured in the same radio hour as Chez Panisse Chef Alice Waters and Renegade Lunch Lady Ann Cooper. I would encourage you to listen to the whole program but if you want to hear just the Fish to Schools bit scroll to 35:25.
- We also had the opportunity and privilege to speak at the National Farm to Cafeteria Conference this spring on a “protein” panel. Many schools around the country are comfortably integrating local fruits and veggies into their school lunch program but proteins are a different beast. This panel focused on seafood, beef, chicken, pork, and legumes as viable protein sources for schools. The conversation is expanding and constantly changing!
- We’re thrilled to announce that our advocacy efforts this last legislative session paid off! Nutritional Alaskan Foods for Schools was funded for the third year in a row, which means more funding for schools to purchase Alaskan foods. It’s a win for the schools to purchase healthy, local foods while at the same time providing a stable market for local businesses. It’s also stretching schools to prepare more meals from scratch because most of the Alaskan foods currently on the market are raw: seafood, livestock, and vegetables. Nearly every district in the state is using this funding to purchase Alaskan seafood!
- And finally, we’ve been contracted by the Sustainable Southeast Partnership to support Fish to Schools efforts in four Southeast Communities: Hydaburg, Kasaan, Kake, and Hoonah. We have been welcomed in each community and have had great conversations about how to get local fish into the schools. More details on this soon!