Tourism is a $1 billion industry in southeast Alaska, fueled by visitors coming from all over the world to view the glaciers, bears, eagles and to experience the wilderness. But, they also come for the whales!
The population of North Pacific humpback whales in southeast Alaska used to be a lot higher, but humans actually almost hunted the animals to extinction. Whale oil is very fuel efficient and used to power much of Juneau. But, after whaling began, a population of 15,000 humpbacks reduced to only about 1,000. Today, the whales are protected and even tour companies have regulations to keep from disrupting feeding patterns of the animals.
North Pacific Humpback whales can be seen around Sitka all summer long. The humpback whales that inhabit these waters all summer likely spend their winters in the warmer waters surrounding Hawaii, Mexico, or in the western Pacific. If you are looking for whales on the horizon, best to try and spot a surge of water, oxygen, carbon dioxide and maybe a little bit of whale snot shooting into the air. The spouts that humpbacks send up into the air are exhalations of breath than can be at speeds of 300 miles per hour! If you look carefully enough, you can see these spouts from shore!
Why Alaska in the spring and summer? There is so much food for them to eat! Speaking of food, North Pacific humpbacks feed on herring and krill. They take in tons of water into their mouths, and then as the water is released, their teeth act as filters and catch the fish in their mouths. Despite the size of the animals, their throats are only the size of grapefruits. So they eat lots of really tiny food to fuel their big bodies.
Why are they called humpbacks? Oh, that’s easy! There is a large hump along the back of the whales. Humpback whales also have very long flippers. They can be distinguished from other whales from the size of their flippers which can be up to 25 or 30 percent of their body length. Now for whales that can be up to 50 feet long – those flippers are rather large! Humpbacks also weigh about one ton per foot of length. That means a 50 foot whale can weigh 50 tons!
The National Ocean Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) can actually keep track of the individual whales that make their way up to southeast Alaska every year. The flukes (or tails) of humpbacks are unique to each individual. They are like fingerprints and NOAA has names for individuals it has identified from photos of flukes. Maybe next time you’re out on the water looking for whales you can snag a picture that NOAA can use to name a new whale visiting the southeast for the summer!
The soft morning sunlight shined upon as I rode my bike to the Crescent Harbor, making my way towards Scott’s Boat. Today was the very first overnight camping trip of my internship, and that fact alone had already made the trip exciting. As I got to the boat, Scott was already there, making sure that the boat was ready for the journey to Kruzof Island. A few minutes later, Mary Wood showed up to the boat. Mary is the Living with the Land Jesuit Volunteer, and since she has had a lot of camping/ backpacking experience, she will be my guide for the overnight trip. I was glad to have such a reliable guide as I felt nervous at the thought of my first, real camping experience. The only time I camped was my first year at Knox College where we went to a forest reserve and spent the night in a cabin with bunk beds. I was psyched about spending the night in a tent since it was something I had never done before.
At about 11:00 in the morning, we departed from the harbor and ambled our way to Kruzof Island. With each coming wave, we headed out to sea; the boat hurdled up and down, dancing along the rhythm of the waters. Forty-five minutes into the trip, our boat approached the island. With a gush of excitement, I set my foot on the Kruzof Island for the very first time. The salty soothing ocean breeze rippled across my face as I took my first breath of cool gentle air of this uninhabited nature. It was a stunning panorama, with trees that danced along to the wind and rhythmic ocean waves. After taking it all in, we unloaded our camping gear from the boat and headed to the campsite. Two graduate students from University of Michigan greeted me. They had been conducting surveys regarding resource management and social dynamics on the island, and were creating a monitoring plan for a section of Shelikof Creek. That night, we sat next to the warm fire, and as the sun slowly disappeared into the horizon, the excitement of the first day faded away as well.
The next day, we woke up at around six in the morning to get ready for work. Our morning fuel consisted of a warm bowl of oatmeal, topped with a generous squirt of honey and fruits and by 6:30 we were ready for work. In order for us to get to the work site, we had to drive ATVs and since Mary knew how to drive one, I went along with her. Riding the ATV was like a thrilling roller coaster ride as it tense over the uneven rocky trails. After 30 minutes of the ATV ride and another hour of bushwhacking through the dense forest, we finally reached our destination.
It was a serene beautiful sight, surrounded by trees while a meandering river cruises across the landscape. The United States Forest Service (USFS) was performing salmon habitat restoration work in the stream. In the past, forest management practices allowed logging all the way to the stream banks. Now we know that was a mistake because large-tree riparian forest provide valuable benefits for salmon and other wildlife. So now we’re putting logs back in the stream to provide rearing and spawning habitat for salmon. While assisting, I had the opportunity to be control of the wench, a tool used to pull in logs from the banks. These logs would provide hiding places for the salmon from natural predators such as bears and eagles. It was a magnificent sight to see these huge timeworn logs getting pulled into the waters.
Meanwhile, Chris Leeseberg, Fisheries and Wildlife Biologist at the USFS, was trimming down the forest near the river to prevent overcrowding of the second-generation growth. This would allow trees to grow without any competition and will allow shrubs to grow on the bottom of the forest floor. By the time we finished with placing the logs into stream, it was about five in the evening thus we headed back to our base camp.
Although this was only a two-day trip, this experience further enhanced my knowledge regarding salmon habitat restoration work. Salmon plays a major role in the lives of the people of Alaska in both industrial and subsistence fishing. Organizations such as the USFS and SCS implement restoration projects in an effort to protect the salmon, a reminder of the important and highly valued fish. Many respect and appreciate the importance of the work done by the Forest Service and I am glad to be have been apart of this restoration work.
Fish to Schools started in the fall of 2010 and we’ve steadily grown the program over the last four years. We grew from one school to two to four to eight. We went from serving fish from once a month to twice a month to EVERY week. For the 2014-2015 school year the Sitka School District will be serving local fish lunches every Wednesday rotating between coho and rockfish. We’re so excited to see these healthy and sustainable lunches offered weekly. Fish to Schools is redefining what is possible for school food service. Scratch cooking? Yes! Local foods? Yes! Happy, healthy kids? Yes!
Take a listen to this sweet PSA featuring Ava and Emerson sharing the good news of weekly Wednesday lunches. Click this link: http://sitkawild.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/fishwednesday.mp3
Lunches will be offered at Baranof Elementary, Keet Gooshi Heen, Blatchley Middle School, Sitka High School, Pacific High Schools, Mount Edgecumbe High School, SEER School, & Head Start. You can ensure these lunches continue by showing your support for Fish to Schools and the Nutritional Alaskan Foods for Schools program—a grant that allows for the purchase of local foods in schools, like fish!
Sitka Conservation Society Executive Director Andrew Thoms is a member of the Tongass Advisory Council, a group of 15 stakeholders from all over the Pacific Northwest, including fishermen, timber salesmen, Alaska Native groups and conservationists.
Thoms traveled to Ketchikan last week for the first of many The Tongass Advisory Committee meetings that will discuss strategies for implementing a new management plan for the Tongass National Forest. The goal of the new plan is to shift from old growth to young growth timber harvesting.
“This committee is leading the way in figuring out how land and resource management can sustain and benefit communities while also conserving intact ecosystems,” Andrew Thoms, executive director of the Sitka Conservation Society and a member of the committee said. “It is natural that this is being done in Southeast Alaska because all of us who live here are so connected with the natural environment and the resources it provides.”
The Tongass National Forest, Sitka’s 17 million acre backyard, is the largest in-tact temperate rainforest in the world. And, the Tongass Advisory Committee wants to make sure it stays that way. Thoms and other members of the committee still want the forest to be profitable, but in more sustainable and community-focused ways. The Tongass National Forest is home to 74,000 people.
“I am very impressed that 15 people can come to consensus and put community at the top of the list,” Wayne Brenner, one of the nominated co-chairs of the committee said after the three-day conference. “That is the key that holds Southeast together.”
The old growth that is left in the Tongass only makes up about 4 percent of the forest. The committee wants the U.S. Forest Service to shift the focus from valuable old-growth timber to renewable resources and industries like salmon fishing and tourism. Timber harvesting will not completely disappear, but rather the committee wants to encourage a shift to young-growth harvesting.
Forrest Cole, Tongass National Forest supervisor, said the transition to young growth will support a healthy forest ecosystem, while also creating more sustainable southeast communities.
“We are confident this transition will work long term and we are excited that it has already started with Dargon Point, which could become a benchmark for future projects,” Cole said. Other young growth harvesting projects are being planned for Kosciusko Island and Naukati-Greater Staney on Prince of Wales.
“For the past several decades there has been significant conflict with harvesting old growth timber and building roads,” Cole said. “This struggle has damaged the local timber industry and has negatively affected the Southeast Alaska economy.”
Kirk Hardcastle, a committee member, is also a commercial fisherman in southeast Alaska. He applied for the committee because he wanted to help transition the Tongass Management Plan to one more focused on fishing and renewable energy.
“We have every renewable energy resource in southeast Alaska,” Hardcastle said. “We’re not looking to export as much as apply the technology to our communities.”
In addition to fishing and renewable energy, the committee meetings on August 6 – 8 in Ketchikan also focused on subsistence, tourism and recreation.
Thoms is honored to be a member of this committee and to be a part of implementing a new management plan in the forest. While the actual transition may be several years away, he is working with the Forest Service to ensure they are taking steps in the right direction.
As published in the Sitka Daily Sentinel on Wednesday, August 20, 2014
Scientists are searching for a method to eradicate the invasive tunicate species that has kept Whiting Harbor closed since 2010. This invasive sea squirt has been found all over the world and can have detrimental effects on marine ecosystems if not controlled. But killing the invasive, is not so easy.
“Sometimes people have this notion that you can just kill anything,” Ian Davidson, of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Maryland, said in a recent interview. “There is not a standard template you can just follow and do.”
Whiting Harbor is the cove between the Northwest end of the airport runway and the causeway linking the islands of the Fort Rouseau State Historical Park. If not for the tunicate contamination, Whiting Harbor would be the preferred access to the state park, which is accessible only by boat.
This September, Davidson and other scientists from the Smithsonian will be testing a possible treatment method for the invasive tunicate to see if they might be able to remove the species from Whiting altogether.
Didemnum vexillum, or D vex, is a fast-growing sea squirt sometimes called marine vomit. It has been found all over the world and has greatly impacted ecosystems off the coasts of New Zealand and Wales and has been particularly harmful to scallop populations near Massachusetts. Scientists believe D vex originated in Japan.
“It establishes well over surfaces,” Tammy Davis, invasive species program director for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said. “It’s a really fast grower.”
Fortunately for Sitka and the rest of Southeast Alaska, despite the fast-growing characteristics of D vex, surveyors have not found evidence of the tunicate spreading anywhere else in Alaska.
D vex often attaches to boats and fishing lines and is spread to other areas, so Davis said Whiting Harbor has been closed to all human activity since the discovery of the tunicate to limit the spread of the organism. As for what brought it to Sitka, no one knows.
“We can’t say what the vector was,” Davis said.
Scientists can’t say just how long it’s been here either.
Marnie Chapman, a professor at University of Alaska Southeast, was on the bioblitz expedition that discovered the tunicate in 2010.
“It’s hard to identify on first look,” Chapman said. If the scientists hadn’t realized what they had found, “that would have been a nightmare scenario,” she said.
Containing and ultimately eradicating the species is important because “invasive species compromise our sense of place,” she said. “They take what is special and unique about a particular area and they make it less special.”
But while the tunicate has remained contained in Whiting Harbor, scientists still don’t know how to get rid of it. Davidson explained part of the research this fall will be testing the effects of increased salt content in the water of the harbor. A higher salinity of the water may help kill the tunicate, he said, but the scientists need to figure out if they can control the salt content in the harbor long enough to be effective.
Davidson’s team of scientists will return early next year or in the spring for full on experiments in eradication, he said. This first trip is just testing the methods.
“I want to emphasize that this is not an eradication attempt, but rather a trial to determine how one might go about an eradication effort,” Linda McCann of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center said. “We face several challenges with the work,” she said including managing the delivery of the treatment and not harming the substrates the tunicate is attached to.
Davidson said that mobile creatures in the harbor will disperse if the salt content gets too high for them during the testing. He said the scientists were not worried about other invertebrates that may not be able to escape, because they were positive the harbor would repopulate because of Sitka’s healthy intertidal zones.
Getting rid of the D vex tunicate in Whiting Harbor is another important step in the management process. Davidson said Alaska has less of an invasive problem than many other coastline states, particularly California.
“Alaska has a stronger reason to protect its territory,” Davidson said. “You can get back to a pristine condition.”
The Sitka Conservation Society is not only dedicated to protecting the natural environment of the Tongass National Forest, but also to supporting the health and sustainability of the communities that depend on the forest’s resources. As part of this mission, we partnered with local communities, the Tongass National Forest, and the National Forest Foundation to conduct a habitat restoration monitoring project on Twelvemile Creek on Prince of Wales Island.
This project has three key components; conducting the actual monitoring of fish ecology, engaging local school kids in hands-on activities in the creek, and training aspiring fisheries professionals from nearby communities.
Stream Team is a statewide citizen science initiative that brings students out of the classroom and into their backyard. This summer, students from Hydaburg, Craig and Klawock were able to participate. Corby Weyhmiller, a teacher in the community of Klawock on Prince of Wales Island, was instrumental in involving students in the hands-on activities. This past summer, kids worked alongside fisheries technicians and researchers at Twelvemile Creek. In addition to developing their math and science skills, the students learned about the background and history of forest management, salmon habitat, and restoration efforts on the Tongass National Forest.
Cherl Fecko has also been integral to the effort to engage local school students. Fecko is a retired Klawock school teacher and continues to work catalyzing environmental education initiatives on Prince of Wales. She said the hands-on experience is valuable for students in Southeast Alaska. “I think in this world of technology, what we’re really hoping is that kids don’t lose that connection to their outside world,” she said. “I mean, they are still using technology but I think it’s just so important to still get outdoors and connect with their environment.”
The five species of Pacific salmon that inhabit the rivers and streams of the Tongass fuel the economy of Southeast Alaska and are an essential part this region’s culture. Past logging practices were detrimental to salmon habitats because surrounding trees and even those lying across stream beds were removed. Forest Service biologists and local conservationists later realized the woody debris in and along the rivers and streams had its purpose. These logs create important habitat for salmon spawning when they are adults and provide cover for young salmon. They also have important ecological functions that can be hard to predict. For example, the logs that lie across creeks like Twelvemile catch and trap dead salmon that are washed downstream, and help fuel the nutrient and food cycles of the aquatic ecosystem.
Over the years, the Sitka Conservation Society, the National Forest Foundation, the U.S. Forest Service, The Nature Conservancy, Trout Unlimited, and our communities have worked in partnership to focus on restoration projects that can return these streams to their original condition. This summer, enthusiastic Stream Team students, high school interns, and teams of scientists were out in the waters, observing the habitats to find out what has worked well in the restoration process and what can be improved. This adaptive management testing, or post-restoration monitoring, is funded by the Forest Service, National Forest Foundation and members of the Sitka Conservation Society.
The work on Twelvemile Creek has helped more than just the returning coho salmon, however. The internship program has given high school students the chance to participate in the research and get on-the-job training and exposure to fisheries research. Upon completion of the internship, students may receive scholarships for the University of Alaska Southeast’s fisheries technician program.
The Sitka Conservation Society remains committed to not only the health of the fish in Twelvemile Creek, but its future stewards. Conservation Science Director Scott said, “It’s a long-term commitment to taking care of a stream, but this is not just any stream and these are not just any kids. Ideally they’ll end up getting jobs as fisheries biologists and fisheries technicians and natural resource managers.”
Founding by Congress in 1991, the National Forest Foundation works to conserve, restore, and enhance America’s 193-million-acre National Forest System. Through community-based strategies and public-private partnerships, the NFF helps enhance wildlife habitat, revitalizes wildfire-damaged landscapes, restores watersheds, and improves recreational resources for the benefit of all Americans.
If you’ve picked up a book on the Tongass or timber or even just Southeast Alaska, the story of the trees of Prince of Wales Island is probably one with which you’re familiar. But even for an outsider, the story would be hard to miss, as the history of this island has been carved into its mountainsides. One does not need to have spent much time there to recognize: this land and logging have intimately known one another.
Traveling around the island by plane, car, and boat this past week, I saw before me a history etched in wood, a past laid bare by the felled trunks which often seemed to outnumber standing trees. But while I saw many scarred mountainsides on Prince of Wales Island, I also felt hope – hope that the manner by which this land was logged can serve a cautionary tale; function as an instructive story of misuse; and issue a warning – and wake-up call – to present and future generations of the costs we all pay when an unrenewable resource such as old-growth forest suffers reckless abuse as opposed to measured use.
It was beginning in the 1950s that many of the old-growth stands of the island began meeting with the former fate, logged swiftly and carelessly to provide raw material for the newly built pulp mill in Ketchikan. Flying over the forest in 1954, Art Brooks, logging manager for the Ketchikan Pulp Co., was to exclaim, “As far as the eye could see there were trees, trees, trees…nearly all virgin timber.” That is no longer the case. Of the 140 by 45 mile island, only a few places have been spared the saw. I was lucky enough to visit one of them, the southern tip of the island, this past week.
For eight days, I, along with a group representing SCS, SEACC, the U.S. Forest Service, and HCA (the Hydaburg Cooperative Association), traveled around South Prince of Wales Wilderness, one of the most remote wilderness areas that Southeast Alaska has to offer, monitoring visitor use patterns. Along the way, we were fortunate enough to catch sight of whales and bears, watch the wonder that is salmon swimming upstream, be shown around an abandoned Haida village, and stand in the presence of trees hundreds – if not thousands – of years old. And aware of the past of this place, the contentious story of this space, I did not take getting to gaze at these ancient trees lightly. Knowing that this land has been a battleground for environmentalists for over half a century, that these forests are standing due to the hard work of many defenders, I felt privileged to be in their presence. But mindful that their present preservation was no guarantee of future conservation – the Big Thorne timber sale further north on the island standing as a testament to as much – I also began thinking about my own role to be had in speaking for these trees.
A few days before heading out on this trip, I had been having a conversation with someone who, when my job with the conservation society came up, laughed and said, “Oh, so you’re part of the cult.” When I asked what he meant, he spoke fairly disparagingly of environmentalism in general, asserting that environmentalists rarely understood their own agendas, merely mindlessly subscribing to whatever mentality happened to be dominant within conservationist circles at the time. Although initially affronted, I am, in retrospect, thankful for the encounter, as it reminded me that it’s only when our beliefs are challenged that we take the time to reexamine, analyze, and crystallize them. As so, thinking of my parents soon flying into Sitka for a visit, and the many times as a kid they had read The Lorax aloud to me, I set out to articulate exactly what speaking for the trees means to me with regard to the Tongass National Forest.
And after having spent a week out in the wilderness, observing the natural connections that govern life in the Tongass, it becomes immediately apparent that just as with Dr. Seuss’ Truffula trees, speaking for the spruce, hemlock, and cedar of Southeast Alaska involves speaking for a lot more. It’s speaking for the salmon we saw jumping upriver, who rely on the trees for the enrichment and stabilization of their spawning streams. It’s speaking for the deer we saw foraging on shore, who make their homes and secure their food under the cover of these trees’ canopy. It’s speaking for the bears we saw catching salmon, who depend on the forest to protect their food source of fish and fawns. It’s speaking for the eagles we saw flying overhead, who make their nests and raise their young in the trees. And it’s speaking for the people who catch those fish, hunt those deer, and enjoy the multiple other uses to which wilderness can be put. We are all intricately connected. It may be important at times to see the forest for the trees, but it is just as important to sometimes, both literally and figuratively, see the individual trees as well – see all the organisms and associations that make up the forest and appreciate that the parts are, indeed, what make up the whole, and if we misuse one, we endanger them all.
In its message of interconnectedness and warning against environmental abuse, Dr. Seuss’ fable of the Truffula trees thus seems perfectly able to translate to the Tongass. There is only one point on which I might challenge him: having seen them, having stood in their presence and felt the reverence, awe, and humility they are able to inspire, in some ways, it seems, the trees of Southeast can also speak for themselves.
If you’re interested in hearing more about our work, or are looking to get involved with wilderness stewardship and the preservation of our wild places, be sure to check out SCS’s wilderness page here. Thanks and photo credit goes out to Luke A’Bear, one of the SCS participants, who was amazing at taking photos out on the trip. The Lorax image remains the property of Dr. Seuss.
Do you think you can make a fish recipe that is kid friendly, baked, low in fat, and low in sodium? Eight people were up to the challenge and participated in Sitka Conservation Society’s community recipe contest for Fish to Schools. The Sitka School District is already serving many delicious local fish entrees like rockfish tacos, teriyaki salmon, and fish & chips, but we wanted to diversify the menu and hear from you.
Families submitted recipes—one was created by an 8 year old!—and a panel of judges were ready with forks to judge the fish dishes on taste, kid-friendliness, ease of preparation, and nutrition. The judges spanned the stream to plate spectrum from seafood processor to student consumer.
The top three dishes were salmon patties, coconut pecan rockfish with blueberry dipping sauce, and salmon mac ‘n cheese. The other contenders: sesame-veggie salmon cakes with tangy apple slaw, salmon pinwheels, salmon fish fingers, salmon with dill, and salmon wraps. My mouth is salivating.
You be the judge and test the recipes out at home (and keep an eye out for them on the lunch tray). If you have a recipe that you would like to share, please submit it to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to share it with food service and hope they’ll give it a try.
Thank you to our fine chefs:
Kathy Hope Erikson: Salmon Patties
Mike and Ava Newel (age 8): Coconut Pecan Rockfish with Blueberry Dipping Sauce
Zoe Trafton (age 8): Salmon Mac ’n Cheese
Beth Short-Rhoads and Kat Rhoads (age 6): Sesame-Veggie Salmon Cakes with Tangy Apple Slaw
Judi Ozment: Salmon Pinwheels
Anna Bisaro: Salmon Fish Fingers
Matt Jones, Salmon with Dill
Charles Bingham: Salmon Veggie Wraps
And our panel of judges:
Cassee Olin, Sitka School District
Lon Garrison, Sitka School Board
Zak Rioux, Student
Zoe Trafton, Student
Tim Ryan, Sitka Sound Seafoods
“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.