Sitka Conservation Society board member Richard Nelson spoke on salmon during Sitka Whalefest on the theme of “Cold Rivers to the Sea: Terrestrial Connections to our Northern Oceans.” He spoke on the subject of one of the greatest manifestations of the connection between the terrestrial forests and the oceans: our Wild Alaska Salmon. His eloquent words remind us of why we care so much about and treasure salmon so deeply. Salmon are the backbone of the ecosystems of Southeast Alaska. For all of us who live here, Salmon are an extremely important part of our lives. Many of our jobs are directed related to salmon through fishing, processing, shipping, guiding, or managing salmon stocks. All of us are connected to salmon as the food that we eat and prepare for our families. For the Sitka Conservation Society, it is obvious to us that the Tongass is a Salmon Forest and that salmon are one of the most important outputs from this forest. For years we have fought against a timber industry that wanted more and more of the forest for clear-cutting and log export. It is time to turn the page on the timber dominated discussions of the past. Sure there is room for some logging. But, the Tongass should no longer be seen as a timber resource to be cleared and moved on. Rather, the Tongass should be managed with salmon as the priority, with the Forests left standing as the investment and the interest that it pays out every year being the salmon runs that feed our ecosystems, fisheries, and our families. Please help us protect Tongass salmon and help us make a new vision of Tongass management a reality. We need you to write letters telling decision makers and land managers to make Tongass management for salmon and salmon protection a priority. Here is an action alert that tells you how to write a letter: here. Or, if you need help, please feel free to visit or call our office (907-747-7509). You can read some letters that local fishermen wrote for inspiration: here Thanks for your help and support. Together we can ensure that are Wild Alaska Salmon are protected!
Former Sitka Reporter Andrew Miller recently attended a presentation in Juneau by Dr. Robert Lackey on “The Future of Pacific Salmon.” Of course, the Sitka Conservation Society is extremely interested in the future of pacific salmon. Salmon are the backbone of the Tongass ecosystems as well as a critical component of the economies of the communities of Southeast Alaska. Andrew wrote the following dispatch from that presentation to summarize the findings of Dr. Lackey:
For me, the biggest takeaway from a recent lecture by Dr. Robert Lackey on the future of wild salmon was the critical importance of educating the public about our wild salmon runs.
Dr. Robert Lackey, a fisheries scientist at Oregon State University, explained how little awareness there is about salmon among the general population in the Pacific Northwest and how that effects policy decisions there. As an example, he noted how quickly policies to protect salmon on the Columbia River were reversed during an energy shortage in 2001. He said it was a no-brainer for decision makers when posed with a question of whether to increase the power generation of Columbia dams even if doing so would prevent fish passage. The salmon didn’t get a second thought.
Lackey is the co-editor of Salmon 2100, a book that explores what steps must be taken to ensure we still have wild salmon runs in the year 2100. He was a guest of the Alaska Fish Habitat Partnership in Juneau in early November.
Although Lackey had a bleak outlook on the future of wild salmon worldwide, he expressed some optimism about the future of Alaska’s wild salmon, which reinforced in me how important it is to be a vocal advocate for Alaska salmon and policies that help protect and enhance wild salmon runs.
Lackey listed a few advantages wild Alaska salmon have always enjoyed over salmon elsewhere, which have helped them to continue to thrive while wild stocks throughout much of the world have depleted to near extinction.
For one, he said, Alaska has always had an enormous salmon population. Bristol Bay alone produces more salmon than all of Oregon and Washington did when salmon runs there were at their historic highs.
Also, Lackey said, Alaska still has unmatched salmon habitat. He said natural resource development will always be a threat to habitat, but he is confident large dense populations in critical habitat areas will never develop. He said just about everything that people do is bad for salmon, and in the Pacific Northwest, where there are millions of people in giant cities along the coast, salmon habitat hasn’t been much of a priority.
Finally, he said that people in Alaska care about salmon. He said people here are aware of salmon and want them to survive. This awareness absolutely needs to continue.
Lackey spoke a little about external threats to salmon, notably climate change and ocean acidification. To my surprise, he did not say these things necessarily spell doom for Alaska’s wild salmon.
Lackey showed a graph of world temperatures over the last 2,000 years, which consisted of four or five cycles of warming and cooling. Current global temperatures are about high as they have been in any prior period of warming, and Lackey acknowledged that the warming is most likely going to continue for a long time, but, he said, in past warming salmon always adapted, often seeking new ranges farther north.
On a related topic, he said he wouldn’t jump to conclusions about poor returns for some species of Pacific Salmon this last year. He said there are too many external factors to know what causes populations to rise and fall in a given year, and scientists really need to look at 30 year trends to assess the health of a species.
I can often be a cynic, but I left Lackey’s lecture optimistic. I was reminded how fortunate we are to have our wild salmon runs in Southeast Alaska, but that it is up to us to keep them here. I know it’s something we can do.
Of course, after the public is educated on the state of salmon and what we need to do to protect them, we must follow up with action to ensure that resource managers and decision makers are doing the right thing. If you want to help SCS protect salmon, we can help you take action. Check out our take action page and please think about writing a letter or making a call to tell Congress and Federal Agencies to protect our salmon stocks. Follow this link: here or call us to find out more. With your help, we can ensure that the future of Pacific Salmon is Alaska is good and that future generations can experience a wild Tongass filled with Salmon!
Helen worked for two summers with SCS on wild salmon education and outreach programs and advocacy. She’s currently pursuing a Masters of Regional Planning at Cornell University, focusing on sustainable food systems, and working for Sitka Salmon Shares.
As a Midwesterner, I enjoy meeting and learning from local farmers committed to producing quality food in sustainable ways. In college I loved crafting meals at home, experimenting with new vegetables from my parents’ Community Supported Agriculture share. Yet for all my excitement, I rarely thought about food systems beyond the Midwest.
That changed when I moved to Sitka, a fishing town build on salmon, nestled within the Tongass National Forest. There I ate pan-seared king salmon—straight from the docks—at the home of a fisherman friend, with sautéed greens harvested from the backyard. I learned quickly that, in this community, the sustainability of local food means something very different than what I knew in the Midwest. The health of the Forest relates intimately to the strength of the wild salmon runs that make Sitka one of the greatest premium ports in the country. Walking through the forest, along the docks, and through the processor, you see how salmon connects the environment, culture, and economy—and the central importance of Alaska’s sustainable fishery management to ensuring these relationships continue.
Returning home to the Midwest, I was excited to share this salmon and its story. From my work with Nic Mink at the Sitka Conservation Society, I helped him establish Sitka Salmon Shares, the first Community Supported Fishery in the Midwest. We link fishermen we knew in Sitka with friends and neighbors in cities like Minneapolis—folks who crave the best salmon, but want the trust, transparency, and quality they currently seek from their farmers.
As part of Sitka Salmon Shares, we collaborated this fall with the Campus Club at the University of Minnesota to hold a Tongass salmon dinner. Chef Beth Jones used produce from the University’s campus farm, crafting a sweet corn succotash and a heirloom tomato relish to accent the unique flavors of coho, king, and sockeye from our fishermen in SE Alaska.
The guests that evening, however, wanted more than a nourishing meal that celebrates small-scale, sustainable food and its producers. They wanted to understand the significance of the wilderness and watersheds that give life to the salmon. Nic gave a talk called “How Alaska’s Salmon Became Wild,” exploring the histories of farmed and wild salmon. Afterwards, we invited guests to join us in asking the U.S. Forest Service to design their budget to reflect the importance of salmon and their habitat within the Tongass. In return, SCS and fisherman Marsh Skeele thanked them with one pound fillets of troll-caught Tongass coho.
The enthusiasm that our guests had to take part in this effort illustrated the important role food can play in forging connections. I support eating locally, but we should not forget the power that emerges when we form strong connections across regions. Our dinner at the Campus Club revealed that by starting with the allure of a boat to plate meal, we can show how the process really begins in the forest. From Sitka to Minneapolis, the value of the Tongass and its salmon holds true.
Chef Rodey Batiza was recently named one of Madison Magazine’s “Best New Chefs.” He’s known in Madison for his culinary creativity and versatility, having mastered regional Italian, Japanese ramen and dumplings, and classical French cuisine. He’s worked at many of Madison’s finest restaurants, including Madison, Club, Johnny Delmonico’s, Magnus, and Ocean Grill. He now is chef at Gotham Bagels, an artisan sandwich and meat shop on the capital square.
I’ve been a chef for over 15 years in Madison, Wisconsin, and what I’ve noticed more and more in the last few years is that my diners increasingly expect not only great ingredients but also ones that are sustainably produced. It’s not enough anymore that food tastes good. It must come from sources that are doing everything in their power to produce food in an environmentally friendly way.
For these reasons, I jumped at the chance to partner with Sitka Salmon Shares and Sitka fisherman Marsh Skeele to host two, four-course salmon dinners this past week at my artisan meat and sandwich shop, Gotham Bagels. I know that Alaska’s fisheries are managed as sustainably as any in the world and I also know that getting fish directly from fishermen in Sitka, Alaska, provides the type of transparency and accountability that I like to have when I source any of my products.
The dinners were an astounding success as both were filled to capacity. Our guests enjoyed coho salmon lox, caught by Marsh Skeele in Sitka Sound. It was dusted with pumpernickel and served with pickled squash. Our second course was seared sockeye salmon, caught on the Taku River by gillnetter F/V Heather Anne. We presented that with pancetta ravioli and pureed peas from our Farmers’ Market. Finally, to cap the night, we created a horseradish-crusted king salmon from Sitka’s Seafood Producers Cooperative. We served that with curried barley and Swiss chard.
All of my guests these evenings knew that we were not only eating the world’s best wild salmon but they also understood that the wise management of natural resources in Alaska should mean that we have these wild salmon on our plates for years to come. To reinforce that point, the Sitka Conservation Society sent everyone home with coho salmon caught by Marsh Skeele and literature to help them get involved in protecting the habitat of wild Alaskan salmon for future generations.
Subsistence fishing has always been a way of life in rural Alaska. Thanks to the foresight of the generation of Alaskans that achieved statehood and wrote our great constitution, the right of subsistence for all people, regardless of ethnicity, has been preserved across Alaska. Alaska Natives have been able to continue the way of life they have lead for 10,000 years, just as the pioneers who settled in this state were allowed to continue living off the land and the resources it provided, and new-comers to the state have been able to live off the land like those who came before them.
The subsistence way of life and traditional subsistence practices are threatened by the privatization of key subsistence areas and resources. One of the most threatened places is Redoubt Falls near Sitka, where Alaskans harvest sockeye and coho salmon to fill their freezers and feed their families throughout the long winter. To really understand how important subsistence is to Alaskans and the Alaskan way of life – and to understand why we need to fight to preserve these rights – listen to the segment from Richard Nelson‘s radio program “Encounters” in which he fishes for sockeye at Redoubt Falls.
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 Conservation Society staffers Natalia Povelite (Tongass salmon organizer), Ray Friedlander (Tongass forest organizer), and Courtney Bobsin (Jesuit Volunteer, Fish-to-Schools) discuss their respective projects, and why they chose to work in Sitka.
Bethany and I recently spent five days volunteering at the Forest Service-managed weir at Redoubt lake in the Tongass National Forest. Located just twelve miles from the city of Sitka, Redoubt falls is one of Sitka’s most important subsistence fisheries, especially for sockeye. Locals dipnet and cast for salmon to stock their freezers and cupboards with the rich red flesh of this iconic fish. In past years, Redoubt has provided up to 60% of the total sockeye subsistence harvest in the Sitka Management Area (US Forest Service, 2011).
Redoubt lake is unique because it is one of the largest meromictic lakes in North America, which means its top layer is freshwater, and there are several hundred feet of saltwater on the bottom layer of the lake. The two layers don’t mix, and the lake is about 900 feet deep at its deepest. The Forest Service maintains a weir system to count and record the fish entering the lake, and coordinates with the Alaska Department of Fish & Game to make management decisions based on the data collected each season.
Subsistence harvest defines life in rural Alaska, and Sitka is no exception. In July when the sockeye are running, Redoubt is the buzz of local conversation and activity. Employees and volunteers at Redoubt work hard to maintain the health and sustainability of this salmon run, serving the general public by caring for the most important resource of Southeast Alaska.
Redoubt lake is long and narrow, protected on all sides by mountains and cliffs in a glacial valley. Salmon swim from the weir at the falls up to the northern tip of the lake, spawning in a clear stream that originates in a pristine lake in the mountains. The Forest Service runs a mark and recapture study of sockeye returning to the stream, which entails occasionally snorkelling the stream to survey marked and unmarked sockeye. Bethany and I donned warm and buoyant drysuits to snorkel in the clear, cold water with stunningly red sockeye. When they pass through the weir, sockeye are silver-scaled and relatively normal-looking salmon. The physical transformation they undergo between the weir and their spawning stream is spectacular. The sockeye we swam with had bright scarlet bodies and a defined and unwieldy hump on their backs. Olive green heads ended in sharply hooked noses dripping with snarling teeth. They nipped and bit at one another, fighting to reproduce as a final dance before laying and fertilizing their eggs for future runs.
Redoubt lake is one of the most important public spaces in Sitka for people to fish and recreate. It is a community gathering place for Sitkans in the Tongass National Forest, and it is vital that this place remain public for this tradition to continue. Currently there is pressure from Sealaska to privatize Redoubt, potentially excluding many people from this vital public fishery and gem of the Tongass. The public service done by the Forest Service at Redoubt is highly valued, and a reminder of the incredible importance of keeping salmon, our most valued economic and cultural resource, accessible to all. Redoubt has been identified as one of the T77, or top 77 fish-producing watersheds in the Tongass. It’s awe-inspiring beauty and vital habitat is absolutely deserving of this designation.
Click here to learn more about the Tongass77 and what you can do to help protect our salmon forest!
The hatchery employees at the Medvejie Hatchery located south of Sitka exemplify what it means to be “living with the land and building community in Southeast Alaska.” They are the living link between the community of Sitka and the robust salmon fishery that supports the community. Their good work helps sustain healthy wild runs of salmon and healthy Alaskan communities. Without hatcheries like Medvejie, the Alaskan salmon industry would not be what it is today.
By the 1970’s, the state’s wild stock of salmon had been severely damaged by overfishing. In response to this crisis, the state developed a hatchery program intended to supplement, not supplant, the wild stocks of salmon. For this reason, there is a litany of policies and regulations that guide the state’s hatcheries in order to protect the wild runs of salmon.
One of the policies developed to protect the wild runs of salmon was the mandated use of local brood stock. “Brood stock” are the fish a hatchery uses for breeding. Requiring that the “brood stock” be “local” means that the fish used for breeding must be naturally occurring in the area versus fish from outside the region. This requirement is designed to help maintain the natural genetic diversity of the run.
This August I had the opportunity to participate in Medvejie’s brood stock propogation of Chinook Salmon (i.e., King Salmon). This involved the physical mixing of a male Chinook salmon’s sperm with a female’s row. We were, quite literally, making salmon.
However, it wasn’t just salmon that was being cultivated that day, but a resource to sustain the local community. In recent years, Medvejie has had the most successful Chinook program in Southeast Alaska. In the last ten years, the hatchery’s runs of Chinook have averaged 34,000 fish. Most of these fish, an average of 9,500 over the last ten years, are harvested in May and June by Sitka’s commercial trolling fleet. The sportfishing fleet benefits as well, reaping an average of nearly 1,950 fish in this same period. While the associated economic impacts from these fish are beyond measure, it is safe to say that they are essential to the health of the local economy.
My experience taking brood stock at Medvejie taught me how fortunate we are to have such a well-managed fishery in the state of Alaska. I also learned about the fragility of this resource. Without such strict policies regulating the fishing industry, we would not have a resource that provides so much for our community. Salmon fishing is the cultural and economic backbone for many communities in Southeast Alaska. In the future, we must remember this fact to protect the resource that makes the community whole.
The double-salmon motif that Rhonda Reaney created for the Sitka Conservation Society combines the sleek elegance of the sea-run sockeye with the focused intent of the spawning female sockeye. The double salmon reflects the interconnectedness of the Ocean environment and the lands and waters of the Tongass Rainforests. Rhonda describes the top salmon as being full of life. The body incorporates human symbols with an eye representing the nutrients the salmon collects in the ocean.. The bottom Salmon is ready to spawn. Rhonda did not add any life to this fish other than the round-eggs it is going to lay to start a new cycle of life. The shape of the back represents the motion of the fish in the act of spawning. Available in t-shirts and hoodies in the SCS store.
Rhonda Reany was the youngest of eleven children. She grew up surrounded by talented brothers who loved to carve. As they became allergic to carving wood, she would be handed the designs and she slowly learned. Since she was young, she often watched George Benson carve. Learning from his work, talking with elders, other artists and through books at the local library, Rhonda quickly developed into a very talented artist.
My mother who’s taught me how to respect the land. We have always been taught to respect the land.”
Her art is inspired by values distilled in her by her mother and father. Her mother always taught her that you take what you need and to always give back. Rhonda incorporates her mother into every piece of art that she completes by adding a simple, elegant cross.
The Sitka Conservation Society works to protect the Wild Salmon of the Tongass National Forest. With over 6,000 spawning streams home to Pink, Chum, Sockeye, Coho and Chinook Salmon, Salmon are a keystone species on the Tongass and a crucial link between the forest and the sky. These Salmon are an essential part of Sitka’s economy, culture and food supply. The Tongass National Forest produces 30% of Wild Salmon in Alaska from just 5% of the land. Statistics prove that the most economically valuable resource that the Tongass National Forest produces is Salmon. SCS has protected Tongass Salmon through our historic efforts to achieve Wilderness Designation for the West Chichagof Wilderness Area— 260,000 acres of salmon-producing watersheds. SCS continues to advocate for land management on the Tongass that focuses on restoring and protecting critical salmon habitat and intact watersheds and has helped to catalyze important Salmon habitat restoration projects on Baranof and Chichagof Islands.