Today was the first day that Baranof Elementary participated in the Fish to Schools lunch program by dishing out local fish for interested students. Kids from kindergarten and first grade can choose between bringing a lunch from home or being served the school lunch. Today, a record number of students signed up for local fish! Over 150 student school lunches were served; that is 45 more than on an average non-fish lunch day! Kids were grinning and exclaiming “It’s better than popsicles”, “It’s better than ice cream” and my personal favorite- “It’s better than anything!”
The Sitka Conservation Society visited and helped offer sample tastes for students who brought a lunch but still wanted to try the local coho meal. We helped present certificates to the ‘winning’ classrooms that had the highest number of students choose fish for lunch: 13 students from two kindergarten and two first grade classes. Congratulations to the four lucky classrooms: Ms. Fredrickson’s and Ms. Hedrick’s kindergarten classes and Ms. Christianson’s and Ms. William’s first grade classes. These students will share May’s fish lunch with a visiting commercial fisherman!
The Sitka Conservation Society (SCS) is a founding partner and coordinator of the Sitka “Fish to Schools” program. Our mission is to deepen youth understanding of local seafood resources by integrating locally-caught seafood into the school lunch program, introducing stream to plate curricula, and fostering a connection to the local fishing culture. Fish to Schools celebrates the ecological, economic, and cultural significance of this unique resource. Having access to delicious local seafood reminds us all how lucky we are to be Alaskans! Learn more by visiting:
The Student Science Sharing night last Monday, April 29 was a huge success. This was our second year of celebrating student learning in the ecological sciences. We had over 100 students and community members participate, and we had student projects from Sitka and Mt. Edgecumbe High Schools, Blatchley Middle School, and Keet Gooshi Heen.
This event is more than just a science fair. It’s an opportunity for the community and students to interact and share learning on topics that affect the long-term sustainability of our community. We are surrounding by public lands and depend upon the bounty of the sea and land to sustain our quality of life. Integrating community, young people, scientists, and natural resource managers in a shared learning experience will help ensure that we make well-informed decisions about managing these resources.
The Science Night was the culmination of the work of many people and organizations. It was supported by Sitka Conservation Society, University of Alaska Southeast, Sitka Sound Science Center, Sitka School District and Mt. Edgecumbe High School. But the people that did most of the work were the students!
The value of salmon fisheries for ecosystems, industry, personal, sport, and traditional use is unquantifiable in Southeast Alaska. The lakes and streams of the Tongass National Forest contribute the vast majority of this pivotal resource- producing 79% of the annual commercial harvest, about 50 million salmon each year. In its efforts to manage the Tongass for salmon, the US Forest Service invests in a variety of projects that ensure continued high productivity of fisheries and watershed resources. ‘Fish Pass’ installation has proven to be a powerful and effective option- an integral component of the Forest Service’s tool-kit to boost salmon production from Tongass systems.
‘Fish passes’ are constructed to bridge waterfalls that historically restrained salmon from accessing quality upstream spawning and rearing habitat. To protect the natural integrity of this lush national forest, the Forest Service adheres to a ‘minimalistic yet effective’ construction policy- minimizing environmental alteration while maximizing fish access. The vast majority of watersheds in the Tongass remain unaltered with only the most strategic and promising barriers selected for fish pass installation. Passes take many forms varying from nonstructural ‘step pools’ blasted out of natural bedrock to the Alaskan Steeppass ‘fish ladder’ that harnesses water current to push exhausted salmon to the top of barrier falls. Whatever the type, Fish Passes follow the same basic principle- allow more fish access to more area.
Increased spawning and rearing habitat translates into less competition for space and nutrients with more salmon surviving to adulthood. Following this basic principle, the Forest Service has successfully improved production of Tongass fish. Fish Passes have opened access of 443 stream miles and 4,931 lake acres to spawning and rearing steelhead and salmon. Exact fish counts produced by increased area are difficult to calculate and are estimated by projecting the average number of fish produced given particular habitat quality by the amount of increased area. Conservative estimates suggest an average of 86,855 coho and sockeye and 227,500 pink and chum salmon adults added each year as a direct result of this increased area made available by fish passes. At the current rate of a dollar and ten cents per pound for coho and sockeye and forty two cents a pound for pink and chums, fish pass produced salmon add an impressive estimated $8,598,930- over eight and a half million dollars- to Southeast Alaskan economy over a ten year period.
Unfortunately, like everything man-made, structural fish passes require maintenance to remain effective. There are approximately fifty fish passes across the Tongass- about fifteen operating in the Sitka Ranger District alone. The majority being between 20-30 years old, structural fish passes are reaching the point in their lifetime where they require considerable work. Managing this forest and recognizing that salmon are one of the most important outputs that benefit both humans and the overall ecosystem means continued investment in projects like fish pass construction and maintenance.
We are fortunate to have learned from mistakes made across other regions of the world where wild salmon populations were pushed to extinction. We are even more fortunate to boast a talented fisheries staff and a holistic fisheries and watershed program that manage and protect the future of this valuable resource. Fish passes are one of the significant activities within this program that ensure wild Alaskan salmon continue to sustain the communities of Southeast Alaska and that the Tongass continues to rear the salmon that are base of the last remaining sustainable fisheries in the world.
Sitka Trail Works provides visitors and residents of Sitka with a series of well managed trail systems- offering outdoor enthusiasts the opportunity to travel at ease through some of the most beautiful and unique habitats on earth. The Sea Lion Cove hike, located on Kruzof Island, winds through an incredible diversity of habitats over a relatively short distance.
Beginning on a rocky shore, hikers scramble across rugged coast terrain stopping to admire bears grazing on distant estuaries. Next, the trail slips past a large forested lake before bending through a misty rainforest stand, streams and small waterfalls. For me, the overwhelming beauty of these areas far surpassed the annoyance of the few slips, trips, and falls I took. Keep in mind however, the importance of wearing shoes with powerful grip when attempting any trail in the Southeast. When the wood planks that make up managed trail systems become wet they become incredibly slippery too. Pack a positive attitude with your rain gear, snacks, water, and camera!
The trail also brings hikers through muskeg, an incredibly unique and almost eerie wetland habitat found throughout Southeast Alaska, before culminating in Sea Lion Cove. The cove boasts a truly breathtaking view- an open sand beach nestled within forest and estuary beside a dramatic ridge line. Littered with drift wood and brilliantly colored seaweeds and shells, hikers could spend hours combing the sand for treasures- pack a ziplock for collecting. Be sure to find a comfortably worn slab of driftwood to relax on and eat your packed lunch before hiking back.
All in all, if you are looking for a day hike that packs the most diversity for your effort, the Sea Lion Cove trail system is a must! Muskeg, mountains, forest, rushing streams, a lake, estuary and a sandy beach (coveted and rare to this area) Sea Lion Cove has it all. Although, finding transportation to Sitka’s brilliant neighbor -Kruzof Island- can sometimes be difficult for those of us without access to a skiff, Sitka Trail Works offers transportation and company once a year on a guided hike. A great way to meet new people with similar interests, enjoy a diversity of habitats, and bring home a few beauties for the beach combing collection, Sitka Trail Work’s guided Sea Lion Cove hike is a no-brainer.
Supporting organizations like Sitka Trail Works is a must for retaining recreation opportunities for a wide demographic. If one were to attempt to traverse the Sea Lion Cove route twenty years ago when the land was transferred from the US Forest Service to the state, they would have experienced impassable, eroded, boot-sucking mud pits through trampled muskeg ecosystems. Three years of hard work combined with private, foundation, and agency grant funds led to the restored beautiful plank trail system you can enjoy today.
Learn more about Sitka Trail Works, Sea Lion Cove, other trail systems, and review a schedule of guided hikes check out: sitkatrailworks.org.
Kruzof island is a defining characteristic of the landscape of Sitka. This diverse and wild island is home to the emblematic profile of Mt. Edgecumbe volcano, mountains and craters, thousands of acres of muskeg, and a wild and rugged coastline. It is one of the Tongass National Forest’s most impressive landscapes, as well as one of the most appreciated and utilized by hunters, fishermen, ATV users and hikers. In an effort to repair damage from past logging, the US Forest Service is in the preliminary stages of an extensive and important restoration project on this well-loved island.
The Forest Service maintains four recreational cabins on Kruzof that allow people to access and enjoy the beauty and wonder of the island. Locals often skiff over on weekends to camp or stay in cabins, hike Mt. Edgecumbe, and walk sandy beaches. The central part of Kruzof is particularly important to Alaska ATV Tours, a locally run business. On these tours, visitors drive old logging roads to view bears, Sitka black-tail deer, and to experience a wild landscape and coastline unparalleled in the U.S. Many local Sitkans depend on Kruzof for hunting and fishing subsistence resources, and value the island highly as a place to live off of the wild bounty of the Tongass.
Our relationship with Kruzof has not always been as ideal as it is now. Many of the most majestic forest stands on the island were clear-cut for timber by the U.S. Forest Service, the agency responsible for managing the Tongass. Areas that were once old-growth forest are now in various stages of second-growth, with alder creating the predominant canopy. Some stands are in the stem-exclusion stage (sometimes referred to as dog-hair forest), where trees are close together and spindly, with branches protruding in all directions. It is a far cry from the open, mossy, complexity of old-growth Tongass forest and does not provide superb habitat for wildlife like the original forest. Simply walking through this second-growth forest is a difficult endeavor, and a reminder of the responsibility we have to restore the Tongass.
While past timber management decisions have been near-sighted in scope, we now have the chance to be more informed and thoughtful stewards of this rare temperate rainforest. Carefully planned thinning treatments are one possible restoration method that helps accelerate the regrowth of the forest back to old-growth conditions. By thinning some of the trees in these dense stands, more sunlight reaches the forest understory and improves habitat for vital subsistence resources.
Kruzof is a treasured place that people of diverse backgrounds and interests love and appreciate. As the land manager of Kruzof, the Forest Service has both a responsibility and an opportunity to improve its landscape for community members and wildlife. Management of such an important place must be done with great care and consideration to all who use this incredible landscape.
Because the landscape is valuable for many different reasons like recreation, salmon production, subsistence and timber potential, the best way to manage the landscape is through an approach that aims to figure out how to integrate management activities that seek to balance and benefit all these uses. In the Forest Service, this is being called “Integrated Resource Management.” For an Integrated Resource Management Plan to succeed, the multiple local interest groups invested in Kruzof must work together to figure out how to balance uses and figure out what is appropriate and will work. They must work together to develop the most communally valuable plans for restoration.
The Sitka Collaborative Stewardship Group is actively working to bring together different community voices on this project. SCSG recently organized a visit to Kruzof with several community members, discussing and visualizing future possible uses for the island, and the meaning of restoration and ecological maintenance. Such visits are important in determining which areas are most ecologically and socially important, and how best to acknowledge and repair past damage done by clearcut logging. Conservation is a constant effort to find the best and most sustainable ways for people live among our natural environments. The planning stages of the Kruzof restoration project are a valuable time to think about how we can envision the most sustainable, wild, and beneficial Kruzof for years to come.
The collaborative work between the Forest Service and the Sitka community is a chance to be resourceful, sustainable, and thoughtful in developing our relationships with Kruzof.The second-growth forest on Kruzof is poor wildlife habitat and needs to be repaired. Salmon habitat is impaired and needs work to return to its full potential. Recreational infrastructure on the island is important to the community and to local businesses. Management activities in such a communally important area must be imagined and carried through with the combined perspective, foresight, and resourcefulness of Sitka as a community. This project is new, and the learning process is ours to share as we envision and shape Kruzof for many future generations. All community members have a stake in shaping the future of Kruzof, and we can work together to create the healthiest future for ourselves and for the Tongass.
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!
Honored in tradition, loved, feared and respected across every ocean on earth, killer whales have tantalized our curiosity for lifetimes. I had the opportunity to face these intelligent animals on Alaskan waters while cruising with Pauli Davis of Gallant Adventures. The encounter was humbling, unforgettable, and reminded me that truly wild places like Sitka Sound are absolutely unique, and that it is imperative that we protect wildlife on these pristine coasts so that we can continue to have interactions like these. Seeing these whales helps us retain our connection with the natural world and instills a respect for the animals with which we share it.
Enjoy the little video I put together on the encounter.
What comes to mind when you hear the term conservation? Petitions, polar bears, politicians, researchers? David Attenborough? Did heavy equipment tearing up a rainforest floor come to mind? Unlikely. Nestled deep within our earth’s largest temperate rainforest- conservation takes unique form.
This summer, the Sitkoh River Restoration Project mobilized a team of heavy equipment operators on the Tongass National Forest of Southeast Alaska. The US Forest Service, Trout Unlimited, Sitka Conservation Society and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game raised $318,000 and hired Aqua Terra Restoration to repair critical salmon spawning habitat damaged by clearcut logging in the 1970s. Logging adjacent to the river banks left the Sitkoh without adequate erosion control and the fallen timber salmon need. Dump trucks, chainsaws, and excavators converted blueprints and years of planning into wooden structures and a redirected riverbed that will return healthy fish habitat and stability to this damaged system.
Salmon habitat restoration is relatively new to the Tongass and constitutes a key part of the Forest Service’s transition from old-growth logging to young-growth management, forest restoration, and investment in other industries-such as fishing and tourism. Across the forest, similar river and stream restoration projects are in various stages or have been completed with great success. Multiyear, complex, and dependent on powerful partnerships this rich form of salmon habitat restoration is by no means easy. However, in a land where salmon are lifeblood to both ecosystems and residents, protection of this critical resource is absolutely vital.
Habitat restoration benefits fish, fish-dependent ecosystems, and fish-dependent economies. It also provides career opportunities to skilled ecologists and equipment operators passionate about safeguarding our environment- people who prefer hardhats to suits, the company of bears to water cooler gossip and all in all want to build something good for our earth as opposed to something that’s only good for industry.
There are over 70 damaged salmon-producing watersheds on the Tongass and the Forest Service estimates $100 million dollars are needed to repair them. Salmon and trout alone contribute more than $1 billion to Southeast Alaska’s economy and employ some 7,300 people. It is critical that salmon become the top management priority of our country’s largest national forest; managing for salmon employs restoration workers on the ground, benefits local subsistence and the fishing industry, and conserves salmon-dependent rainforest ecosystems.
The Tongass is one of the last remaining forests with healthy and abundant wild salmon runs. Making this species the Tongass’ top priority makes sense for the ecosystem, the economy and anyone who loves to catch, eat or simply view wild salmon.
I am a New Englander, born and raised inland of Boston with only superficial exposure to the fishing industry. My past seafood vocabulary includes: lobstah, steamahs, chowdah, cod, haddock, and Sam Adams Summer Ale. My previous understanding of salmon, apart from grandiose images of grizzlies welcoming ballets of jumping fish into gapping jaws, was that there were two types: farmed and wild. For years, I welcomed forkfuls of homogeneously colored salmon steaks into my mouth- oblivious to the colorful salmon hierarchy that exists outside the supermarket freezer- the hierarchy where chinooks rule as king.
Five thousand miles from home, my expanded Southeast Alaskan vocabulary now includes an entire continuum of warm colored flesh. Five different salmon species inhabit these waters. What’s tricky is that each one answers to at least two names. Pinks are humpys, chums are dogs, sockeyes are red, cohos are also silvers. With all these different names, methods of fishing them, flesh qualities and arguing attitudes to which fish is best, I’ve struggled to get a full grip on all salmon. One salmon however, the chinook, I think I’m starting to get.
The most coveted among lip-licking salmon know-it-alls, the chinook’s other name is appropriately ‘king’. Assuming the throne as the largest pacific salmon, chinooks boast fatty, succulent, buttery, pink -and on rare occasions white- flesh. The meat demands high market value, constitutes the smallest percentage of the salmon harvest, and draws avid anglers from across the country to Alaskan waters to usurp their first king. And so, this New England girl, whose most memorable fishing moments previously include hooking my brother and barfing in the cabin of a charter while my cherub-cheeked grandfather hooked haddock with his Northshore cronies, agreed to cruise the Alaskan coast in pursuit of her King.
Chatter on the docks warned chinooks to be abnormally elusive this season. I, however, retained faith. My salmon sensai Greg Killinger, is no novice to the art of hooking kings, claiming hundreds of these desirable fish since moving to Sitka long ago. I bought my day license and king tag and set out.
The sun was hot and bright, stripping layers of clothing from my fellow fishermen and I all day- odd for an Alaskan rainforest. We enjoyed a Friday on deck, admiring a clear view of Edgecumbe- Sitka’s neighboring volcano- and shared the sea with rival boats and behemouth humpbacks.
This is the grocery store of rural Alaskans. Here, you don’t compete for parking spots, shopping carts, or the last rump roast. You instead battle swells, compare wits, and scan the horizon for jumping fish. ‘Subsistence’ is the political term used to describe this cherished anachronism and as enjoyable as the practice is to visitors, it certainly means much more to residents. A powerful traditional value for food is celebrated here. In remote and rural Alaska, where a bag of groceries can cost a small fortune, people also depend on their ability to harvest rich nutrition from the forest and surrounding waters. Each year, by boat and on foot, rural Alaskans harvest this rainforest’s bounties and return home to fill freezers and stock pantries with venison, fish, and berries- a feat that packs with it incredible pride.
I was thinking just how good that would feel, was wondering how the meat of white-tailed deer compares to Sitka black-tail, and was rubbing my somewhat queasy stomach when these thoughts were welcomely interrupted by a sudden STRIKE!
The fishing rod that had spent a great deal of the morning dutifully hunched over in waiting, sprung to attention! Greg scrambled to the rod, tightened the line and placed it in my hands. He looked through my eyes, to the hidden angler within, and said something along the lines of…”This is a king. Your King. And if that reel goes overboard, your hand had better be attached!” The rest of the catch is a hilarious blur of shuffling bodies, me squealing, eager voices shouting ‘keep the pole upright’ ‘to the left of the boat, to the right, and reel faster’ all silenced by WHACK- a strike of the gaff, sacrificing royalty on deck.
I admired the beautiful sheen of her scales, hugged her fat slippery body to my fleece, estimated her length and weight, and grinned for pictures with my prize. We caught a rainbow of other fish during the remainder of the day but like the over-eager, impatient, cookie jar invading child I am, I couldn’t help peering into the ice chest at her beautiful body and the meal she promised.
And so, I caught my king and ate her too. I know she was a female because bright red eggs were revealed while we cleaned her flesh on shore. We also recovered two full herring from her stomach… this was easily the most intimate experience I’ve had with my food and now my food’s food to boot- how wonderfully gross.
Beside a salad bursting with freshly harvested salmon berries and beach asparagus, my king’s meat made for a delicious fresh meal. Harvesting your own food is an honorable tradition that evokes pride, love, and harbors incredible respect for the animal, its habitat, and for the family and friends with whom you chose to share with. The rest of her meat is flash frozen and vacuum sealed, awaiting future travel back to the east coast where I will return home to my family as a unique type of provider. I certainly haven’t made an awful lot of money as a conservation intern in Southeast Alaska but I am beyond rich with experience, newfound respect for America’s last frontier and am hopeful my parents will accept a cooler full of fish flesh as starting payment on my college loans…
A special thanks to my fishing buddy Greg Killinger for sharing his knowledge of these coasts and for helping me reel in my very first king!
What started as an idea to put second growth timber to practical use in 2007 has since taken shape as the most frequently used cabin in the Tongass National Forest. The Starrigavan Cabin Project combined local watershed restoration, community recreation and practical vocational training to produce a forest service cabin that four years later, continues to enrich the lives of Sitka locals and transients alike.
Many watersheds across the Tongass National Forest have been clear-cut and harvested for old growth timber. The resulting land is referred to as ‘young growth’ or ‘second growth’ and differs from its original landscape in various ecologically critical ways. Many plants and wildlife such as salmon and black-tailed deer, require the unique assets old growth landscapes offer; the encompassing health of larger ecosystems such as the temperate rainforest of the Tongass National Forest, depends on the existence of old growth. For that reason, organizations interested in protecting intrinsically and economically valuable lands and watersheds often turn to restoration efforts such as ‘thinning’ of second growth forests to accelerate the return of young forests to old growth conditions. A byproduct of restorative thinning is not surprisingly: second growth timber!
Unfortunately, second growth timber here is not as unique and economically marketable a commodity as Alaskan old growth. However, finding local economic use has proven not impossible and in light of the success with the Starrigavan Cabin project, second growth timber is becoming a beautiful and sustainable alternative to environmentally damaging old-growth clear-cutting.
Dustin Hack, a local Sitkan participant in the 2-week log home building class that resulted in the Starrigavan cabin (see above video), is pursuing the economic possibility of “a nationwide market for Alaskan second growth wood”. He explains that participation in this construction class opened his mind to the prospect of using second growth timber for wide-scale timber framing and applauds that “the US Forest Service, conservationists, city and tribe are all behind the effort to use second growth wood to build an economy here in Sitka.”
Although, one hundred and fifty cabins are available for recreation within the Tongass National Forest, the Starigavan Cabin is both the first ever produced using local second growth timber and the first cabin accessible (weather permitting) by vehicle. Therefore, not only did this cabin demonstrate a charming and functional use of second growth timber, it’s subsequent presence continues to extend forest stewardship to those unable to access Southeast Alaska’s more remote cabins.
The restoration work that resulted in the wood, the class that provided local vocational training, and the production of the Starrigavan cabin itself have left a truly significant legacy here on Baranof Island. A tangible demonstration of the shift from unsustainable old-growth harvesting to second growth restoration timber, this project is a reflection of a truly resilient and innovative community working to protect the vast landscape they are fortunate to call home.
To reserve your stay at the Starrigavan Cabin please visit: www.recreation.gov
To learn more about restorative thinning practices please download our briefing sheet by clicking here