We sat quietly in the colony struggling not to make noise for fear of scaring the birds. It was about ten o'clock at night and the sun was still setting. To the west the sun sank over the horizon and the last few flickers of light colored the approaching clouds. To our east and south the full moon rose in a brilliant orange, promising to illuminate our night's work. The scene was dreamlike, surreal.
Part of what makes Saint Lazaria so unique is its somewhat unusual land use designation. The island of Saint Lazaria is part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Homer, AK. It is also a designated Wilderness Area protected under the National Wilderness Preservation System. Thismulti-level protection has kept the island in pristine condition.
My work with SCS brought me to Saint Lazaria to learn about Alexis Will and the research she is conducting on the island. Will is a graduate student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks where she is working towards her Masters' of Science in Biology and Wildlife. For her thesis she is trying to determine the diets and foraging grounds of Rhinocerous Auklets (i.e., Cerorhinca monocerata). Will believes that by better understanding this species' diet and foraging grounds, we will better understand how these birds may adapt to an increasingly variable environment.
Will's research is also part of a bigger study. In recent years the population of five key groundfish species in the Gulf of Alaska have been significantly lower than in previous years. This is particularly alarming as these five fish species are all commercially important to the state. To determine what is causing this decline, the North Pacific Research Board is currently in the process of conducting a Gulf of Alaska-wide study. Their goal is to better understand the causes for these declining populations.
So how does Will's research fit in to this bigger project?
Here's the thing. Rhinocerous Auclets feed on the same fish that the five groundfish species feed on. If Alexis can determine where and how much fish the Saint Lazaria Rhinocerous Auclets are eating, then we will have a better picture of the food base in the Gulf, at least, theoretically. With better information on the health of the food base in the Gulf, the state of Alaska will have better science with which to base their fishing quotas. It's cool research and I was glad to have the opportunity to learn more about it.
However, what intrigued me most about Saint Lazaria was my experience in the Rhino colony. The Rhinoceros Auklet colony is located at the edge of a very steep and menacing cliff. Below the cliff we could see the commercial salmon fleet at anchor, protected in the lee of the island. As the Rhinos arrived at their nest to feed their chicks, the commercial trolling fleet sat below bracing for the approaching gale, and in the distance the lights of Sitka illuminated the night sky. As I sat in the darkabsorbing the night's activities, I was reminded of the simple fact that we are ALL part of this global ecosystem.
[tentblogger-vimeo 45955527]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!
The fishing tender Ginny C is an old boat, built in 1944 and wooden. The hull is bright cobalt blue, and the cabin colorful and inviting. Skipper Robby Bruce spends his summers on this boat, traveling the coastline of Baranof Island buying line-caught salmon from local trollers.
The landscape of outer Baranof Island is rugged and rough, but the island also provides sheltered refuges for mariners. Names like Deep Inlet and Still Harbor impart the tranquility that can be found in these waters. Petersburg troller Blaise Holly says, "It's amazing what a feeling of protection you get from this really jagged landscape. Even though the rocks and trees are jagged from constant Southeast exposure, you can still feel a sense of protection from pulling in and ducking into a place like Still Harbor."
Communities of Southeast are inextricably connected to the vast landscape of the Tongass. Fishermen embody this connection, spending their days harvesting salmon and hugging craggy island coasts.Their lives and work operate with a closeness to tides, fish patterns, and weather, and an inherent intimacy with their natural surroundings.
Though the Tongass is a National Forest, it's functions are ever interconnected with the sea. Salmon epitomize the coalescence of marine and terrestrial ecosystems, as they return from their lives at sea to spawn in streams throughout the forest. Their carcasses feed bears and fertilize the earth, perpetuating the forest's life cycle.
Many trollers head for shelter in small rural communities like Port Armstrong. Located on the south end of Baranof Island, Port Armstrong is a salmon hatchery where a population of roughly twenty people live year-round. Biologist Ben Contag manages and lives at the hatchery, and trolls for salmon in the summer on a vibrantly colored boat called the Quest. He catches fish that he himself has raised from eggs. His daughter Lavon, 16, says, "We live off the land here. We hunt deer, smoke and can our own salmon, and gather mushrooms." The community gets all of its electricity from an on-site hydroelectric power plant, generating water that flows from a nearby lake. "It's the best water in the world," Lavon says, well aware of the unique beauty of her family's lifestyle.
The Port Armstrong hatchery is working toward the betterment of local fisheries, helping to improve livelihoods for fishermen and fishing-dependent communities.It is also an example of a sustainable community in the Tongass that lives closely off of its surrounding natural bounty. The continued survival of this unique community, as well as of the local salmon-fishing industry, depends upon the health of the Tongass and its rich ecosystems.
Similar to how one would peel an orange, Tommy Joseph uses his hands to "peel" logs. The wood shavings surrounding his cottonwood trunk table are a testament to this, as are the masks, hats, and hand-made tools present in the artist's 9-week-old gallery, Raindance. Tommy's ability to transform wood into art has brought him to many distant places yet threaded throughout his work is the Tongass National Forest, a constant source of raw materials and local inspiration. Yellow cedar, red cedar, and alder are his muses and according to Tommy, "each wood has its own personality, aroma, and attitude." Personalities that can determine how Tommy uses the wood, such as alder—a soft, no-grain wood that does not irritate, and is an odorless, tasteless, material well matched for masks, bowls, spoons, and salmon-smoking.
The artist also turns to his immediate surroundings —such as a neighbor's yard or the coastline —to gather the wood and other materials he eventually transforms into images of land, culture, and community. After 21 years of working as instructor, interpreter, demonstrator and commissioned artist at the Southeast Alaska Indian Cultural Center, Tommy now uses one of the bright blue houses on Monastery street as his gallery and work space, which people can walk through and admire his work.Raindance symbolizes Tommy's dream of having his own gallery to support himself and other artists. "Nobody can fill up a shop by themselves. That's how I started out. Its good to give other people opportunities."
Through his work, Tommy has been able to carve out different ways of seeing the Tongass National Forest. He brings out from the wood shapes of ravens, salmon, armor, and hats---teaching us about Sitka's rootedTlingit history while also allowing it to grow.
Alder served as the mould for Tommy's large bronze piece titled "Lovebirds," which features a raven and an eagle sharing a clam between their beaks. Visitors often think the two birds are fighting over the mollusk, so Tommy takes the time to act on his commitments to education and artistic transparency by explaining the true meaning of the sculpture.
[doptg id="12"]July 1st marked the first day of the first king salmon opener of the summer for commercial trollers of Sitka and Southeast Alaska. A fishing opening is a period of time in which commercial fishermen are legally allowed, as determined by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, to harvest their catch and sell it to processors. When ADF&G declares the fishery closed, no one may fish until it is open again. Typical king trolling openers are only about ten days, which means every day is crucial for these fishermen.
Before July 1st, small trollers all over Southeast leave their harbors in search of the best salmon spots. They cruise the inlets and bays of this island-rich region,dragging their hooks slowly through the ocean, trolling for the salmon that mean livelihoods for individual fishermen as well as whole communities.As they fish, they areconstantly protected by tall mountains and thick woods of the Tongass National Forest. The Tongass is a temperate rainforest, and its unique ecosystems support the populations of salmon that sustain Southeast Alaskan economies and communities.
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
Dustin Hack is not your typical entrepreneur. Instead of making his living by sipping lattes, yapping on cell phones, and playing the stock exchange, Hack makes his living the old-fashioned way, with his own two hands.
Hack, 31, originally from Plainfield, IL, recently started a new business in Sitka entitled the Alaska Beam Company. The business utilizes dead and downed yellow cedar from the Sitka Ranger District in the construction of local buildings, fencing, boat interiors, and other hand-crafted products. It's a business model that, as Hack explains, "just makes so much sense!"
Nestled in a grassy clearing within Sitka National Historic Park, three musicians play Mozart to rapt listeners. The resonating classical music, reverberating amongst Tlingit totem poles and ancient rainforest, brings Sitkans and visitors alike to converge in this ocean-side park. Wooden salmon, each uniquely crafted and adorned by local artists, hang from trees near the path leading to the musicians.The Sitka Summer Music Festival is in full swing. This small, artistic community welcomes musicians like Zuill Bailey, artistic director of the festival, each summer to play in the forested landscape of Baranof Island. As Zuill says of Sitka, "It is of the earth. I feel like everything that's done here is pure, and every time I come back here I feel the same way. It kind of recharges and reboots." Perhaps there is no better way to renew one's self than with exquisitely played music in this vibrant community situated within the vast and awe-inspiring Tongass National Forest.
[tentblogger-vimeo 44134134]Sitkoh River Restoration Begins!
The Sitkoh River Salmon Habitat Restoration Project got started last week. SCS staff, Trout Unlimited Alaska, local high school students, and other volunteers have been helping work at the site alongside contractors and Forest Service staff. On Wednesday June 13th, the crew hosted a fly-in visit by journalists, fishermen, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Habitat Division Director who took a tour of the project to see what was going on.
The visitor's were thoroughly impressed. Randy Bates, Director of the ADFG Division of Habitat stated, "The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is happy to participate in a project like this that will restore high value fish habitat and restore the productive capacity of the original stream course."
Wayne Owen, the Forest Service Alaska Director of Wildlife, Fisheries, Watersheds and Subsistence commented to the press during the visit that "Salmon are the lifeblood and economic base of Southeast Alaska. The Tongass is the fish basket of North American and Southeast Alaska produced a billion dollars in economic activity from the salmon produced on the Tongass."
SCS applauds the efforts of the State of Alaska and the United States Forest Service in recognizing the role that the Tongass National Forest plays in providing and producing the salmon resource that is so important to the 32 salmon-dependent communities of SE Alaska. We hope that the Sitkoh River Restoration project is just the start of more efforts to put the watersheds that were damaged by historic logging back together so that they can return to full ecosystem functionality and produce all the salmon that they were once capable of.