Early last month, when the tailings dam at the Mount Polley Mine in British Columbia breached releasing 10 million cubic meters of contaminated water into Polley Lake and Quesnel Lake, southeast Alaskans woke up to the possibility that other BC mines could pose the same threats to southeast Alaskan fisheries.
Tailings dams are built to hold the waste rock that is extracted from ore during mining. These toxic tailings are often stored under-water and the dams are built to keep the waste from spreading to the surrounding environment. Because the waste rock can be so harmful, tailings dams need to be maintained forever.
The tailings dam at Mount Polley Mine was only 14 years old.
As more new mines are built along the BC and Alaska border, Alaskans now know the risks mining accidents pose to the people and ecosystems sitting downstream. And they can do nothing to protect themselves.
The Transboundary Mine Issue
Mining has been a part of the British Columbia economy for more than 9,000 years, since First Nation peoples first started trading obsidian. When Europeans arrived in the 19th century, mining took on a more prominent role and there are no signs of activities slowing down.
BC premier Christy Clark promised to bring eight mines in four years to the province when she was elected in 2011. With the recent completion of the Northwest Transmission power line up the western border of BC, it looks like she can make good on her promise.
The first mine to make use of the new power line is the Red Chris Project, which is set to begin operations by the end of the year. The Red Chris Project tailings dam is located near the Iskut River which is one of the main tributaries of the Stikine River – the largest river by volume in the Tongass National Forest and one of the largest producers of salmon.
The tailings dam at Red Chris is set to be 330 feet high and needs to hold 183 million tons of toxic tailings. The mine will process 30,000 tons of ore per day for 28 years, according to owners, Imperial Metals Corporation. The Imperial Metals Corporation is the same mining company that built the Mount Polley Mine.
All of the proposed mines will process tens of thousands of tons of ore per day with the largest mine, Kerr Sulphuretts Mitchell (KSM), set to process 120,000 tons of ore per day for 52 years. Most of the proposed mines will be in operation for less than 25 years.
And, the Red Chris isn't the only mine threatening southeast Alaskan watersheds. The major salmon-producing watersheds in danger from the new mines are the Stikine, Unuk and the Taku. Commercial and sport fishing are a $1 billion industry in southeast Alaska and salmon is also important for tourism and subsistence in the Tongass. Should a tailings dam breach or another mining accident occur, these watersheds and southeast Alaskans that depend on them will bear the brunt of the risk.
Alaskan senators, fishermen, conservationists and natives alike recognize the risks these new transboundary mines pose for southeast Alaska and the livelihood of the Tongass National Forest. But, because Canada is the sovereign country, southeast Alaskans have no way to protect themselves from the dangers upstream.
The Boundary Waters Treaty places responsibility for any pollution in Alaskan waters from the mines on Canada, but little is required for pre-emptive action to prevent the pollution from ever occurring.
And it's not just a major catastrophe like what happened at Mount Polley that Alaskans should worry about. Dust from the mines could smother salmon eggs. Leaking chemicals could kill salmon foods sources. Increased copper in the water is believed to impair fish hearing and make them less able to avoid predators. All of these side effects affect the survivability of the salmon before a major accident happens.
Preserving the last frontier
The Tongass National Forest is the largest in tact temperate rainforest in the world. The forest is home to about 70,000 people that all depend on the healthy and sustainable fisheries found here. Salmon is a part of the Alaskan way of life. From commercial and sport fishing to subsistence, the five species of Pacific salmon are a lifeline for the culture and people.
As the FDA continues to test the limits of genetically modifying fish and more and more farmed fish make it on to American plates, we should be fighting harder to protect what wild and sustainable fisheries this country has left. Fish that can grow bigger and fatter faster pose unforeseen threats to American health and only fulfill the wasteful desires to always have excess. Fresh, wild fish should not be the delicacy, but the norm.
And finally… Alaska is America's last frontier. We are a nation of explorers, of entrepreneurs and innovation. Part of that identity comes from the wilderness within our borders, the adventure that can be had in our own backyard. But that wilderness is quickly disappearing and these mines might destroy the little that Alaska has left. America needs wildness and should fight hard to protect it.
Sitka School District schools have been serving locally-caught fish in their school lunches for three years. But starting today, kids will be eating coho caught right in their own backyard every Wednesday!
Fish to Schools was a brainchild of the fall 2010 Sitka Health Summit and a pilot program began in the spring of 2011 with Blatchley Middle School serving fish in school lunches once a month. Since that time, the program has expanded to become a state-funded initiative that brings locally caught fish into public school lunches all across Alaska.
The Sitka Conservation Society has been an instrumental part of the program development, with Tracy Gagnon leading the charge.
"It's a viable way to connect the fishing fleet to young people," Gagnon said. "It connects fishermen to the classroom."
Gagnon said that they did not advertise as much for donations this year, but the support that came in was overwhelming. They received double of what they asked for in this year's donation drive - 1,000 pounds of fish."Overall it's very exciting," Gagnon said. "What a generous fishing fleet!"
With state funding, the Sitka School District will be able to start paying fishermen to have their catches served in school lunches.
"Donating actual coho is so much more meaningful than writing a check," Beth Short-Rhoads said. She is one of the coordinators of the Fish to Schools program. "It's like giving time on the ocean, the excitement of landing a gorgeous fish, and the satisfaction of working hard for a way of life they love," she said.
Today, Wednesday Sept. 2, marks the first day of a fully year of fish lunches on Wednesdays. 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.
"There's a certain poetry that people eat food from the lands and waters around them. In Alaska, that means fish caught fresh from the Pacific and not fried chicken from Kentucky," Alaska House Representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins said.
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!
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://archive.sitkawild.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/fishwednesday.mp3
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."
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 email@example.com. 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 Kathy Warm Caroline Lester Matt Meizlish
Doug Chilton and The One People Canoe Society
Doug Chilton lives in Juneau, though his family originally comes from Angoon. A decade ago, he was excited when his canoe racing team was invited to race in Quinalt, Washington. But when his team showed up in Washington, he told me, they were surprised to find that there was nobody there. The next day, they were greeted by people arriving by canoe from reservations across Washington and Canada. "What we didn't know at the time is that it wasn't about racing for them, it was about the journey." Doug was taken aback by the way that these journeys were bringing people together as well as reconnecting native people with the tradition of the canoe-journey. Inspired, he came back to southeast Alaska with the goal of building a canoe-movement in his home waters, reconnecting with the journeys that his Tlingit ancestors has undertaken so many years ago. More importantly, he hoped to build a movement that would bring together the native tribe-members of Southeast Alaska in the ways that he had seen in Washington and Canada.
Building the energy within the movement was slow at first, he told me. He managed to get a team of people to paddle from Hoonah to Juneau for Celebration, which is a biennial festival celebrating Haida, Tlingit and Tshimian traditions and culture: the largest gathering of its kind in the state. But while it was hard to garner support while they were preparing for their journey, he told me that they received unexpected enthusiasm once they reached Juneau. People were intrigued. Many had thought it was never going to happen. Once they were able to see Doug and his team overcome the obstacle, though, they were convinced, and they wanted to try it themselves. "Over the years, it's been growing a little bit more and a little bit more, and sometimes it didn't feel like it was growing at all. But we were staying busy."
Since the first Celebration journey, Doug has been giving paddle workshops throughout Southeast Alaska. During the workshops, participants carve paddles from yellow cedar carving blinds, which have been donated by Haa'anni, the economic development division of the Sealaska corporation."We're putting together the group that's going to paddle the canoe," Doug explained to me, "and the idea is to get them started paddling together as a unit… Now during the paddle workshop we are trying to build the excitement and keep the excitement level high." And it's working. Canoe journeys elsewhere in the state have been taking off. Eleven canoes asked permission to land in Juneau at Sandy Beach for Celebration this year: the most canoes since Doug started paddling a decade ago.
Wooch.een: We Work Together
Having connected with Chilton through his paddling workshops, Stormy Hamar decided to organize a canoe journey from Coffman Cove to the rededication of Chief Shakes House in Wrangell. His first challenge, however, was to find a way to fill the 38 foot fiberglass canoe with people from the community. Many were members of his family. When I visited them in Kasaan, they told me that it was initially difficulth to get people to take time off from their busy lives. They handed out fliers and stopped people on the street. Finally, they were able to recruit fifteen people, some younger and some older, some with Haida heritage and some not. After carving their own paddles from donated boards, practicing paddling as a team for a a few hours, and pulling together last minute details, the day finally came to cast off. Stephanie Hamar, whose father, Stormy, skippered the canoe, told me that they had no idea what to expect. "We didn't know what was going to happen," she remarked, "We half expected to go down in the bay."
Much to their surprise, the team was able to paddle 34 miles the first day and camped a few nights on Vank island. Tim Paul Willis Junior was a pace-setter up at the front with Stephanie. He told me that he was amazed by how well everybody did. "I was surprised that a couple people ever made the journey, " he told me, "It was kind of impressive to see the different personalities of people come out through their actions." Stormy the skipper agreed that people on the team were able to show a different side to themselves. He told me that by the end, the group had become a cohesive unit, though in many ways, they didn't have a choice.
"In the canoe, people have to learn how to work together," he told me, "There's all this kind of simple stuff that you don't really think about. Everybody has to learn how to paddle in the same direction. When you're turning the boat, even when you're docking the boat. We even had to learn how to get in the boat."
By the end, everyone on board was proud of their teamwork. Nahaan, an avid paddle and canoe-builder from Ketchikan, described the sense of unity that a canoe-team builds to me. To him, working together is intrinsic to all aspects of a canoe-journey because it necessarily requires more than one person, both in its construction and in paddling. He related the sensation to the Tlingit word, "Wooch.een," which means, "we work together." "Wooch.een" could also describe the meditative quality of paddling in a team: the methodical movement of the boards in the water, the feeling of being balanced, the purity of intention, and the unifying feeling of participating in a collective activity.
Yet the sense of unity extends far beyond the rim of the canoe. Ken Hoyt works for SEARHC, but in his spare time he is a part of a team who is a part of a team building a strip-bark canoe in Wrangell. He told me that everyone involved in organizing the canoe journey has a stake in it and wants to see the team succeed.
"The journeys aren't simply just paddling," he told me, "There's a huge amount of logistics involved, a lot of people involved. You know every canoe might take fifty or a hundred people to get everything together, to get every last logistic taken care of, every bag packed and every little check list checked off."
Not just the people in the canoe are effected, but people witnessing the event are also inspired.
Listen to what Ken Hoyt says about how the different communities support the canoeshere.
"People support the canoers in a big way," he said, "They pray for the canoers, when we roll up to any community or leave any community they roll out the red carpet, or they'll host a potluck and the dance groups show up. It's powerful for the villages and the towns and the cities. Everyone celebrates the canoes in their own way. Like when we go to Juneau, they do that by having thousands of people on the beach. And when we go to Angoon, they do that by having a traditional foods potluck or a dance group. Kake woke up early in the morning to see us off. A lot of people were out on the dock with us. Just trying to help us out, whether it was picking up the canoes and helping us get them in the water, or if people forgot stuff at the house or they brought little last minute gifts for the trip."
Arriving on the shores after a long journey is often one of the most riveting aspects of the journey. Again, not just for the participants. "There is something deep inside people," said Ken, "When we land on the beach, you can see the look on people's faces. Some people are moved to tears, just overwhelmed by the powerful experience of the landing."
"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.
The last marathoner in the Sitka Cross Trail Classic ran confidently across the finish line as the Sitka Seafood Festival parade started to get underway on Saturday. Floats spewing bubbles and candy made their way down Lincoln Street towards the Sheldon Jackson campus just before noon on August 5 as just one part of a weekend-long celebration of successful wild fisheries in the Tongass National Forest.
"It's a celebration of how lucky we are," Cherie Creek, a regular volunteer at the festival, said. "We are a seaport and have tons of fisheries and fresh food."
On Aug. 1 and 2, the community gathered for the fourth annual Sitka Seafood Festival. The festival included a marathon, kids' races, cooking demonstrations, food booths, festival games, a fish head toss and the parade.
While it is a community event, Creek said she enjoys having people from out of town join in the festival activities. Her favorite event of the festival is the children's crab races.
The Sitka Seafood Festival is a great way to "show off to visitors how important seafood is to the Sitka community," Lon Garrison, president of the Sitka School Board said. He said he enjoys celebrating the well-managed and sustainable resource of the Tongass every year.
Garrison also participated in a new event at the festival this year: the Fish to Schools recipe contest. He helped judge 8 different recipes provided by locals to find the new recipe to be used in local schools this fall. The Fish to Schools program, initiated by the Sitka Conservation Society, brings locally caught fish into school cafeterias twice a month.
One in ten jobs in Sitka is related to the fishing industry and theTongass National Forest provides 28 percent of all salmon produced in the state of Alaska,so the festival really does rejoice in local endeavors. It's something outsiders can't help but take notice of.
"Everyone I've met has some kind of tie to fishing," Ali Banks, a visiting Chicago chef said. "It really drives everything."
Banks teaches in a recreational cooking school in Chicago and uses salmon from Sitka Salmon Shares in her classes. She said she encourages her students to buy wild rather than farmed fish because there really is a difference in quality. She also writes basic and fun recipes for the Sitka Salmon Shares website, which distributes mostly in the Midwest.
Traveling to Sitka for the seafood festival was a real treat for Banks. She spent a few days in Sitka out on a boat fishing. "I got the best Alaska has to offer," she said. "I love knowing where my food comes from."
- Keep it low in fat and sodium
- Bake the fish!
- Don't use any special appliances. These recipes will be replicated in local schools in big quantities, so don't make it too complicated.