Although we often associate our National Forests with trees and silviculturalists, BY FAR, the most valuable resource that the Tongass National Forest provides is in the production of all 5 species of wild Pacific salmon. Managing salmon habitat and the fish populations within the forest is one of the key roles of National Forest Service staff in Alaska. The Tongass National Forest is the largest National Forest in the United States. Its 17 million acres is home to 32 communities that use and very much depend on the resources that this forest provides.
On this National Forest, fisheries and watershed staff are probably the most critical positions on the entire Forest and are responsible for the keystone species in the temperate rainforest ecosystem—Salmon–a $1 Billion per year commercial fishery that serves up delicious salmon to people around the nation and the world, not to mention subsistence harvests that feed thousands of rural community members in Alaska. These staff also carry the legacy of thousands of years of sustainable management on their shoulders.
Like nothing else, salmon have shaped the cultures and the lifestyle of the peoples and communities of Southeast Alaska. The Tlingit and Haida people who have called the Tongass home for thousands of years, have learned and adapted to the natural cycles of salmon. Deeply held cultural beliefs have formed unique practices for “taking care of” and ensuring the continuance of salmon runs. As documented by Anthropologist Thomas Thornton in his book, Being and Place Among the Tlingit, “the head’s of localized clan house groups, known as yitsati, keeper of the house, were charged with coordinating the harvest and management of resource areas” like the sockeye salmon streams and other important salmon runs.
The staff of the Fisheries and Watershed program has integrated Alaska Native organizations, individuals, and beliefs into salmon and fisheries management programs on the Tongass and have hired talented Alaska Native individuals as staff in the USDA National Forest Service. Through the efforts of the Fisheries and Watershed program and its staff, a variety of formal agreements, joint programs, and multi-party projects that manage and protect our valuable salmon resources have been developed. The programs on the Tongass are case-studies for the rest of the world where lands and resources are owned by the public while being managed through the collaborative efforts of professional resource managers in government agencies, local peoples with intimate place-based knowledge, and involve multi-party stakeholders who use and depend on the resource.
The Tongass is America’s Salmon Rainforest and the Forest Service’s Fisheries Resource Monitoring Program is a stellar example of how we manage a National Forest to produce and provide salmon for people across the entire country as well as the people who call this forest their home.
The “why” of Fish to Schools has had clear goals from the beginning: connecting students to their local food system, learning traditions, and understanding the impact of their food choices on the body, economy, and environment. The “how” has been a creative process. Serving locally is one component of the program, but equally important is our education program that makes the connections between stream, ocean, forest, food, and community.
We were back in the classroom this year offering our “Stream to Plate” curriculum that focuses on the human connection to fish. How are fish caught? Where do they come from? Why should we care? Who depends on them and how? What do I do with them? These are just a few of the questions we answer through a series of hands-on games and activities.
Students began by learning about the salmon lifecycle and its interconnection to other plants and animals. By building a salmon web, students saw that a number of species depend on salmon—everything from orcas, to brown bears, to people, to the tall trees of the Tongass. They learned how to manage a sustainable fishery by creating rules and regulations, allowing each user group (subsistence, sport, and commercial) to meet their needs while ensuring enough fish remain to reproduce. They learned that fish is an important local food source (and has been for time immemorial) but also important for our economy, providing a number of local jobs. (Read more here.)
Students also learned how to handle fish–how to catch fish both traditionally and commercially, how to gut and fillet fish, how to make a super secret salmon brine for smoked salmon, and how to cook salmon with Chef Collete Nelson of Ludvigs Bistro. Each step is another connection made and another reason to care.
The Stream to Plate Curriculum will be available through our website in early 2014. Check back for its release!
Photo Credit: Adam Taylor
Kevin McGowan has made some friends you need a snorkel to find. “Swimming and seeing a sea lion can be pretty terrifying. Usually they’re just curious… but they’re pretty terrifying looking creatures, so it can be unnerving. You see their huge brown bodies and their vicious looking faces. it’s usually just a dark spot swimming under you, and then they pop up and you know they’re there. And hopefully they don’t do too much damage to you.”
Born and raised in Southeast Alaska, at age 21, Kevin knows that the experiences he had (and marine mammals he met) growing up have uniquely shaped him. “My interests are environment based,” he says. “My whole life has revolved around water.” And when he moved away from Sitka for college, he found it very difficult to translate those interests into a different environment. “My friends didn’t get to see that side of me,” he says. He’s certainly not the only one – while leaving home for college is difficult for all kinds of reasons, for the kids of Southeast Alaska, it is often harder to leave the wilderness environment behind more than their houses and neighborhoods. When the environment is a major component of your activities and interests, it also factors into your relationships with the people around you. In a new geographic environment, kids from Southeast not only have to deal with the usual homesickness, but they have to find a new way to make friends and navigate relationships without access to the things they usually do with their friends. “It would be hard [for my school friends] to see all my real interests, because a lot of them are really location based, the snorkeling and the mountain climbing and boating and kayaking,” Kevin says. “That’s all dependent on things I have here, and going to school I don’t have access to all these things. The way I relate to people from Sitka is a deeper connection. [I] don’t necessarily have that with people at school.”
But luckily, growing up outdoors doesn’t just serve to hinder the social experiences of Southeast Alaskan kids who are trying to make it in more urban and academic environments: Kevin also gives it credit for some of his success. For a guy who admits his high school years were spent dreaming about being outdoors, Kevin says his attitude towards school has shifted. “I definitely have focused academically,” he says. After a hard first year at OSU, he transferred to UAF, and took classes which he needed to catapult him to engineering school in California. Three schools in three years would wear out even the most dedicated student: so how did the shift from dreaming about getting out of the classroom to doggedly trying to stay in it occur? He sees his motivation linked to his experiences growing up in Alaska. “There’s a lot of curiosity that I’ve developed growing up here, adventures and finding new things,” he says. “So with school, I want to learn a lot of new things. It’s helped myself apply myself to schoolwork. Because there’s new things to learn. New people to meet, more foods to try. You don’t necessarily need to be snorkeling to experience somewhere cool and new.” And even though there will be challenges to surmount, it’s hard not to have faith in his ability to succeed. If he can make a good impression underwater on a sea lion underwater, it’s hard to imagine him feeling out of his depth.
Want to listen to Kevin’s stories about spearfishing in his own words?
Tenders may only fulfill one or a few parts of the salmon commodity chain yet their hard labor and work ethic is what keeps our fishermen fishing and eventually our plates full of fish. To keep fishermen fishing, yet another amenity often provided by tenders is conversation.
This is where my role as a community organizer came in.
There are all sorts of approaches to packing Coho bellies with ice–I got a little ridiculous and acrobatic.
While on the tender boats, I both worked as a crew member, and an organizer. While working on the tender boats, I talked with fishermen and deckhands about the US Forest Service’s Tongass Transition and how the transition should be focused on protecting the salmon they depend on.
It is very important that fishermen and tender operators voice their concerns with the people and agencies responsible for managing our Tongass National Forest because the salmon these fishermen depend on come directly from the Tongass. Salmon fishing accounts for over 7,000 jobs, hundreds of millions in revenue, and are a sent out as food to people from all over the country.
A Sitka fishermen offloads his catch to the Shoreline Scow in Pelican, AK.
It wasn’t surprising thing I found that most fishermen catching salmon had not heard about the Tongass Transition because the Forest Service is still only focusing on timber.
The very Coho that I helped process spent anywhere from one to five years in the rivers, streams, tributaries, sloughs, and back-pools of Tongass watersheds. Now here they were: supporting the livelihoods of these fishermen while generating thousands of jobs in our Southeast economy by the many hands that catch, weigh, stuff, and ship these fish all over the world.
Rows and rows of Coho with ice-stuffed bellies are lined up in totes that can hold from 1,000-1,500 pounds of fish and ice.
It is the Forest Service’s job to manage the Tongass, our forest and resources, in a way that reflects the people of Southeast Alaska’s priorities. If you look at the economic stats and use common sense, Salmon is the most sustainable and valuable resource that the Tongass produces.
After discussing the Tongass Transition with the large number of fishermen I worked with this summer, they want the Forest Service to start implementing the Transition, and make sure that salmon are a big focus of the Forest Service’s work. They have written messages to the Forest Service that include “I have been trolling in SE for the last 9 years and will for many more to come. Every salmon is important to me. It is my livelihood so every fish counts.” They are telling the Forest Service to prioritize restoring salmon habitat damaged by historic logging as the main focus of the Transition.
As my friend Kai on the Shoreline scow said about fishermen and deckhands respectively, “You slice um, we ice ‘um,” we Sitkans, fishermen, and users of the Tongass can say to our Forest Service respectively, “you manage ‘um, we live off of ‘um.”
If you haven’t already done so, type up a quick email to Chief of the Forest Service Tom Tidwell asking him to implement the Tongass Transition and to focus management effort on salmon for the benefit of the fishermen, the multitude of jobs created by the fishing industry (such as our beloved tender operators), and the delicious taste of salmon for super. It takes 5 minutes, yet helps keep the people who depend on the Tongass.
The chief’s email is [email protected], and if you need more information for your email, click here. You just gotta clearly state “Implement the Tongass Transition and move beyond Old Grown timber harvest, Chief Tidwell.”
Over the course of the summer, I had a chance to talk to a huge number of fishermen, but our conversations did not happen just at the harbors, docks, or in Sitka’s Pbar. Instead, they occurred on tenders.
Tenders are a very important component of Southeast Alaska’s fishing industry and serve fishing boats that are far from their home harbors.
Either stationary like the Shoreline Scow by Pelican or mobile like Sitka’s Ginny C or Deer Harbor II, tenders serve our fishermen with paychecks, ice, and at times with rare amenities like hot showers and right-out-of-the-oven chocolate chip cookies. The job of tender boats is to unload the catch from fishing boats on the fishing grounds. On the tender boats, the fishermen’s catch gets sorted, weighed, iced up, and packed away in a matter of minutes. During those minutes, there is a lot of physical and mental endurance by people who are typically behind the scenes in the fishing industry.
As a community organizer, I saw working on tenders as not only a way to reach out to fishermen about the Tongass Transition during the busy fishing season, but also as a way to get some sort of experience in the lifestyle and hard work that most people in Southeast commit to in order to make their living.
Picture the King salmon opening in July, which is one of the busiest times for salmon trollers and consequently for the tenders. A typical day for tender deckhands begins at 6 or 7 in the morning with greetings from fishermen that have been waiting to sell their fish since 3 am. There is not just one boat waiting to offload, but a line of 5 boats with more lingering close by. The hydraulics are turned on, the crane is in motion, and bags of fish are hauled one at a time from the fishermen’s boat to a tray on the tender where the deckhands sort the fish for quality and weight.
Once weighed these often heavy and large fish are grasped by the gills and neck, one in each hand, by deckhands that then simultaneously toss both fish into a tote with a repetition that fills the tote with layers of fish and ice in a matter of seconds. These deckhands have to be quick, to operate under pressure, to persevere with numb hands and hungry bellies as each fishermen offloads thousands of pounds of their livelihood onboard in the hopes to catch more in the next few days.
With troll caught Coho aboard, deckhands of the Ginny C and myself removed the ice from salmon bellies, weighed the fish, placed them in totes, and then stuffed their bellies again with ice.
After working on their feet for hours, moving around totes of around 1000 pounds of fish and ice, breaking apart new totes of ice with metal shovels, tossing around 12 pound fish with sore muscles and wrists, stuffing salmon bellies with ice, and then scrubbing the whole operation down with bleach, Joy soap, and water, the deckhands yawn themselves to bed around 2 am, quite possibly still covered in fish slime. Then they will sleep for 4 or 5 hours, wake up, and do it all over again.
The Shoreline in Pelican, AK has been a woman-run operation for decades, and I was fortunate to join them for a few days and share in their hard, hard work, which helps our fishermen keep fishing.
Stay tuned! I will be posting a blog piece focused on the advocacy work I did on tenders entitled “You slay ‘um, we weigh ‘um”: a mix of tendering and Tongass Transition advocacy in Southeast Take Two. A big thank you to KaiLea Wallin who coined the two slogans I have used as titles for these blog pieces.
THE TONGASS NATIONAL FOREST AND THE COHO SALMON:
Alaska’s coho fisheries and the Tongass National Forest are closely related. Shot in Sitka over the fishing season of 2013 by Berett Wilber, this photo essay illustrates how conservation and restoration matter to local fisherman, and why it should matter to you.
By. Nora McGinn, Sitka Salmon Shares Organizer
The Sitka Salmon Shares office sits on Main Street in Galesburg, Illinois, approximately 3,000 miles from the Tongass National Forest and the communities of Southeast Alaska. Despite this distance, we share a commitment to the salmon, fishermen and public lands that make up the Tongass National Forest.
As we at Sitka Salmon Shares navigate connecting socially and environmentally conscious consumers in the Midwest with small boat fishermen in Sitka and Juneau we have continued to return to the story of the Tongass National Forest. The Tongass poses a particularly compelling connection for many people out here in the Midwest.
In the conversations I’ve had and the advocacy letters I’ve read I have learned that, as proud Midwesterners, our members understand they need to support their fellow citizens and public lands beyond their regional borders. They identify with the inextricable connection between place, culture and livelihood. They can relate to the fine balance between stewardship and reliance on resources. And just as they enjoy supporting their local farms, dairies and breweries, they appreciate supporting their fisherman, who although not as local is just as fundamental to their food system.
But, for most of our members, their growing reverence for the Tongass National Forest comes down to something much simpler: the taste and quality of the wild salmon we deliver to their doorstep during the summer months. They know that the bountiful streams and rivers of the Tongass National Forest reared their wild salmon. They understand that the delicious and nourishing salmon that ends up on their dinner tables had a long journey — a journey that connects them to their fishermen and to the Tongass as a whole.
When Midwesterners join Sitka Salmon Shares, we help them become aware of the Tongass National Forest as a national treasure. And for these reasons, they feel a responsibility to safeguard it for both those that rely on the Tongass for their livelihood locally, and for folks like them, thousands of miles away, fortunate enough to share in its bounty.
Therefore our members in Minnesota have been writing to Senator Al Franken, our members in Wisconsin have been communicating with Senator Tammy Baldwin, and our members in Illinois, Iowa and Indiana have been contacting the Chief of the Forest Service Tom Tidwell in order to advocate for the Tongass and the Tongass Transition. They all write to share their hopes for a healthy, sustainable future in the Tongass by prioritizing funding for watershed restoration, caring for salmon habitat and making sure fisheries remain strong so that communities, near and far, can thrive.
Film maker Ben Hamilton has captured the essence of the Sitka Community Use Area in this video. In just two minutes find out what makes the Tongass so remarkable:
The Tongass National Forest is the largest forest in the National Forest System. Weighing in at 17 million acres, it encompasses almost the entire Southeast Alaska Panhandle. The Southeast is sprinkled with small towns that have built economies around the resources that the Tongass provides. As a community, Sitka is no different, and is intrinsically connected to the Tongass National Forest. We rely on its resources and all management decisions have repercussions that resonate within the community socially, economically and ecologically. Once a typical timber pulp town, the community now concentrates on the other assets and experiences the Tongass has to offer. At SCS we focus on an area of the Tongass known as the SCUA, Sitka Community Use Area. Ecosystems are never constrained by manmade boundaries, but the SCUA encompasses what Sitkans consider to be their backyard. The SCUA is important to Sitka for jobs, recreation, subsistence, renewable energy, economic development, clean air, clean water, cultural and traditional uses, and our overall quality of life.
SCS is optimistic with USDA Secretary Vilsack’s recent announcement, reiterating a commitment to the Transition Framework, that there will also be renewed focus on all of the assets the Tongass has to offer. For us, this commitment means prioritizing the health of the forest and supporting local businesses that rely on the Tongass to keep our community afloat. A diverse Forest Service budget that focuses on watershed health, fisheries, recreation and the visitor industry is paramount to preserve the core aspects of a new economy for Sitka and other communities in the Southeast. SCS continues to support and highlight projects that clearly demonstrate attention to the Transition in ways that are lacking in other programs and projects on the Tongass.
Today’s episode of Voices of the Tongass features a story from Carina Nichols about growing up fishing. To listen to the show, scroll to the bottom of this post. For more of Carina’s stories, read on…
Carina Nichols is 26 years old, and is currently working to become an optometrist. Behind the desk of the local vision clinic Carina seems perfectly ordinary. However, she is not like other optometry students. Her career path took took a long detour on her family’s commercial fishing boat. She and her twin brother Ryan were seven weeks old when they started fishing. They eventually became the crew of their family’s freezer-troller, and they spent every summer fishing out of Sitka, Alaska. So how did Carina find herself interested in optometry?
“I have really bad vision,” she says, “And my parents were really struggling with getting me to be excited to go for walks or be out on the boat.” What they didn’t realize was that Carina literally couldn’t see what they were trying to show her. “They would tell me ‘Look at the whales!’ and I would be looking and looking, and I would see a stick float by the boat, and I would think, Wow, that must be a whale, they sure are boring.” When Carina finally got glasses, her whole world changed: “Some humpback whales were jumping by the boat and I went crazy. I couldn’t believe that that was a whale. I had to go wake my mom up and say ‘You gotta come see these! This is just the most amazing thing!’” Carina’s experience gave her a huge appreciation for being able to see the world around her.
When Carina talks about her plans for the future – optometry school, working to help people, spending time outside, probably even fishing – she is calm and collected, unlike many people her age who are struggling to find direction in a gloomy economic climate. When we ask about her positive outlook, she attributes some of her focus to her years on the boat. “I’m definitely am not afraid to work hard for what I want. Fishing is a lot of diligent hard work, and you have to dig in if you want to be successful with it. My parents were really big proponents of working for what you want instead of just getting it.” She laughs. “We had rain gear real young.”
And Carina says she hasn’t left fishing forever. Her ideal future? Work in the winter and spring, go fishing in the summer. Maybe when her twin brother Ryan gets his own boat, so the two of them can finish what they started at seven weeks old. She would love to come back and work in Sitka, she says, and being out on the water has never stopped being important to her; she feels closest to her home when she is out on the boat and away from the lights of town.