Sitkans, Sockeye, and Subsistence at Redoubt Lake

Fishermen in Redoubt Bay. Photo by Ellie Handler

Boats bobbed under a blue sky in Redoubt Bay. Beneath the boats, thousands of sockeye salmon had congregated to fight their way up the rushing outflows of Redoubt Lake, Kunaa Shak Áayi. It’s a convenient spot for fishermen from Sitka, who only need to take a 12-mile boat ride to dipnet and snag them. 

Salmon and other wild foods are major parts of Alaskan diets. In rural Southeast Alaska, each person harvests an average of over 100 pounds of fish every year. On public lands and waters, this harvest of fish and wildlife is supported through the Federal Subsistence Management Program, established for rural Alaskans by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) in 1980.

Sockeye salmon filets at Redoubt. Photo by Lione Clare

Redoubt Lake is home to one of the largest subsistence sockeye fisheries in Southeast Alaska. Sitkans catch up to 70% of their subsistence sockeye at Redoubt. “It’s a hugely important subsistence fishery,” said Chris Leeseberg, fisheries and wildlife biologist for the Sitka Ranger District of the Tongass National Forest. 

The fishery hasn’t always been managed well. The run suffered from overfishing during the 1800s and 1900s, and the fishery collapsed. In the 1980s, the Tongass National Forest and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game began a partnership to manage the run. For nearly 40 years now, the Sitka Ranger District has monitored the run to inform the State’s catch limits. 

“By monitoring, it allows for better management of subsistence, sport, and commercial harvest,” Leeseberg said.

A dipnetter at Redoubt Lake. Photo by Lione Clare 

During a low return, the State might reduce catch limits or even close the fishery for the year. This happened several years in the 1980s, when fewer than 10,000 fish made it into the lake. 

Conversely, “If the numbers are really good, we can open it up for larger harvest,” Leeseberg said. This happened in both 2018 and 2019. In 2019, the Forest Service counted 60,000 sockeye entering Redoubt Lake. In response to the productivity of the run, the State increased its subsistence catch limits and opened the fishery for commercial harvest.

This monitoring is just one way the Forest Service works to support our subsistence way of life on the Tongass. 

Redoubt Lake is most likely a fjord that was separated from the ocean hundreds of years ago. Photo by Ellie Handler

For the monitoring team, Redoubt Lake isn’t a bad office. Steep, forested mountains surround the 9-mile-long lake that averages a depth of 460 feet. 

Our own Ellie Handler worked there in the summer of 2019 as a member of the Student Conservation Association. “This was an exciting opportunity to actually do hands-on fisheries work, which I hadn’t done before,” she said. 

Ellie Handler worked at Redoubt Lake as a Student Conservation Association intern in the summer of 2019. Photo provided by Ellie Handler

Each summer, the Redoubt team sets up a weir at the outflows to control where the fish can swim into the lake. They count the fish that swim through the weir and measure the age and size of some fish, which helps to draw a picture of how the run changes over time.

Counting sockeye salmon as they swim through the weir. Photo by Ellie Handler.

“I’d heard a lot about Redoubt from people in Sitka, so it had been established as this really exciting place that people really cared about,” Handler said. “Even before I took the job, I knew how much Sitkans cared about their ability to subsistence harvest sockeye at Redoubt.”

Stacy Goade is one of those Sitkans who fishes at Redoubt. “We do subsistence hunting and fishing both,” Goade said. “It’s really, really important. I feel really lucky to have this opportunity. I know where it comes from, and I can get it with my own hands.”

Stacy Goade and Catherine Reynolds hold their sockeye catch at Redoubt. Photo by Ellie Handler

For many Alaskans, subsistence sustains not only our bodies but also our cultures and communities. That’s why we at the Sitka Conservation Society are glad that the State of Alaska and the U.S. Forest Service are working hard to sustain the sockeye run at Redoubt Lake for generations to come. 

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