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.
As we hunker down during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s natural to feel cooped up, isolated, and nostalgic for “normal” life. These are difficult, uncertain times. At the Sitka Conservation Society, we want to support you in new worlds of living, working, and learning.
That’s why we’ve released The Salmon Forest for free viewing, with everyone from families to globe-trotters to fishermen to daydreamers in mind.
The Salmon Forest celebrates what hasn’t changed during the outbreak: the incredible lands and waters of Southeast Alaska, and the salmon’s return to their home streams.
About the Film
The Salmon Forest is a 30-minute documentary film that explores the connection between wild salmon and life in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, the largest national forest in the United States.The film follows Alaskan salmon on their epic migration from the streams of the forest to the ocean and back, revealing the various lives they impact along the way. Pull in a huge catch with commercial fishermen, explore the breathtaking landscapes that draw in millions, watch as a mother bear lunges into a stream to feed her cubs, visit a native Tlingit community to better understand salmon’s cultural significance, and meet the people who work day and night to ensure this public resource is protected for generations to come.
Filmed in stunning high definition, The Salmon Forest highlights one of the last healthy homes for salmon on Earth, and provokes a deeper understanding of this complex and beautiful ecosystem. Ultimately, this film celebrates the unique role public lands play in salmon production and reminds us that proper management is vital to sustain the future of commercial fisheries, subsistence, recreation, and our forests.
This film was made in partnership between Sitka Conservation Society, the U.S. Forest Service, and Wild Agency to share the interdependence of the Tongass National Forest, wild Pacific salmon, and the communities of Southeast Alaska.
Continue the Entertainment!
With parents and families in mind, we’ve made a Fin-Tastic Activity Packet that contains a coloring page and worksheets. Learn more about the life cycle of a salmon, create your own food web, and see how salmon are an important part of the Southeast Alaskan way of life in these activities that are fun for the whole family!Read more
Judi Lehmann, originally from Minnesota, is a world traveler who calls Sitka home. For the last several years, Judi has been learning the art of fish skin tanning and sewing. Her journey began when she took a fish skin sewing class from Audrey Armstrong. Judi and the other students worked with whole fish donated by Sitka Sound Science Center to learn how to clean, gut, and skin fish. After stripping the skins off the fish, they are soaked in alcohol before being sewn into various items, such as bags, bowls, hats, and even dresses.Read more
In a large, old, wooden building on the waterfront at Sitka Sound Science Center, a group of women gathers around a central table. A spotlight leans over their shoulders, lending light to a delicate creative process. Dressed in bright pink, Audrey Armstrong strains her eyes and carefully aligns mind, material and dexterity as she pierces a tiny needle through glittering scales.
Audrey, who is Athabaskan, is teaching a new generation of creatives the ancient technique of fish skin sewing. She has been sharing her skills and knowledge for over a decade, and this is her fifth summer teaching this particular course in Sitka— after four at Sheldon Jackson Museum this is her first year at the Sitka Arts & Science Festival.
As Audrey tells it, almost any Alaskan fish skin can be used for this craft, but she favors salmon. Salmon is the fish that sustains her family and culture, and it was a silver salmon that inspired her, 15 years ago, to learn this utilitarian art form.
“It was cloudy on the stream in early September, and I caught my first one for the day. It was all soft and gushy so I let it go. Then I caught my second one and the sun was starting to come out and it just shined on the salmon, and all these gorgeous purples, pinks, and dark colors were revealed and I just fell in love.”
This late Coho run inspired Audrey’s interest in fish-skin sewing. “I said, ‘Wow, I know my ancestors such a long, long time ago probably used fish skin,’ but there was nothing written on it.”
She got to work and started researching. She went to the Smithsonian in Anchorage with others interested in skin sewing and found that while the Yupik were more prolific in their technique, the Athabaskan also made use of fish skin. “The only Athabaskan things I saw were made in 1849: a pair of gloves and a little purse made out of fish skin from our region.” Audrey expanded her research and studied different techniques. “Then I just started experimenting with it and doing different things and that’s how I started, trial and error.”
In 2009, Audrey took her interest to the next level. In Kasitna Bay, Audrey and a group of 13 attended Fran Reed’s first and only class. Reed was a prolific skin-sewer famous for her revitalization efforts in the field as well as for her baskets that include seal gut, salmon skins, fins, ferns and more.
“She had terminal cancer and she was very adamant that this continued. I took her first class and it was her last class even though she had been studying it for 25 years,” says Armstrong.
“When she was teaching us she was very ill, so we would set up a big chair for her and we called it ‘the queens chair’. She would sit and talk to us and we would bring things up to her and she would tell us what to do next. Kind of like what I’m doing right now in this class,” laughs Armstrong as she turns to offer advice and to tie beads onto one of her student’s pieces.
“In that same year, Fran died and we promised her before she died, that the following year after the class that all 13 of us would have an exhibit in her honor. We would show all different kinds of fish skin works: masks, capes, necklaces. And, we did. I made a big berry bucket,” recalls Audrey.
This Friday marks the beginning of a well-loved Sitka tradition, the Alaska Seafood Festival! The festival began in 2010, as a way to celebrate the bountiful ocean resources Sitka and Southeast Alaska has to offer. The fishing industry supplies significant revenue and jobs for the community as well as attracting tourists. Because seafood is such an important part of the Sitka community, it is essential that the resource is not only celebrated at the festival but also considered beyond the city limits.
Most Sitka residents and visitors enjoy the benefits of having plentiful wilderness recreation sites just a short distance from the city. These recreation sites are often within the Tongass National Forest. Like all national forests, the Tongass is under management of the US Forest Service. Over the past few weeks I’ve had the opportunity to work with Sitka Conservation Society (SCS) and the Forest Service to evaluate different forest treatment plans created to ensure the forest, streams, and salmon are all working together in harmony. One concern is ample habitat for rearing juvenile and spawning adult salmon. Salmon depend on wood in the streams to create sheltered areas with a reduced current. However, past harvesting in the Tongass has disrupted the conifer growth that supplies this habitat. The good news is that the Forest Service has been applying different forest treatment plans to different areas with the goal of growing larger conifers that will eventually fall into the stream to provide habitat. Plentiful habitat then ensures thriving salmon populations that will prosper in the future.
Pink Salmon at Indian River
One such area is Appleton Cove located on North Baranof Island. SCS and the Forest Service recently traveled to this area to observe how trees along stream banks are growing and what kinds of trees there are. Our studies consisted of setting up four to six plots along the stream bank and flagging every live tree within these plots. We then recorded the tree species, diameter, and height. This study was also done at Fish Bay, Noxon, and other sites in order to create a representative and diverse sample. These studies will be combined with developing Forest Service research to guide how the trees along stream banks will be managed through treatments such as thinning.
Me and the Forest Service crew: Chris Leeseberg, Sarah Rubenstein, and Malachi Rhines
Sarah Rubenstein setting up a plot along a stream bank
Another Forest Service Project dedicated to preserving salmon populations is present at Redoubt Lake. Redoubt Lake is one of the largest meromictic lakes in North America meaning the lake has areas of salt water and fresh water that do not mix. Each year thousands of salmon swim from the ocean and up the falls to reach Redoubt Lake to spawn. The Forest Service has set up a weir at the opening of the lake, which is essentially a gate preventing fish from passing except in specific areas. Forest Service workers are then able to count the fish and identify their species as they swim through the weir or past a camera in the evenings. Sockeye and Coho salmon are also sampled meaning they are weighed, measured, and have a scale taken. This information is then used to further study the fish at Redoubt and their genetic make up. One concern is that farmed fish could be mating with wild fish and disrupting wild type DNA. The scale sample comes into play here as it is analyzed by geneticists to determine if the fish has any DNA inherited by a farmed fish. Counting the fish that return to Redoubt Lake each year will also help the Alaska Department of Fish and Game set appropriate harvest limits to ensure future abundance.
On Redoubt Lake with the weir in the background
This weekend while enjoying festival events such as cooking and canning classes, the seafood banquet, film screenings, and more remember to also consider the connection between forest management and the sustainability of valuable Alaskan seafood.
Learn more about how the US Forest Service manages the Tongass National Forest at www.fs.usda.gov/land/tongass/landmanagement and be sure to visit the SCS booth while at the festival.
On the morning of June 17th at 5:30 AM I hopped into Scott’s truck. It was early but I wasn’t tired; neither were Luke A’Bear or Alana Chronister. We were all too excited anticipating our adventure into the Alaskan Wilderness. The journey began on Scott’s boat, traveling about three hours to get to our first site, Waterfall Cove. On the way I was already surprised by all the animals we had seen: bald eagles, sea otters, cormorants, and seagulls to name a few.
Once we got to Waterfall Cove we had only walked just past the shoreline when Luke spotted two distant brown dots and with the binoculars we confirmed it was indeed two grizzly bears. West Chichagof felt like a wildlife mecca and embodied everything people talk about when they talk about Alaska. We continued on to the creek where we located two stream temperature loggers and two air temperature loggers. The stream loggers are anchored to fallen logs and the air temperature loggers are nailed to trees by the bank. When Scott reviewed the data on the tablet, the graph formed a U shape representing higher temperatures during summer and lower temperatures during the winter.
After the data has been collected, the loggers are returned to their spots to collect data for another year. Alana and I then took mixing transects of the stream meaning we took the temperature of the water in ten spots across the stream. This gives the team an idea of the variability of the stream temperature. All of this data is important because a baseline needs to be established for the temperature of rivers and creeks that support salmon life. As climate change warms the planet, and thus the temperatures of creeks where salmon runs are present, salmon populations will suffer if the creeks become too warm. Because of this data, scientists in ten, twenty, or fifty years in the future will be able to study salmon populations in correlation with climate change and stream temperature changes. For example, if in the future salmon populations are dwindling and stream temperatures are much higher than in the past, scientists will have a variable to study further.
Alana Chronister and I taking stream temperature transects.
The next site was Ford Arm, another beautiful stream and forest in this wilderness wonderland. At this site the temperature loggers had to be moved upstream to avoid tidal influences. Last year the loggers could not be moved farther upstream because it was late in the season and the bears were gorging on the plentiful salmon swimming through the creek.
The next day’s site was Black Bay, a site that must be kayaked to due to the steep bank. Scott and I paddled to the site to gather data while Luke and Alana explored the estuary and its resident bears. On Friday we visited a site called Goulding River and hiked to a close by waterfall afterward. Saturday was our last day and was spent first watching a pregnant doe swim across the channel then hobble to shore and visiting a place called the Potato Patch before going to the site. Despite its unglamorous name, the Potato Patch is one of the most stunning places I have been to.
Waterproofing air temperature loggers.
The bright sun warmed us all up as we eagerly shed warm layers and put on our sunglasses. We climbed off the boat onto a white sand beach surrounded by the nearby mountains. The beach led to a driftwood logjam and behind that a bluff covered in grasses and wildflowers. Is was so tempting to just forget about everything else and stay there forever. However, we had to go to visit one more site called Leo’s before heading back to Sitka. At this site, the stream ran just a short distance before ending in a large lake. We gathered data as usual but having just been to the beautiful Potato Patch and this being our last site, I was thinking about the importance of the work SCS is doing. Salmon is vital not only for many plants and animals living in Alaska but also for the people. Just in the town of Sitka alone, the salmon industry employs a significant amount of people. This means salmon population and health must be preserved to keep not only nature in balance, but in order to create a sustainable and lasting fishing industry that will allow the people of Sitka and Alaska to continue benefitting from the land for many years to come.
Special thanks to Knox College and Sitka Conservation Society for giving the amazing opportunity to be the Wild Salmon Conservation and Restoration Intern, I can’t wait to see what the rest of the summer holds!
The Potato Patch
Salmon are a pillar of life in Southeast Alaska. They are essential to the ecosystem of the rainforest, in addition to driving the culture and economy of this region. The life cycles of salmon are intricately woven into the life of the Tongass. They need the habitat of the rainforest to survive, while the people and the rainforest in turn need the salmon to survive. Tlingit people have thrived in Sitka Sound for millennia on the bounty of salmon. Today, Southeast Alaskans are commercial fishermen, charter guides, sport fishers, and subsistence harvesters.
Despite the importance of salmon both ecologically and economically, salmon management in the Tongass has been chronically underfunded and under-appreciated. The Forest Service currently dedicates $15 million to timber and road-building in the Tongass, while the timber industry only provides around 200 jobs. Comparatively, the Forest Service gives only $1.5 million to salmon management and restoration, even though salmon provide over 4,000 jobs for Southeast Alaskans. Salmon deserve more of our public resources. The Forest Service should prioritize salmon fishery health while managing the Tongass. If more money can be devoted to watershed restoration and caring for salmon habitat, our Southeast communities can continue to thrive.
We need your voice to help protect Tongass salmon! Tell the Forest Service why salmon matter!
Terrible news for the Tongass this week: Around 70,000 acres of the Tongass are being turned over to Sealaska for development.
As Davey Lubin told the Sitka Sentinel this week, “I’m highly disappointed that our treasured, priceless public lands have been privatized. It’s a huge loss for the whole nation … What Theodore Roosevelt established as a national legacy, Lisa Murkowski has squandered.”
This week’s developments show that not even our National Forests are protected from corporate control. Congress and the American public need to give this issue more scrutiny. Read the article below to hear SCS Executive Director Andrew Thoms’s take on the Sealaska Lands Bill. The article below was printed in the Sitka Sentinel on Monday, December 15.
By SHANNON HAUGLAND, Sentinel Staff Writer
A bill transferring 70,000 acres of land from the Tongass National Forest to Sealaska Corp. passed Congress on Friday.
Rodman Bay (Photo provided by Sitka Conservation Society)
“It has taken seven years, but I’m proud to say that we finally completed the land conveyance for Southeast Alaska’s nearly 20,000 Native shareholders, and at the same time ensured that the region’s remaining timber mills have timber,” said U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski in a news release, following the vote on Friday.
The Southeast Alaska Native Land Entitlement Finalization and Jobs Protection Act was included in the bipartisan package of lands bills approved Friday as part of the National Defense Authorization Act. It provides Sealaska with 70,075 acres to finalize the transfer of land owed to the Native shareholders under the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
“Some 43 years after passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, the federal government will finally finish paying the debt we owe Natives for the settlement of their aboriginal land claims,” Murkowski said in the announcement.
The land transfer includes more than 68,000 acres available for logging, including land in Rodman Bay and Sinitsin Cove near Sitka, as well as 1,009 acres for renewable energy resources and recreational tourism, and 490 acres of Native cemetery and historic sites.
The legislation also includes about 152,067 acres of old-growth timber in new conservation areas to protect salmon and wildlife habitat, Murkowski said. The bill goes next to the president for his signature.
Representatives of Sealaska Corp. were unavailable for comment.
Sitka Tribe of Alaska Tribal Council Chairman Michael Baines said he was pleased by the news, which he ran across this weekend on Facebook.
“I’m 100 percent pleased, the council is pleased,” he said. He noted that the STA Tribal Council passed a resolution last week in support of the compromise legislation proposed by Murkowski.
Baines said he believes the legislation will be beneficial to tribal citizens.
“I hope it will mean an improved economic development for the corporation which will mean more dividends for the tribal citizens,” he said. “I hope it will mean jobs in Sitka but as far as I know there hasn’t been any jobs from the regional corporation.”
Asked whether he believes the land will be developed and logged any differently than in the past, Baines said, “I hope they’ve learned their lesson. They’ve done that before – and it’s taken decades to bring back more trees that they can log.”
Sitka Conservation Society Andrew Thoms said he was disappointed by the news.
“Anytime that public lands are given to a private corporation, it’s a loss for everyone,” he said. “It’s going to mean 70,000 acres of some of the best timber land in the Tongass put into Sealaska hands, and the old-growth stands they’ve been given are some of the best remaining stands of cedar left on the Tongass. The burden is on Sealaska now to do what’s best for the shareholders in the region.”
He called old-growth cedar a “cultural treasure of the peoples of the Pacific Northwest.”
“As Sealaska now owns those best stands of cedar, are they going to continue to foster that connection, or will it be exported to Asian markets?” Thoms said. “It’s about more than just (habitat). The cedar trees in those stands are thousands of years old, and they won’t grow back in our lifetime.”
He cited Rodman Bay, on the north end of Baranof Island (30 miles north of Sitka), and Sinitsin Cove on North Kruzof (25 miles northeast of Sitka) as two areas closest to Sitka that are identified as “economic development” lands in the transfer.
Clarice Johnson, a Sealaska shareholder, said she was opposed to the lands transfer as proposed. (Johnson works at the nonprofit SCS but specified that she was speaking only as a shareholder.)
“I think there are a number of shareholders who are supportive of receiving our full land selection but not the way it was put in the rider, and they don’t think it will be much benefit to the average shareholder,” she said. “Possibly because Sealaska has lost so much money, they’ll probably cut the land quickly; and a large portion of any natural resource development in regional corporation land will be shared with other regional corporations.”
She noted that this provision – calling for regional corporations to share profits – has made it possible for Sealaska to pay out dividends, since the local regional corporation has not been profitable in recent years. She added that she believes the main beneficiaries of the land transfer and development of the lands will end up being the corporation’s board and staff through salaries and other compensation.
Johnson said she believes one of many results of the transfer will be the inadequate protection of karsts in Southeast.
“There is no protection compared to the U.S. Forest Service,” she said.
Johnson said that although only two “economic development” land selections are near Sitka there are others she believes are designated as “historic sites” including Kalinin Bay. She said the 15-acre site is the fifth largest historic site in the land selection.
Johnson said she’s concerned about what may happen at this location. “They can’t log, and they can’t mine there, but they can develop it,” she said.
Davey Lubin, who has traveled to Washington, D.C., five times in the last six years to testify against the Sealaska lands bill, said he was “highly disappointed” with the news.
“I’m highly disappointed that our treasured, priceless public lands have been privatized,” he said. “It’s a huge loss for the whole nation … What Theodore Roosevelt established as a national legacy, Lisa Murkowski has squandered.”
The Sealaska lands bill is separate from legislation to transfer 11 acres near Redoubt Lake to Sealaska, which is now in the hands of the Bureau of Land Management, Baines said.
Katy and Coral Pendall are sisters and co-captains of their boat the FV Morgan. In this weeks episode of “Living with the Land,” they tell us about their favorite salmon to catch and even reveal some fishing secrets.
Living with the Land is a 12 part radio series exploring stories of place in Sitka. It is produced by the Sitka Conservation Society in collaboration with Raven Radio. You can also hear the episodes every Sunday at 10:27am on KCAW, just before Living Planet.
Do you like wild Alaskan salmon? Then you should also like stream buffers.
What exactly is a stream buffer? It’s the area of land on either side of a stream, river or lake that is excluded from logging when the Forest Service designs timber sales. Stream buffers are extremely important because they ensure that old growth trees are left near salmon spawning and rearing sites. Old growth trees shade salmon spawning grounds and help regulate stream flow to facilitate future salmon runs. Their roots also protect salmon spawning and rearing areas from erosion, without them soils and sediments would wash into the stream choking the water and smothering the eggs. Stream buffers make it possible for delicious wild salmon to appear on your dinner plate!
Want to learn more about stream buffers? Check out the fact sheet below. Also, please take a moment (it will only take 30 seconds) to send an email to Chief Tidwell, the Chief of the Forest Service. Ask him to protect wild Alaskan salmon by prioritizing salmon in Forest Service budgets and management practices. Just copy and paste the blurb below (make sure to fill in your state, name, and address)!
Thanks so much for helping to protect wild salmon, the most vital resource of the Tongass National Forest.
BCC: firstname.lastname@example.org (BCC me so that we can use your letter as evidence that people are writing to him)
SUBJECT: I support your efforts on the Tongass Transition
Dear Chief Tidwell:
I am an (type your state here) constituent that commends your efforts to protect the wild salmon of Alaska through the Tongass Transition.
The Tongass Transition puts the focus back on salmon and healthy intact forest ecosystems. In other parts of the country, our lack of foresight and the misuse of our resources have significantly impacted salmon populations. Let’s not see the same thing happen in Alaska. We must work to protect salmon habitat and restore damaged salmon streams. Please prioritize salmon in Forest Service budgets and management practices to help us sustain this vital resource.
Chief Tidwell, please continue your work on implementing the Tongass Transition.
Thank you for your time and for protecting our salmon,