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
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.