Every year, trawlers in the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands (BSAI) management area catch and discard as much as 7x the number of halibut caught by commercial halibut fishermen in the same region! That halibut is going to waste is bad. That halibut bycatch allowances have not been appreciably lowered even as commercial halibut quotas have been slashed over the last fourteen years is even worse. That halibut bycatch is overwhelmingly juvenile fish who have not yet reproduced is perhaps the worst news of all.
But the Bering Sea is far away from our fisheries here in Sitka Sound, right?
In a word, no. Most juvenile halibut tagged in the Bering Sea are later recovered across the Gulf of Alaska. Some have even been recovered as far south as California. That means that what happens in the BSAI directly affects subsistence and commercial opportunities here.
Large amounts of halibut bycatch would be deplorable under any circumstances, but that's especially true when the populations are declining and trawl bycatch specifically removes immature population.
We have an opportunity to act!
The North Pacific Fisheries Management Council is meeting in Sitka from June 1st to June 9th. Write the Council a letter by May 26th asking for a 50% reduction in bycatch allowances. Need ideas? ALFA has posted a great halibut fact sheet. Comments should be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org and should reference Agenda Item C2. You can also sign up to testify to the Council on June 4th or 5th. Find out more about commenting or testifying here. Be sure to attend the meeting to show your support for halibut!
The Not So Ugly
While we’ve toured through the good (sustainable) uses of herring to the bad (unsustainable) uses of herring, now popular culture dictates that we tour through the ugly uses of herring. Although we’re all suckers for Clint Eastwood movie titles, however, “the ugly” is a poor description for the herring fishery we’d like to explore: the spawn on kelp or “pound” fishery. On the contrary, pound fisheries have potential to marry the sustainability of the traditional harvest with the economic gain that accompanies the sac roe industry. Not so ugly after all!
Eggs coat a blade of Macrocystis. While wild eggs on kelp are beautiful, one challenge of pound fisheries is getting a more consistent product. ©Bethany Goodrich
What is a pound fishery?
A pound fishery harvests herring roe deposited on kelp blades, more frequently referred to as spawn on kelp or SOK. Commercially, SOK is harvested on Macrocystis kelp, although hair kelp is frequently harvested by traditional users as well. Pound fisheries come in two flavors: closed pounds and open pounds.
Closed pounds give this fishery its name. A “pound” is a pen made of nets that surrounds stalks of kelp, usually suspended from the water’s surface. With a closed pound, herring are transported into one of these pens before spawning, held for several days during the spawn, and released upon completion. Closed pounds are carefully regulated by Fish and Game, who specify everything from the maximum size of the pens (800 square feet), the number of pens that can be combined (no more than 2), the number of kelp blades per pound (allocated based on herring populations), to the maximum number of days herring may be kept in a pound (6) and the time of day the herring must be released by (midnight). Closed pounds produce kelp blades thickly coated with eggs.
Kelp blades coated in eggs hang in a closed pound. ©Juneau Empire
An open pound is a bit of an oxymoron - in this case the pound, or pen, does not exist. Open pounds consist of Macrocystis blades attached to platforms that are anchored where herring are predicted to spawn. Much like setting trees for the traditional harvest, collecting SOK using an open pound requires intimate knowledge of where the herring will or are spawning and a fair amount of luck to acquire a consistent product. Since the herring are not confined, open pound SOK produces a much thinner layer of eggs over the kelp blades.
Why are they so sustainable?
Pound fisheries are sustainable in much the same way that the traditional harvest is sustainable: the fishery does not actually harvest fish at all! As we have discussed, herring survivability from eggs to juveniles is incredibly variable. It is much more important to herring populations to leave more fish in the water than it is to leave more eggs in the water. As a result, pound fisheries have a much less detrimental effect on depressed herring stocks than seining does.
In another parallel to the traditional harvest, pound fisheries can create some additional habitat for eggs to develop in. All nets and gear must be left in the water for four weeks after the harvest occurs to let the the non-harvested eggs develop normally. Unfortunately, that time delay leads some people to leave their gear in the water all year, which is both illegal and a major source of contention in communities with limited mooring space.
Herring eggs on a net start to develop eyes. With luck, at least a few of these eggs will grow up to be adults. ©Captain Quinn
Open pound fisheries have one more sustainable advantage that their closed counterparts do not share: fish are left entirely to their own devices with open pounds. This, again, mimics the traditional fishery. Closed pounds, unfortunately, are not quite this low-impact. Schools of fish are seined or herded into rigid net cages (tow pounds), towed slowly alongside the boat to the standing net structure, and released. When this is done slowly and carefully stress on the fish is minimal, but there is a real risk of some fish trauma and mortality during transport. For that reason, while both closed and open pound fisheries are preferable to the sac-roe harvest, open pounds are the most environmentally friendly option.
What does the future hold?
Currently, pound fisheries only exist in four areas: Tenakee Inlet, Craig/Klawock, Hoonah Sound, and Ernst Sound. Due to low numbers of herring, only the Craig/Klawock pound fishery was opened this year. “If this fishery is so sustainable and non-disruptive to the fish,” you may ask, “why are so many of the pound fisheries closed this year?” While the number of eggs in the water is not the primary control of herring populations when talking about small numbers of eggs, the majority of the returning herring must still be allowed to spawn normally and their eggs left to develop. As with all fisheries, pound fisheries need a certain amount of product to be economic. If that product would be an unacceptably high percentage of the eggs laid that year or a there will not be a high enough concentration of fish, the fishery is closed.
The real hope for the future is that sac roe seiners in Sitka Sound are allowed to trade their permits for pound permits. That was the subject of a proposal to the State Board of Fisheries this year that generated quite a bit of interest within the Board. Unfortunately, that possibility is at least three years away. Any new fishery must first go through the Commercial Fisheries Entries Commission, then can seek approval from the Board of Fisheries. That means the proposal will not be reconsidered until 2018 at the earliest.
What does the future hold? Hopefully a lot more of this!
Is this something we would be excited about? Absolutely! Fishing is Sitka’s most important industry and, when well managed, is likely our most sustainable industry after tourism. Switching sac roe permits for open pound SOK permits recognizes this economic reality, while switching a less sustainable use of herring for a more sustainable one. What’s not to like?
Let’s cheer the pound fisheries on and get ready for the 2018 Board of Fisheries!
Sitka's two hydroelectric dams supply much of its power, but supplemental diesel fuel is still necessary. To lower Sitka's fossil fuel use and reduce its carbon footprint, the Sitka Conservation Society has worked to keep year-round messages of energy conservation and efficiency in local and regional media. Using public service announcements, articles in the local newspaper, and presentations to local government offices, SCS has informed residents about state weatherization programs, local energy updates, utility changes, and simple home weatherization projects.
Funded by a $100,000 Alaska Department of Labor grant, the Energize! Sitka program is a partnership between the Southeast Alaska Career Center and the Sitka Conservation Society. Our aim is to make Sitka more energy efficient. This program provides residents with extensive professional training and certifications for “green” jobs in the areas of construction, carpentry, and weatherization techniques. It also provides community-wide outreach for home weatherization, energy efficiency, and other state programs.
Good Faith Lumber, far surpassed our expectations as far as size and workload. Good Faith is owned by three Thorne Bay residents with a combined experience in the wood industry of over 92 years! We walked around the facility and watched big beautiful slabs of old-growth lumber being planned and finished into gorgeous table tops. The employees were all busy at work water blasting gravel from the raw wood, operating heavy machinery and soaking in the opportune hot Southeast Sun. We met with Hans on his break.
"It's busy especially this time of year, it gets busy. Lots of orders coming in. People wanting to build cabins or homes you know."
We asked Hans about his history and relationship with Alaskan timber. He stressed his dedication to in-region manufacturing as opposed to wholesale export of raw lumber and job opportunities to markets outside of Alaska.
"We all have the same mindset for the future. None of us want to get rich and leave. We want to see this thing working. We want to see the wood stay here. Frankly, I'd like to not see any export at all. I'd like it all manufactured right here on the island rather than send it to Japan or wherever else but right now it's a necessary evil."
We agreed with Hans. Our valuable timber should be carefully and responsibly managed. The lumber should be used in a way that maximizes benefits to the region and our local rural communities. Rather than mass export raw products to Asian markets or companies in the lower 48, this wood can, and should be used to create jobs and valuable products right here in Southeast Alaska where jobs, and a stable economy are so desperately needed. How can we better incentivize in-region manufacturing? This is a question and goal that needs more exploration.
We continued our tour and noticed, smoke billowing out above a gravel mountain from the corner of the property. This is where waste wood is burned. Around fifty percent of a given log can be wasted and unfortunately, as it is now, these local mill operations are left to burn the leftovers. Keith Landers and Hans expressed a common guilt and sadness for burning this waste. Removing wood from the forest only to end up using half of it to fuel a continuous bonfire is a modern tragedy in the Southeast. Wasted wood can and should be used to fuel creative markets and heat homes in a region where incredibly high energy costs debilitates our economy and leaves residents scrambling to pay utility bills. This waste is not only problematic at the stage of manufacturing and processing, the floor of clearcuts and thinned forests are often littered with abandoned wood, disregarded as ‘non merchantable'.
Eliminating the waste stream in our industry requires both societal and political change. For one, building a culture that admires defect, that refuses to burn waste wood when it can be manufactured into unique and functional products. This wasted wood could also heat homes. Exploring a sustainable ‘biomass' industry that could fuel Southeast Alaska and reduce exorbitant energy costs for rural Alaskans is on the agenda of everyone from SCS and the Forest Service to the millers themselves. Four mill owners on Prince of Wales, including Keith Landers and Good Faith Lumber, are interested in partnering to turn waste wood into chips or pellets for sale to local markets. The success of a localized biomass industry, depends on regional markets. The Forest Service is exploring biomass utilization schemes. This exploration and the related initiatives have not yet trickled down into action on the ground, in the communities and across industries where it is needed.
There are a number of policy changes that can also help eliminate wood waste at its source. As it is now, the US Forest Service has a very relaxed definition of ‘merchantable' wood. This allows the winning timber sale bidder to leave behind high volumes of ‘slash' or cut and abandoned ‘unmerchantable' wood on the floor of a clearcut. Policies like this incentive our current timber culture that lags far behind the lower 48 as far as eliminating waste streams and maximizing industry efficiency per board foot.
One way to eliminate old-growth waste is by encouraging selective logging and only cutting the trees that are wanted. By leaving trees standing, rather than cutting and ultimately abandoning on the clearcut floor, this practice better protects forest structure that would otherwise be lost under a clearcut regime. In many situations, the USFS requires all trees to be cut. The resultant forest consists solely of trees of the same age. Once the canopies close, these even-aged trees block out the sun and prevent a healthy understory from growing. In order to speed growth, restore habitat diversity and improve function for deer and other wildlife, these stands are periodically thinned- often at great cost. Under a partial, selective-harvest regime, a certain percent of the multi-aged structure of the stand is retained. The resulting forest avoids complete canopy closure and the subsequent detriment to wildlife. Therefore, costly thinning procedures are no longer required and the ecological integrity of the forest prevails.
The Tongass already contains vast tracts of clearcut land and subsequent young-growth forest. Additional, mass clearcutting of our vanishing old-growth forest is wasteful and costly in both economic and environmental terms. Future old-growth harvests should focus on reducing needless waste and destruction of valuable wildlife habitat by leaving a selection of trees standing and only removing those which meet the specific needs of the logger. By being more selective and prudent in the way we harvest our forests we can achieve common goals and bridge the differences between those driven by economic and conservation goals.
We left Good Faith Lumber and stopped distracting the very busy workers from the tasks at hand. Good Faith Lumber produces large quantities of high quality dimensional lumber and their products are in high demand. We thanked Hans and his colleagues for their time and piled back in the rig to ruminate on and discuss all the insight and wisdom these delightful woodworkers shared with us.
Check back next week for the conclusion and summary of our visit to Princce of Wales.
Brent and Annette Cole have been supplying sustainably sourced, high quality sound boards or 'tone wood' to string instrument producers since 1995
We ambled down the road and through the rain to our first lesson in woodworking. Alaska Specialty Woods (ASW), co-owned by Brent and Annette Cole, is a major soundboard producer on the island. We pulled into the drive and were immediately welcomed by Annette who was grinning and eager to show us the operation. The place was caked in sawdust. Antlers dangled from the rafters and every available space was jam packed with plates of wood. These soundboards will be mandolins, guitars and other string instruments someday strummed by the hands of established musicians and frustrated hopefuls.
Brent founded ASW in 1995 as a family operated business with a single saw in hand. Annette emphasized the business' humble and family oriented beginnings.
"The kids were really young and they would go out with backpacks with him [Brent] and pack a wood block, whatever they could handle in their backpack…"
Today, business is booming and the charming bucolic series of wood sheds in the Cole's yard is being replaced by a shiny new manufacturing facility where processing, drying and storing can all happen under one roof. This advancement is welcomed by Annette and Brent who explained how even minimal exposure to the elements can influence a sound board.
So what makes a good sound board? Sitka spruce is the glory of sound board wood, which is why Brent's products are in demand by everyone from big names like Gibson to independent string-instrument crafters across the globe. To demonstrate the quality of this wood for sound production, Annette pinched a ‘½ sound board set' between her thumb and forefinger and let the wood hang. With her other hand she tapped and flicked the center of the sound board. A beautiful sound reverberated from the wood and a big grin crawled across her face. "Just listen," she said.
Straight, slow growing, ancient Sitka spruce with tight uniform rings (and the way the wood is cut) produce the stiff, tough softwood quality necessary for musicwood. The particular trees that meet the stringent requirements necessary to produce high quality sound are not widespread. ASW salvages ‘dead standing' or ‘dead down' old-growth spruce for their production. They will search the forest for appropriate trees and apply for the necessary sale with the US Forest Service who then refer to a long-list of requirements before administering the sale. Brent and Annette sometimes even source wood from logs used on abandoned float houses or old logging bridges! This mantra of salvage, reuse and eliminating waste is pivotal to Brent in both his business and personal life.
"All through my life as a young adult and an adult, I have focused on utilization and not letting stuff go to waste- not our resources, not our groceries, not leaving the lights on- as best as I can. As far as the timber acquisitions and how it relates, it goes back to conserving and responsible use. I know this timber resource, though it is renewable the particular materials necessary for producing soundboards is not renewable in that it takes an old-growth habitat to produce what we have for the fine texture...This salvage that we do, is it wasteful if it is part of the environment? I don't know that it's a waste. But, I like to see it get used and if it's used to put groceries on a family's table then, I think that's a good thing."
As Brent points out, although wood is technically a ‘renewable' resource, the types of trees he sources are limited and stewardship and care are required to assure their presence in the long run. One thing is for certain, once an ancient spruce is adopted by the Coles, very little is ‘wasted'. Every possible space on their property is cram packed with boards and the small offcuts are used to make deer calls or even jewelry. One tree in particular is being coveted by ASW and not a single inch of this wood will be unused. When excavating their property to build the new facility, Brent stumbled on an old spruce buried during a landslide, twenty feet under the earth.
"We thought this was waste wood at first. But once exposed to the air, the blonde wood began to change to a brilliant blue gray." Intrigued, they sent a sample off to be carbon dated. "It's 2800 years old, plus or minus thirty years" Annette proudly announced. This wood is being processed and soundboards are sold under the ‘Ancient Sitka Line'. The story of this wood reminds us just how astonishingly unique our natural resources are. The rarity, age and significance of our forests gives a story to our lumber that adds unparalleled value to wood products manufactured here in Alaska.
The Ancient Sitka Line of sound boards is crafted from a 2,800 year old Sitka Spruce that was uncovered during excavation on their property. Once unearthed and exposed to the air, the blonde wood turned a brilliant blue gray color with spectacular streaks. This tone wood is available for purchase on the ASW website.
"There's a lot of history recorded in these boards... every one of those growth lines is a year and we aren't going to use anything less than a 300 year old tree to get a sound board out of."
Protecting the longevity of the musicwood industry rests on the careful management of old-growth forests in Southeast Alaska. Part of a responsible management scheme will involve maximizing the best use and highest value for the raw material.
"I like to see the resource, the fiber, being used for its best purpose... I wouldn't take something that could be a sound board and turn it into a floor choice. Now you need good quality timber, but there's certain criteria that is specific for a soundboard and yea, it would make 2 x 2 for a wall but, it needs to be used for what it's best value is-where it will do its best for everybody."
Recognizing the most suitable and valuable use of a given tree or piece of lumber is a critical component to maximizing benefits from our invaluable old-growth forests. Understanding when we can and can not substitute second-growth, or younger timber for wood products is an important piece to a successful industry and a responsible timber program.Business is booming and Annette and Brent are moving their family business from their humble woodshed to a refurbished facility across the street. Like the lumber ASW utilizes, the original building frame was salvaged and transported from an unused facility on South Prince of Wales.
Brent and Annette were wonderful hosts who taught us a great deal about the careful use of our globally rare wood. We admired the beautiful Ancient Sitka Line a bit longer before Michael herded us back into the truck. We slid beside piles of boards and were careful not to be hooked by a saw.
We left Alaska Specialty Woods and headed for our next stop. There, in the company of an unconventional guide, we would witness raw musicwood being extracted from the rainforest floor. Check back tomorrow to meet Mr. Larry Trumble.
Did you build your own water filters out of cotton balls and coffee filters, make homemade rainwater catchment systems, or simulate oil rigs with sand and straws when you were in third grade? Neither did I. Third graders in Chris Bryner's class got to embark on a journey to learn all about water conservation in and around the Tongass over the course of the last few months through a project called Conservation in the Classroom. This new program, created by myself and Chris Bryner, aimed to teach kids everything about water conservation and how it relates to their lives. Throughout two months, I taught lessons on how water conservation relates to things like pollution, waste, energy, water filtration, and more.
Chris's classroom is unique in that he uses the model of project based learning. This non traditional and adaptive teaching style gave me the freedom to let kids learn by building and being creative instead of talking at them. They learned how hydropower works by building their own water wheel. They compared this to oil rigs as they created their own ocean with layers of sugar and sand to represent oil and the ocean floor. They saw as they pulled the "oil" out of the water with a straw, the "ocean floor" was disturbed. Instead of me telling them, they got to create the simulation on their own. They could see how hydropower is a clean source of energy and understand how our Blue Lake Dam works.
We talked about the importance of protecting watersheds, which is a huge concept for third graders! Kids crumpled up paper to create miniature mountain peaks. I sprayed water on all of the peaks and they watched it trickle down to create this big watershed. We did the same thing with food dye and saw how far it could travel if you dump a pollutant at the top of a mountain. The kids watched it happen in front of their eyes instead of being told what might happen. After that, the kids asked f we could have a trash pick up day to remove all the garbage from Cutthroat Creek to stop it from spreading.
Sitka Conservation Society's advocates for protecting the Tongass and promoting ecological resiliency. By teaching third graders why conservation matters, they will have a better understanding of why the Tongass is worth protecting. Through these projects and others that the kids created, we all learned how even though water is abundant here, it relates and impacts other things in the Tongass and should be monitored and protected.
After exploring these things, the kids got to break up into groups and focus on a final project they were most interested in. One group investigated the benefits and drawbacks of the Blue Lake Dam Expansion Project. They went on a tour of the facility, interviewed key people from the project, and talked to Sitkans about what they thought. Another group wanted to know how to proper filter water. They did a Skype interview with a woman who builds filters for families in Africa. The kids were creative, inquisitive, and had incredible results. Conservation in the Classroom was a terrific collaboration between SCS and Chris Bryner's class. Students walked away with a better understanding of their landscape and how to protect it.
Sitka has brought a myriad of new experiences for me in the short amount of time I have been here. I've learned I can home make my own jam or fruit leather from berries. I can process my own deer and have meat. I can harvest mushrooms and use them for a meal. These things were never a part of my upbringing. If you saw a berry on a bush in Chicago, you probably only ate it if you were dared. I have the opportunity to interact with the Tongass in more ways than just hiking the trails. Home making my own products seems much easier now than ever before.
To build off the idea of making my own foods or products, the other JV's and I have decided to try a chemical challenge for the month of December. There are too many harsh products with destructive properties in household items. We are spending one month exploring alternatives to these products. To help protect our streams and ocean from these harsh chemicals that will inevitably make it there after it's sent down the drain, we will create our own environmentally friendly products.
We are making one new homemade product or cleaning supply each week. This will include things like counter disinfectant, shampoo, toilet bowl cleaner, and more. After some research, we have found some common threads in homemade cleaning supplies, such as baking soda and vinegar. We have started collecting these types of ingredients to create some new cleaning supplies. Each week we will build off the previous product so by the end of the four weeks we will be consistently using four new cleaning solutions. Our goal is produce less harmful runoff and less of a footprint on our environment.
Salmon is an integral part of our community and it is the underlying backbone of what sustains us here in Sitka. Fisherman, processors, and fish eaters all have an investment in the livelihood of salmon in Alaska. Approximately 48 million wild salmon are caught every year in the Tongass. In order to keep our salmon healthy and safe, it is crucial that we protect our waters. Salmon are obviously hurt by trash and litter in the waterways, but chemicals are also effecting them. This could be overlooked because at a glance a river would look healthy and safe, but chemicals leaving our homes through the pipes or trash are making there way to the water. The EPA considers runoff to be the largest threat to water quality in the country currently. Investing in environmentally friendly products will help not only salmon, but the whole Tongass ecosystem. Check back at the end of the month to hear all about our new products and to get recipes to do this yourself!