Yaaw Koo.eex’ Honor the Herring

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SITKA — On Jan. 14, more than 200 people crowded inside the oldest ANB Hall in Alaska to partake in a koo.éex’.

Koo.éex’ is Tlingit for “to invite to a feast;” it’s commonly called a potlatch. Typically, these ceremonies are held to commemorate the loss of a family member, thank members of the opposite moiety for the support they gave during the grieving process, and then collectively put that grief away. There are gifts, songs, dances, and wild foods — often, herring eggs among them. This koo.éex’ however, was different. Herring eggs, gaax’w, were not just on the plates. They were on the minds of all in attendance.

The Herring Rock Water Protectors are a group of activists and friends who orchestrated this koo.éex’ to build strength and will to conserve Sitka’s herring, as well as to honor it. While less common today, similar ceremonies were held by the Tlingit to create law, consecrate relationships, share responsibility and pass on oral history.

The Herring Rock Water Protectors timed this koo.éex’ to align with the Board of Fisheries meetings currently being held in Sitka. They invited the seven members of the board, who will be hearing proposals and making decisions that impact fisheries, including the sac-roe herring fishery. Four members attended the koo.éex’ to learn more about the Kiks.ádi and their relationship to Sitka’s herring.

 

From Standing Rock to Herring Rock

Before the koo.éex’ and the Herring Rock Water Protectors, there was Standing Rock.

“Our hearts were breaking (in response to Standing Rock). It wasn’t historical trauma, it was current trauma,” remembered Lakota Harden. Harden grew up on Japonski Island in Sitka, as well as in South Dakota. She is Lakota and many of her family members, including her mother’s sisters, were in leadership roles at Standing Rock.

Lakota Harden and Louise Brady are two of the founders of the Herring Rock Water Protectors.

“Some of the things we saw happening and what is still happening, we all lived it, on a smaller level, in this town: how we are not taken seriously, that we are seen as something less than human and had to grow up that way and knowing that and seeing how it affected our parents and grandparents. We also saw how our parents fought against that and fought for what was real and instilled that in us,” said Harden.

Doing nothing about Standing Rock was not an option.

“There is this feeling sometimes of despair and hopelessness. Why haven’t things changed in 30 years? In 100 years? In 200 years? In order for me to stay sane I have to do something,” said Brady. The two held an impromptu gathering at Totem Park. And in the weeks that followed, more concerned Sitkans came forward and began organizing. Some of those groups combined efforts and held the Sitka Stands with Standing Rock event in November of 2016.

“I think there never actually was a transition to herring; I don’t remember a stage in this group when herring wasn’t on our minds,” said Matthew Jackson.

Matthew Jackson and Elsa Sebastian are two of the group’s core members. Both, born and raised in Ketchikan and Point Baker respectively, learned about their hometowns’ once abundant herring seasons through books. When they put down roots in Sitka and experienced the spawn first-hand, they were moved.

“I’ve been thinking about how I can be a good partner with the Native community since I moved back to Alaska. But for a while, I was spinning my wheels because I didn’t know how, I didn’t have direction or the history or context to be effective,” said Jackson. “So the union of young energy with the wisdom of not just Louise and Lakota’s personal experience but the lessons they inherited from their ancestors and carry forward was what made this group special, powerful and effective.”

For Brady, the call to protect herring was an obligation.

“I am Kiks.ádi from the Point House, grandchild of the Kaagwantan, and us Kiks.ádi women are known as the herring ladies,” explained Brady.

Each spring, the Kiks.ádi clan commemorates the start of the herring spawn at T’eyyi, the Herring Rock, where the herring first came to spawn in Sitka Sound. Water is poured over the rock, blessing the onset of the season. Storytellers relate the herring lady story, which stresses the clan’s spiritual and communal relationship with herring.

“This is about honoring our ancestors and honoring everything around us that we have a special relationship to. Because we have the Herring Rock and the Herring Lady, we have that obligation and it didn’t come to us by chance,” said Brady.

Herring, once “like water” across Southeast

Herring season on Sitka Sound is remarkable. The quiet coves foam. The water erupts turquoise with the milt and eggs from schools of shimmering fish. The Sound becomes a boiling, seething feast for whales, seals, and eagles. People collect kelp and hair seaweed coated in eggs or lay hemlock branches into the spawn.

Sitka is the final stronghold for Southeast Alaska’s herring, the epicenter for a revered and once abundant staple food from the Gulf of Alaska to the Bering Sea. The reduction fisheries that churned the region’s herring into oil from 1882-1966 put heavy pressure on Southeast herring populations. Reported harvests range from a peak harvest in 1929 of nearly 80,000 tons to a collapse and complete closure of all commercial herring fishing, except for bait, 12 years later. Today, spawns outside of Sitka are scarce and occur in small pockets.

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The Herring Rock Water Protectors represent a growing population of Sitkans that share concerns that Sitka’s herring population, and the subsistence culture tied to it, are under threat. The group is building on the efforts of many, including the Sitka Tribe of Alaska (STA) calling for management changes to the commercial sac-roe fishery for more than 20 years. According to self-reported survey data facilitated by the Tribe and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, tribal citizens have not met their subsistence needs seven of the past 10 years. Local harvesters report a spawn that is increasingly inconsistent, patchy, and scarce. (Alaska Department of Fish and Game data on herring returns going back to the 1970s differs. Board members cited that data in their decision-making at the Jan. 23 meeting.)

In response, STA submitted three proposals to the Board of Fish that would limit allowable commercial quota and increase off-limits area to the commercial fishery. The Herring Rock Water Protectors rallied behind these proposals. Earlier in January, Sitka’s City Assembly supported STA’s proposals (4-2) and Sitka’s Fish and Game Advisory Committee also voiced support for conservative changes to management.

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What’s at stake? To members of the Herring Rock Water Protectors, it’s hard to put into words.

“It’s like living without water. You have to have water. You enjoy that drink of water. You get quenched by water. That is herring. That is herring eggs. That is the experience. It is something that you can’t imagine living without, how sacred and how precious it is,” said Harden.

The battle for a way of life

When Brady suggested hosting a koo.éex’ open to the public and the Board of Fish and timed with the Board of Fish meetings, the group went to work preparing gifts, crafting invites, learning dances and sourcing hundreds of pounds of wild foods to share.

“I think there has been such a separation, a Native and the non-Native community, and we also know there is the Filipino community and others but I’m hopeful that this koo.éex’ might be a way to learn from each other,” Brady said.

The last time the Board of Fish meeting was held in Sitka was in 1997. Then, too, Brady, her sister and mother, STA and a group of tribal elders organized.

“Mark Jacobs Jr. was the first elder we asked to testify before the Board of Fish,” Brady remembered. “(He) was a powerful warrior for all of our rights and did so much… and he sat there and the green light came on and he started talking in this powerful voice, ‘It’s wanton waste, it’s horrible you’re wasting our resources.’”

During public testimony, a set of three lights warn participants when their strict 3-minute time allotment is up.

“And he’s talking and he’s passionate and then, the red light goes off. And the Board of Fish says, ‘Thank you for your testimony.’ And, he keeps on talking. ‘Excuse me, your time is up,’ to this precious, precious elder. And I was upset. Even now, my heart is going. I went to the other people I organized with and said ‘I don’t know if I want another one of our elders to be treated like this. We don’t treat people like this’,” said Brady.

Twenty years later, many of the people who testified that day, including Jacobs Jr. and Brady’s mother and sister, have passed on. But its memory helped spur Brady to plan the koo.éex’ and the Herring Rock Water Protectors’actions.

“I’m really hoping that we can help people see that your voice matters and you deserve to be respected. Your knowledge that dates back thousands of years, your voice and your ancestor’s voice that have been heard on this land for thousands of years, you deserve to be heard. You deserve to have a say in this situation where we may lose, we are losing, we have lost so much. This is ours, this is our responsibility not only as Kiks.ádi women but as Kiks.ádi clan and as Tlingit people,” she said before the vote.

 

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The four members of the Board of Fish joined more than 200 participants in the ceremony. Neighboring clans offered regalia, masks, dances and songs to provide balance and share strength with the Kiks.ádi. In a rare effort to draw ancestral strength, three centuries-old Tlingit war helmets were placed on the heads of three clan veterans to prepare for what organizers called a “battle to protect a way of life.”

“I hope that the Board of Fish walks away with an understanding of how deep and sacred that relationship is, our relationship to the herring and to the waters and to the land,” said Brady.

A three-minute testimony — amplified

The Herring Rock Water Protectors, on leave from their jobs as social workers, educators and commercial fishermen, supported elders, community members and one another through the democratic process. They kept an eye on the public testimony list, made calls to alert people of their time slot, and shuttled people to Centennial Hall.

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They also testified, themselves, and, through audio recordings that echoed around the room, brought to the board the testimony of elders from the 1997 meeting — including Louise’s mother, sister and Marc Jacobs Jr. Some in the audience were moved to tears listening to the voices of elders since passed warning of the collapse of herring populations.

For the next three days the Board of Fish listened to more than 200 finfish testimonies, roughly two thirds of them in reference to herring.

During Jan. 23 deliberations, the board declined the proposals to reduce the sac-roe harvest. Though several board members said they found the testimony impactful, those voting against reducing the fishery said the data did not appear to support the measure. Also, they cited effects on those who make their living in the fishery. More information about the decision is on page 14 of this week’s issue.

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Regardless of the outcome, the Herring Rock Water Protectors have no plans to disassemble.

“I hope that this energy that we have cultivated through relationship and love, I hope that it makes a difference with the Board of Fish. But also, there is this sense that there is no end and I’m totally okay with that. This isn’t a campaign, these are relationships,” said Elsa Sebastian. “With this approach to thinking and trying to take action on issues… it becomes more than the issue itself and ultimately, that’s what’s going to make a difference.”

Capital City Weekly editor Mary Catharine Martin contributed information on the board meeting to this story.

Bethany Goodrich is the Communications Director of the Sustainable Southeast Partnership. She writes out of

Farming Alaska's Seas

COSMOS COVE — It's 4:30 a.m. and the wake-up alarm screams. There is no escape. There's barely enough room to roll over. Lia Heifetz, Matthew Kern and Clayton Hamilton stumble to their feet in the dank belly of the F/V Dial West. Time to go kelping.

"Kelp has always been a guaranteed catch for us when the fish weren't biting," laughs Heifetz. The crew pulls the anchor and leaves the quiet safety of Cosmos Cove, east of Baranof Island. They scan the opalescent horizon for beds of bullwhip kelp to harvest.

Heifetz and Kern began their business, named Barnacle, more than a year ago out of a common passion for local foods.

"Both of us grew up in Juneau, and many of the activities that we do together are timed with the seasons and are tied to food. Whether it's fishing, foraging or hunting, we end up with a seasonal surplus," Heifetz says. "We put up all of this food to share with friends and family and live off of (it) the rest of the year.

"And one of those foods especially," she smiles, "kelp salsa has been a staple."

Each year, the two would invite friends over for a salsa-making party. When cupboards became crammed, they filled garages.

Today, the couple is commercial "fishing" for 600 pounds of wild bull kelp in Peril Strait. Clayton Hamilton, a fishing friend, volunteered his gillnetter for the overnight expedition. Kern and Heifetz will turn this bounty into dry seasonings, pickles and their favorite — three flavors of bull kelp salsa. Last year, the couple sold out, moving 2,000 units of kelp in just a few days.

"There!" Kern excitedly points to a cluster of green bulbs bobbing on the surface. As the tide falls, an enormous bed of bull kelp is revealed. Their gleaming backs arch out of the channel like sea monsters. The couple anchors down, bundles up and straps knives to their Grundens.

"So, how are we going to do this?" Kern asks. This is their maiden voyage aboard a 35-foot vessel. "We probably should have waited to invite a photographer until we streamlined our process," Heifetz adds as they lower themselves into a wobbling dinghy. Too late.

With sideways sheets of rain pummeling their cheeks, the couple navigates into the kelp thicket.

"Anchor up," Kern shouts. They yank heavy kelp stipes (stalks) aboard to prevent their dinghy from drifting in the swell. For more than an hour, Kern and Heifetz slice stipes and shuttle back and forth to offload totes of kelp to Hamilton aboard the Dial. An intrigued seal pokes its head an arm's length from their bow, watching with giant eyes.

Little is known about managing and harvesting wild kelp. For that reason, the two operate under an experimental permit with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

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"Kelp is an important habitat for so many creatures. We want to be practicing sustainable harvesting techniques, and that doesn't mean harvesting extreme volumes of resources," Kern says.

The two regularly exchange information, data and observations with Fish and Game.

"We can make products that are high value but don't require mass amounts of a raw resource," Kern says.

Back and forth, back and forth they go. The whole procession is somewhat comical. Typically, people try and keep kelp out of their fish hold. Barnacle is a serious business, though, and Heifetz and Kern aren't the only entrepreneurs investing in kelp.

Kelp: A win-win-win?

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, global production of seaweed and aquatic plants has more than doubled since 2015. Globally, cultivated seaweeds are a $6.6 billion industry that appears to be growing. Seaweed is used in everything from fertilizer and cosmetics to medicine, animal feed and, potentially, biofuel.

It's healthy for humans, too. In fact, the health and nutritional benefits of seaweed have convinced reporters and hipsters to call kelp "the new kale." A peanut has about 15 different minerals and vitamins; a serving of kelp boasts up to 60. Kelp also has one of the highest concentrations of iodine, essential for a healthy thyroid, found in nature.

The benefits go beyond nutrition. As nations look to feed the world, kelp farming is turning heads and inspiring investors. Seaweed packs a high volume of nutrition without requiring much — no freshwater, fertilizer or feed. Additionally, research indicates that when kelp farming is done right, it may actually improve the ecological health of the surrounding waters by buffering ocean acidification, sequestering carbon, creating habitat and absorbing nutrient runoff that can otherwise choke ecosystems.

"There are a lot of environmental benefits, nutritional benefits and economic benefits. It looks like one of those win-win-win type industries," says Julie Decker, executive director of the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation. In 2016, Gov. Bill Walker established the Mariculture Task Force to grow a $1 billion industry within 30 years. Decker is co-chair of that task force and the foundation is researching mariculture opportunity in the state. A comprehensive economic plan should be presented to the governor next spring. So far, opportunity looks promising.

"We have a tremendous amount of space," Decker says. Where Alaska lacks arable land, it shines in coastline. At roughly 35,000 miles, Alaska has more coastline than the lower 48 states combined.

Decker believes that kelp farming dovetails nicely with Alaska culture.

"Kelp grows in the fall and winter and is harvested in the spring. That works really well with our traditional fisheries in the sense that folks are often busy in the summer and not busy in fall, winter and spring months," Decker says. "So it might be a nice adjunct or a way for folks to expand and add on to existing infrastructure."

Big boost in applicants

Alaskans certainly appear interested. This April, the state received an increase in mariculture permit applications. There are only 320 acres of permitted farms in Alaska and the state typically sees around five applications a year. This year, 15 applications were submitted that account for more than 1,000 acres of coastline.

[With state support, mariculture is on the rise in Alaska]

But Alaska is still working out the kinks of monetizing kelp. Permitting begins at $450 for the first acre, $125 per acre after that.

"If those (applications) were all to be permitted, the annual lease payments would mean roughly $150,000 of new money coming into the state," Decker says. "While that's not closing the budget gap by any means, it's certainly something."

Currently, there are no taxes on aquatic farm products at the time of harvest or sale.

Mariculture may be a promising option for rural coastal communities looking to diversify. Erik O'Brien is a fisherman and seaweed farmer in Larsen Bay near Kodiak. He is also the economic development specialist with the Southwest Alaska Municipal Conference.

"We have been looking at mariculture for a long time as a means to prop up coastal communities (that) have been challenged by … a lack of access to fishing opportunity," O'Brien says.

This year, O'Brien estimates he pulled about 10,000 pounds of kelp from his farm. Although he faced a number of challenges this season while learning the ropes, he's enthusiastic about improving efficiency in years to come. In May, three new farms harvested seaweed from Alaska's cold waters for the first time.

"This year was very much a pilot-scale level, and a lot was learned. In some cases the production was less than the farmers hoped and in one case it was actually higher," Decker adds. "But folks are not deterred. They are actually invigorated and encouraged. My understanding is that farming is going to continue into the fall and farmers will even expand production."

Adding value from coast to kitchen

Back in Juneau, Kern and Heifetz are donning hats and hairnets to process their green gold. The salsa recipe on the schedule today: Sea Verde. They take turns eagerly dumping freshly harvested bull kelp into their new industrial blender. Today, they plan to process 650 jars of this coastal snack.

"We are a small mom-and-pop shop now," Heifetz says. "But we have a vision and a road map to grow."

An important junction on that road map involves transitioning from wild kelp to farmed kelp.

"We are looking forward to using the wild kelp as a bridge until we are able to buy directly from farmers," Kern explains. "Our hope is that by next year, we will have the market built and products tested. Meanwhile, the farmers will also have their systems in place to grow efficiently and we can come together to bring that kelp to market and both benefit," Kern says.

Kern and Heifetz are working to provide an option for adding value right here in Alaska.

"When it comes to harvesting any resource, we can harvest less of it if we are maximizing the value of it," Heifetz says. "It's about using resources more efficiently, and in Alaska, there is a trend of shipping out raw materials to be processed in other places. And while that may be the easiest thing to do, the value that those resources bring back to the community and the places they are from is not always maximized."

The couple turned the 600 pounds of kelp they harvested in Peril Strait into more than 2,000 jars of kelp salsa in three different flavors, 150 jars of dill pickles and a to-be-determined amount of dried fronds for seasoning packets. Further down the road, they hope to extend their value-add mantra to include other wild and farmed ingredients.

"Just like a fish processor is able to support a lot of fishermen and invest in the infrastructure, marketing and the process of turning fish into fillets and into food, we want to do that with other resources," Heifetz says. "So whether it's berries coming from Hoonah or seaweed that is farmed around the state, we want to be working with farmers and harvesters to be a guaranteed buyer and market."

And who are their buyers?

While Kern and Heifetz want locals to continue stuffing their cupboards with Barnacle salsa, the two are also enthusiastic about bringing Outside money into their home state, beginning with tourists.

"We have over a million people filing through Juneau each year," Kern says. "That's a huge opportunity."

This season, Kern and Heifetz partnered with other local entrepreneurs to build a storefront out of local wood and a salvaged shipping container on South Franklin Street in hopes of tapping into that market.

Building an industry from the bottom up

Developing an Alaska kelp industry has complications as well as promise. For one, farmers need seeds. The state of Alaska requires that seeds be propagated from wild samples within a 50-kilometer radius of the farm. This requirement was set in an effort to prevent negative environmental impacts of introducing foreign seeds. Currently two operating hatcheries supply farmers with seeded lines.

A lab at the University of Alaska Southeast is growing seeds with the support of Blue Evolution, a San Francisco-based company investing in Alaska kelp farming as an opportunity to grow their kelp pasta and seasoning business.

In Ketchikan, Oceans Alaska is a nonprofit hatchery and marine science center that received a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to develop Alaska kelp seeds. They are working with six kelp farmers and hope to successfully develop open-source seeds for Alaskans. They may even branch out to teach farmers how to propagate their own seeded lines.

Most of this year's harvest was purchased by Blue Evolution. Decker is hopeful that moving forward, Alaska's kelp industry leaders will explore the gamut of options.

"The buyer depends on the product you are creating, and certain products are much better for localized products, others are better for a worldwide market and others for a U.S. market. I am hopeful that all of those types of products, local and larger scale, will develop over time as supply develops," Decker says.

Still, there are environmental and management questions that beg for answers. With the Alaska Coastal Management Program no longer in place, how does the state balance competing coastal uses? How expansive should farms be? Are there negative impacts to local ecosystems? How might large-scale seaweed farms impact cultural, recreation or subsistence sites?

Today, mariculture is slowly growing. However, as the state pushes for a billion-dollar industry, these questions may garner more attention. As far as celebrating kelp as a carbon sink or a buffer to mitigate ocean acidification, Oceans Alaska and The Nature Conservancy are partnering to investigate and quantify those environmental benefits.

"There are economic challenges associated with operating a business of any kind in coastal Alaska," Decker says. "There is the high cost of energy, the high cost of transportation and a lack of workforce because small communities are spread out and disconnected. But the seafood industry has those challenges as well and has managed to overcome those."

According to the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation in 2014, Alaska's seafood industry was worth more than $6 billion and provided 60,000 jobs.  If Alaska was a country, it would rank in the top 10 for seafood production. Some of that success, Decker hopes, will help ignite a prosperous mariculture industry by providing existing infrastructure, fishing boats, an interested workforce and marketing savvy. Additionally, fish processing plants often sit idle during peak kelp cultivation season.

Despite the challenges, Alaskans appear enthusiastic. There are benefits to building an industry from infancy, and Alaskans can fully explore their options early on.

For Lia Heifetz and Matt Kern, growing the ideal kelp industry is about more than marketing Alaska's resources globally. It is also about living locally.

"Building businesses and prosperous industries in a remote state like Alaska isn't simple; we are up against some fairly substantial odds," Heifetz says. But like their business' namesake 'Barnacle,' Kern and Heifetz are firmly and stubbornly rooted to Southeast Alaska's shores. "For us, success is about making a sustainable home here. It's about overcoming economic challenges, innovating and finding opportunities that complement our lifestyle and celebrate our unique culture."

Twenty Thousand Bones

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Delicately yet firmly pinching the tiny vertebrae of a Chinook salmon between her thumb and pointer finger, Cynthia Gibson pushed fearlessly toward a rusty grinder churning an aggressive 3,400 rpm. The spur where a rib was once connected flew off into a cluttered garage leaving a smooth bead behind.

With patience and confidence, Gibson slowly built a dress from twenty thousand salmon bones.

“I’ve always been fascinated with the natural world,” said Gibson. On her belly as a child, she would examine the delicate joints on blades of grass — dismantling them, weaving them, inspecting them. In nature, she discovered her passion for art and sought inspiration there. “There’s so much outside that is used in regular art today, and we don’t always recognize that.”

When she settled in Sitka, salmon became her muse. Walking down the beach one day, eyes focused on the pebbles, shells and other ocean treasures in her path, Gibson became entranced by a pile of salmon vertebrate.

The idea was born.

“Salmon connect us all. They are in our waters, on the beach, in our forests, in our freezers. Salmon are a part of who we are,” says Gibson.

Intrigued and inspired, Gibson decided to combine her passion for natural elements with her interest in wearable arts and fashion. She began collecting, dreaming and eventually, imagining a dress adorned with Alaska’s wild beads.

“When you see them on the beach you’ll see small piles of maybe twenty vertebrae but I knew I would need thousands, I wanted to challenge myself. One fall, there was a particularly heavy concentration of salmon carcasses downtown and I would go down each weekend and collect buckets of them,” she said. 

It quickly became clear that simply gathering on beach walks wouldn’t be enough. After a quick call, Sitka Sound Seafoods generously donated a stinking tote of king salmon carcasses for the project. Throughout the collecting process, Gibson went to work figuring out the best method for effectively cleaning those delicate bones. 

“Maggots do a great job,” said Gibson.

She also let piles of bones rot and lowered nets full of spines into the coastal waters beside her home. The scavenging sea creatures went to work. There were a few missteps along the way, but her ingenuity led Gibson closer to fulfilling this peculiar salmon dream.

“We don’t give creativity credit in our society as much as we should. Being creative helps you find new solutions to old problems that can be used in everything: budgeting, city planning, any aspect of life, healthcare, anything,” Gibson said.

Even engineering her salmon bone dream dress.

Gibson mastered the intricacies of salmon anatomy, identified a proper balance of peroxide and bleaching and found herself with totes of polished bones filling her family home.

She organized the beads by size and shade and grinded smooth any burrs that would catch on skin or fabric. Then the beading began. Pressing the needle through the tiny hole once occupied by cartilage, she carefully strung each vertebrae like strings of slightly morbid pearls. Gibson fashioned string after string to the dress, testing for movement and ensuring the bones fell perfect to form.

The whole process, from idea to full reality, took four years.

On a particularly harsh, cold afternoon, Sitkan Mia Nevarez modeled this masterpiece of salmon bones. She strode fiercely to Nina Simone’s Feeling Fine at Sitka’s Wearable Arts Show, an annual fundraiser showcasing the most innovative original fashion in Sitka. The cascading bones bounced rhythmically with each confident step and the audience stood mesmerized.

Salmon are our identity and our collective passion. This dress and the countless hours that went into it honor Alaska’s relationship with land and sea.

“I certainly feel a new sort of kinship to salmon,” said Gibson.

Salmon enter our lives in formidable and sometimes surprising ways. Alaskans’ devotion to these loyal fish feels familial, unwavering and strong. Just like salmon.

Some face proudly into churning seas in pursuit of a commercial haul. Others force themselves awake at an ungodly hour, shuffling in their slippers to check on fragrant smokehouses. Gibson crafted an original dress from twenty thousand salmon bones.

Some people call this devotion crazy. Alaskans call it love.

 
 

SEATOR: Southeast Alaska's Shellfish Safety Squad Takes on Climate Change

Katlian Street in Sitka is a bustling cultural and fishing hub. Along this winding harbor-side road, tightly squeezed between fishing gear shops, processing plants, and docks crowded with scavenging gulls, is the Sitka Tribe of Alaska’s (STA) Resource Protection Department building.

While the building’s salt-worn front doors look unassuming, behind its modest exterior is a state of the art laboratory dedicated to harmful algae bloom monitoring and shellfish research. This year, the lab will add ocean acidification monitoring to its impressive coastal monitoring toolkit.

Happy Harvesting

The Southeast Alaska Tribal Ocean Research partnership (SEATOR) was formed by the Sitka Tribe of Alaska in 2013 as a network of tribal governments, universities, and nonprofits to monitor harmful algae blooms in the state.

“Alaska is the only state where people still die of Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning,” explained Chris Whitehead who is the Environmental Program Manager at STA. “Alaska was the only state that didn’t have a monitoring program in place and we have such huge levels of toxins so it was very disconcerting.”

Before heading to Sitka to work with STA, Whitehead spent years working in Washington with tribes and researchers monitoring shellfish populations for toxins. So, when a group of community members and local elders inquired about setting up harmful algae testing in Sitka, Whitehead stepped in.

“It was just good timing. There was a need, and I was able to bring up experts I had met in Washington to help set something up locally. Then we went to work writing grants and securing funding,” Whitehead said.

Today, the lab monitors plankton samples under the microscope, tests for harmful toxins and sends out warnings when toxin levels are too high for safe foraging.

“We want to be as proactive as possible to catch a toxic event before anyone gets sick. That means every week, we collect plankton and water samples to make sure there are no active harmful blooms. In addition, we collect blue mussel samples every one to two weeks since they are the first species to pick up toxins and are not widely consumed. If we see any indication that toxins or harmful plankton are rising, we preemptively issue a community advisory, increase our sampling frequency, and start testing all shellfish species,” said Esther Kennedy.

Kennedy was born and bred in Alaska. She returned after receiving a BA in Earth and Planetary Sciences from Harvard University to work with Sitka Tribe and can often be found pulling plankton nets through Sitka’s shoreline.

Of course, Sitka is not the only community where avid shellfish harvesters punch rusty shovels into sand and grit in pursuit of delicious bivalves. Fifteen other tribes in Southeast Alaska also employ specialists who peer through microscopes for dangerous plankton and send water samples to STA for toxin tests every week.

Carrie Davis fills this role for the Organized Village of Kake. She shares updated information about shellfish safety for this community of 600.

That information has given Kake resident John Williams Sr. greater confidence when harvesting this important cultural resource. Williams, 65, has been setting out by boat or by foot to dig for clams and picnic with loved ones for as long as he can remember.

“I’m always talking to Carrie and she posts it on the community board there, to show us where it’s safe and it’s useful because we know where to go and where to stay away from,” said Williams who can now share his chowder and cockles with less worry.

Climate Change’s Under-recognized Twin: Ocean Acidification

Since the lab began monitoring efforts in 2013, nobody has become ill or died from Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning on any of the studied beaches. Success, one might say, has spread like a sunlit plankton bloom.

“When it first started, it was just six to eight tribes and now it’s 15 tribes in Southeast, four sites in Kachemak Bay and a handful of tribes in Kodiak that are starting up,” Whitehead said.

And the network isn’t just growing geographically.

“When this all started, the tribes hadn’t worked together in this capacity regionally before. Once this began, it really opened the door for the tribes to ask, ‘What else do we have common concerns about, what else can we work together on?’ and climate change was at the very very top,” Whitehead said.

That comes as no surprise. Alaska is warming faster than any other state.

“Ocean acidification, global warming’s under-recognized twin, is also affecting Alaskan waters faster than any other state,” said Kennedy.

“As carbon dioxide dissolves into the ocean, it becomes more acidic. It’s a global problem, but colder Arctic waters absorb more CO2 so it’s hitting us especially hard. Acidification makes it difficult or impossible for creatures like shellfish, crustaceans, and pteropods to make shells. This is bad news because it decimates the foundation of the marine food web,” Kennedy said. “We depend on the sea for everything in Southeast Alaska. It’s hard to imagine that we will be unaffected by ocean acidification.”

So the SEATOR team went to work figuring out how to tackle a challenge as far-reaching and daunting as ocean acidification. That’s where the “Burke-o-Lator,” a scientific instrument which Chris Whitehead called the global standard for measuring ocean acidification, comes in. Burke Hills, the scientist who created it, will be headed to the Sitka lab in mid-May to help install this new addition. He’s excited for what this data set and network will mean for ocean acidification research globally. With more than fifteen tribal governments across the region contributing to the monitoring efforts, SEATOR will paint a representative image of how ocean acidification is impacting a large geographic area.

Chris Whitehead and the entire SEATOR network are excited for what the data set will also mean locally.

“There is not a lot of ocean acidification work being done in the Southeast,” Whitehead said.

“We will have a good data set in Sitka and these other communities across the Southeast will submit their samples and it will all contribute to a robust local picture. And here, we have 15 tribes working together to provide this big data set and not a lot of people are doing that nationally.”

Geoducks and upcoming scientists

Climate Change monitoring is not the only new addition to SEATOR. The lab is working on getting FDA approval to administer PSP testing to Southeast Alaska’s commercial dive fisheries. For geoduck fishermen, this will mean more streamlined and local testing opportunities and a longer harvesting window.

The lab is also dedicated to building capacity among Southeast Alaska’s upcoming scientific leaders. On Thursdays this spring, several Mount Edgecumbe High School students filed into the lab, donned authoritative white lab coats, pulled mussel cages, homogenized tissue, ran genetic testing, peered through microscopes, and analyzed results. They were part of an internship program aimed at preparing the next generation of scientists for meaningful careers in applied research. Sienna Reid, who is both one of those students as well as a member of the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, is heading to Western Washington University this fall to pursue a degree in science.

Energy is building for these programs, and not just among the tribal governments who are actively participating.

“Senator Lisa Murkowski, Sullivan and Don Young too have all been very supportive of ocean acidification work. It’s a bipartisan issue, regardless of your views on climate change, it is clear that the oceans are acidifying and that is going to affect Alaska’s fisheries, so when we have spoken to those offices they have been really excited about doing this work,” said Whitehead.

Of course, like all grant-funded efforts, there is uncertainty

"We are in the same boat as everyone else, waiting to see what happens for Fiscal Year 2018. EPA dollars are the backbone for this. We have other funding in Sitka but the tribes across the region who are doing the consistent weekly work are almost 100 percent funded by EPA dollars,” said Whitehead. “So we are hoping that these programs don’t get targeted.”

SEATOR started as an idea four years ago. Today, it’s helping to not only provide safe access to an important subsistence resource, but is also leading the way in ocean acidification research. All the while, this humble beach-side laboratory is providing opportunities and building capacity for the future stewards of Alaska’s coastal health. In a state that depends on coastal resources for everything, that is certainly something to celebrate with a community clam-dig.

www.SEATOR.org for more!

 

 

 

Taking Stock: Venison Stock

Written for edible Alaska, Recipe by Jed Delong Photos by Bethany Goodrich

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Using the entire animal is a rewarding end to a long and difficult hunt. The trick to delicious home-cooked meals often boils down to a flavorful homemade base and deer bones are ideal for stock. The process is more of an art than a precise recipe. It can be made with a variety of animal bones and ingredients, on the stove top or in a pressure cooker. If you have a pressure cooker tucked away, pull it out. It’s a great option for making stock, especially in Alaska, because many people already own one for canning, you can fit a heap of big messy game bones inside (moose bones anyone?), you can move the mess to the front deck, and you can reduce the cooking time from 6-8 hrs on a traditional stovetop to a mere hour. The only drawback is that your stock will come out a tad bit cloudier. The flavor however, is still lip-licking good.

•    Cleaned venison bones from 1-2 deer (moose or caribou works too)

•    2-3 Onions, whole and rough cut

•    2 lbs carrots

•    One bag of celery

•    Whole head of garlic, smashed cloves

•    Other vegetables as desired: parsnips, leeks, greens, beets

•    Herbs of your choice. Try parsley, basil, cilantro (keep the stems attached!)

•    To add a bit of umami to your stock try adding the rinds of hard cheeses, mushrooms and/or 1 tablespoon fish sauce

•    Roughly 2 Tbs. salt to salt the bones

•    Spices of your choice. We used 1 tbs rosemary and 1 tsp each of black peppercorns, sage, 1/2 tsp of cayenne thyme, anise seeds

•    5 bay leaves

•    2-3 tbs vinegar or apple cider vinegar

•    One beer or 16 oz glass of wine to help deglaze the roasting pan

Salt and oil the animal bones. Roast the bones, smashed garlic, onions (if there’s room) in the oven at 400° F on a large metal pan to catch the leaked juices for about an hour. Spill the juices and the bones into the bottom of your pressure cooker (or pot). You may need to break up some of the larger bones to maximize space and fill the bottom of the cooker. The goal is to use as little water as possible while covering the bones so that the resulting stock is nice and concentrated. Deglaze the roasting pan over the stove using beer or wine to loosen all the delicious roasted juices. Pour this into the pot. Add the remainder of your vegetables, herbs, spices, umami, vinegar, sauce. Hold off on adding any more salt until the very end of the process so you can adequately taste and gauge how much to add (if desired). Add water (about five quarts) to cover the bones.

 

Pressure cook for 60 minutes at 15 lbs of pressure. Could be adjusted for fish (~45 minutes).

Carefully remove the large bones (be sure to nibble on any tasty bits of meat that may have fallen off). Pour the mixture through a sieve into another pot or directly into mason jars. If desired, you can further reduce the mixture over the stove. Let the broth cool and remove the layer of fat. At this point you can taste and add additional salt as desired. Be sure to leave ~ 1 in. top room in the jars to prevent cracking when freezing. The above recipe yields ~ 3.5 quarts and stock should be safe frozen for up to a year.  

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Venison stock makes a great base for all sorts of tasty belly warming winter recipes. Try as a base in soups and stews or a demi-glace in gnocchi. Go wild.