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.

 
 

Sewing (and Sharing) with Salmon

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. 

The women pause and admire each other’s works, sharing insight and grinning proudly over their pieces. “I’ve been working with it for 14 years now and I’m constantly learning from other people. I’m never going to be the expert on it but I love what I’m doing and I love sharing this with others who are interested.”

The students in this classroom are from all different backgrounds and experiences. One woman is visiting from England, another is taking Audrey’s class for a second year in a row.  Some of Audrey’s students have taken their newfound skills and shared them back home with their Yupik villages. As such, these re-awakened ancient skills have moved from Fran to Audrey to her students to new students. “The reward is just knowing that I am passing on something, and now I have two young ladies who are actually teaching it. So it’s just spreading out there and that’s what it’s about."

“Let me show you something!” beckons Audrey. She displays a large open basket with a proud smile. “This is my Chief's basket.” The basket is trimmed with moose skin, shells and small orange beads to symbolize salmon roe. 

“Salmon skin work is a lot of work, just scraping, scraping, scraping; getting the flesh totally clean and preparing it; it is a lot of work. But when you are done with your work and your creation, it’s worth it.” She holds up her Chief’s Basket again. “One night, I dreamt about my Athabaskan chiefs all sitting all around a table making decisions while passing food around in this, my Chief’s basket. So I presented to my board and they were in awe. Afterward, each one came up and thanked me for giving the speech and for what it all meant.” Her dream was realized. 

 

Teaching and skin sewing are undoubtedly passions of Audrey's, but she's quick to tell anyone who asks that her first love is for fishing: “I love to fish, I’ll stand in the water for 8-10 hours a day just to get one fish!”

As the morning passes, Audrey begins to get antsy. As soon as her student’s questions start to calm and they seem focused and directed on their sewing, Audrey slips out of the dark woodshed into the bright Sitka day. She rushes down the rock steps beside the Science Center and meets her husband, who is hard at work snagging pink salmon where Indian River meets the sea. 

Her husband has been pulling salmon ashore to eat and so that Audrey can share skins with her students for future projects. “If you ask any Native person for their fish skin, they don’t give it out because they smoke it with the skin on because all of the richness is in the skin. So none of my Native people want to give me skins,” she laughs. “We have to get our own!” She takes over the rod and gets to work. Reeling fast and diligently, she giggles and smiles.

“Salmon gives us everything. I use it all: the only thing I don't use is the male sperm and the guts!” She smiles as she pulls her third pink onto the beach and points. “This is what binds us and helps us and our families get through the winter. I’ve always considered salmon as my gold. It is my gold, g-o-l-d. It is our gold, all of the people who live off salmon. Money will come and go but salmon..! Your resources are your future.”