Charting a Course for Prosperity in Rural Alaska

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Written and photographed by Bethany Goodrich for Alaska Business Monthly

Dennis Gray Jr. sets his fishing gear with a calm and practiced rhythm in the Gulf of Alaska, south of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve.  “My ancestors have fished these waters since the last Ice Age,” Gray says as he slides his knife through the crimson gills of a coho salmon.

Gray is a fourth-generation commercial fisherman. He’s also the city administrator for Hoonah, a Tlingit village carved into the slender coast of Chichagof Island.

Aboard his humming freezer troller, Gray relies on a time-tested strategy: selecting hoochies and flashers, adjusting depth and speed to catch salmon. But back in town, he and his community of 800 concentrate their efforts on another silvery target: building prosperity in rural Alaska.

Challenges confront hundreds of isolated villages across Alaska. Despite being just seventy miles west of the state capital, Hoonah remains accessible only by boat or small plane. Goods and services are barged in, and that’s costly. Energy prices are more than double what Juneau residents pay. And the unemployment rate for the Hoonah-Angoon Census Area, which includes Angoon, Hoonah, Gustavus, Tenakee Springs, and Pelican, was more than twice as high as the state’s average in 2015, due in part to a lack of year-round jobs. Still, many Alaska Native families in Hoonah trace their ancestry back for centuries with roots anchored to specific shorelines, forests, and fishing grounds.

And despite its isolation, Hoonah’s location helps. There are bountiful fisheries and the town’s position between Juneau and Glacier Bay makes it a strategic and attractive stop for cruise ships plying the Inside Passage from Seattle or Vancouver. According to the city of Hoonah’s 2016 economic report, the number of available jobs and average annual wages have all risen since 2010. The median family income jumped 15 percent and Hoonah’s sales tax revenue jumped 46 percent, according to the report.

While every rural Alaska town and village has its own unique economic challenges, the way Hoonah is facing theirs can offer insight and inspiration to others seeking development options.

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Adapt with Authenticity

“Adapt or die,” says Gray with a smile as he captains his freezer troller past a brightly lit cruise ship pulling into town. “Hoonah has always done a good job of transitioning from one industry to the next. We are good fishermen, we were good loggers, and now we are good tour operators.” Icy Strait Point, established by Huna Totem Corporation in 2004, is a cultural ecotourism port built on the site of Hoonah’s historic cannery, which operated until 1953.

Gray vividly remembers the energy in town when Hoonah decided to invest in Icy Strait and tourism—even though it was contentious. “I was twenty-two, new to the city council, and scared as heck,” he says. Huna Totem requested city support to connect the historic site to city water and electricity. Some Hoonah residents were not convinced. “I’d say the community was about 40/60 against developing tourism. People were like: ‘What? That’s never going to happen. A little Indian village, why would tourists even come to Hoonah?’ Eventually, we spent our last savings to put in a waterline… because we believed in … what it might do for Hoonah.”

Before Icy Strait, tourists seldom visited. Today, according to the city, Icy Strait Point supports one-third of the city’s sales tax base. Huna Totem Corporation says more than 156,000 visitors arrived this year on eighty-three cruises, including Disney Cruise Lines—a number the company expects will exceed one hundred next year. And Icy Strait’s workforce is 80 percent local.

According to Russell Dick, CEO of Huna Totem Corporation, authenticity and community buy-in led to Icy Strait’s success. “If there is any place we are going to invest our money, it is going to be at home, putting our people to work,” Dick says.

“It’s not Disneyland. [Icy Strait Point] is an incredibly authentic port and done in a way that meets the expectations of the cruise lines without having to compromise our values.”

Sharing Home and Culture

Britney Jack began working with Icy Strait Point while in high school. Today, the twenty-two year old is the company’s logistics coordinator. “I take a lot of ownership and pride in working here and so [do] a lot of other local people ... This is our home and our culture. We want to share it,” Jack says.

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Gordon Greenwald is a master carver in Hoonah who also sits on several city boards including Hoonah’s economic development committee. Since Icy Strait opened thirteen years ago, Greenwald has seen progressively more tourists wander into the center of town, some visiting the carving shed where he works.

“Honestly, I was not in favor of it [Icy Strait Point] in the very beginning because I thought it was going to change us and we would end up like South Franklin [Street] of Juneau or Ketchikan. I don’t want that for Hoonah and I’m afraid that’s the direction they are going to go,” says Greenwald. “But in the meantime, it’s a positive thing and an employment base. Yes, it’s a service industry [and] it’s not a $35-an-hour job, but it’s better than nothing, and I think it has helped put Hoonah on the map.”

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Since Icy Strait launched, nineteen new locally-owned businesses have opened in Hoonah, most catering to visitors. Tax revenue from Icy Strait is being invested in community assets such as sidewalks, a youth center, and the school system.

“Hoonah in the past had a lot of male-dominated employment opportunities with fishing and timber,” Gray says. “Tourism presents more widespread opportunities for women with kids and even grade-school students who work after school or dance when ships are in.”

Collaborate and Diversify

Some 150 miles of old logging roads weave throughout the forests, rivers, and valleys surrounding Hoonah. These roads, maintained by the US Forest Service, support local subsistence users as well as tourism guides and charters. They’re also important to a collaborative land management partnership called the Hoonah Native Forest Partnership that includes Huna Totem Corporation, Sealaska, the City of Hoonah, the Hoonah Indian Association, the Nature Conservancy, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the Sustainable Southeast Partnership, and the US Forest Service.

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According to Robert Starbard, tribal administrator of the Hoonah Indian Association, some of these entities—particularly environmental nonprofits and Alaska Native corporations—have not always seen eye-to-eye.

But the organizations have adopted “this new collaborative way of working. This is the… future of how to do natural resource work effectively, efficiently, and sustainably,” says Starbard. “It is possible to have all stakeholders at the table building an effective private-public partnership for land stewardship and watershed management.”

A core goal is to create career opportunities in natural resources and land stewardship for locals.

“[It’s] about diversifying the economy in Hoonah,” adds Dick. “Tourism is not for everybody, but doing things like harvesting commercial blueberries, for example, are great opportunities.”

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“Alaskan blueberries, black huckleberries, dwarf blueberries, bog blueberries,” rattles off Donovan Smith, who belongs to the partnership. “We’ve learned a lot about all the different plants and types of habitats where they thrive.”

This year, local pickers sold blueberries to Goldbelt Corporation, as well as ice cream and coffee shop, Coppa, in Juneau. Juneau’s Amalga Distillery also purchased one hundred pounds of blueberries for its blueberry vodka.

And while harvesting blueberries doesn’t bring in anywhere near the money that the commercial fishing fleet earns, it creates economic options for Hoonah. And the Hoonah Native Forest Partnership is about far more than just blueberries: the field crew traverses across the landscape from Sealaska watersheds to US Forest Service lands to map and monitor salmon streams, report on road conditions, thin forest stands for timber production, and restore salmon habitat.

“In terms of our youth and early career residents, the partnership creates professions for land use management. If you want to work with fish, you don’t have to be a commercial fisherman, you can be a fisheries biologist and can come home even if you went out to college and studied science. You can bring that expertise back to Hoonah,” says Starbard.

Strategic Infrastructure

Kristi Styers dishes up a holistic view of her hometown’s economy while bouncing her daughter Alfie on her knees at Fishermen’s Daughter, the restaurant she opened in 2011.

“Everyone has to eat,” says Styers. “[So] we really see how the economy is doing. When fishing is good, we feel it. When it is great weather or a full cruise ship is in town, we feel it.”

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Styers also felt it when Hoonah secured federal economic development agency grants and state legislative grants to invest $5.5 million in a boat haul-out that attracted more outside revenue.

“[Now] the boatyard stays full in the spring and the fall. It really stretched out our season,” says Styers, who keeps Fishermen’s Daughter open May to November, three months longer than during her first year. And when Huna Totem Corporation and the city installed a $22 million deep-water dock, more cruise companies could stop in Hoonah, and Styers saw even more diners.

That’s no accident. According to Gray, the city invests purposefully in infrastructure that catalyzes far-reaching economic impact in town for new industries like boat repair, old industries like fishing, and ancillary businesses like Fishermen’s Daughter.

Thinking Outside City Limits

Hoonah can’t do it alone and is looking to surrounding villages to ease some of the costs associated with isolated island living. “Savings can happen region-wide if we collaborate,” Gray says.

Hoonah hired a consultant to look at the feasibility of Angoon, Hoonah, Tenakee, Pelican, and Kake forming a borough. “That would help us with school costs,” says Gray. “Neighboring towns have schools of the same size and have the same overhead costs of a superintendent and principal and in theory we could share.” A flourishing school system can help Hoonah cultivate homegrown leaders.  

“For a community to thrive you need to have committed people … in leadership positions [who] are around for the long term,” says Gray.

But Dick sees a Catch 22.

“How do you invest in local leadership? You have to create employment opportunities for good top-notch people to come back. And, if you don’t have that kind of leadership, how do you create those opportunities? It’s really a challenge.”

Cultivating prosperity in isolated Alaska is not easy. However, the coastal community of Hoonah remains dedicated, leaning on collaboration, diversification, adaptation, strategic investments, creativity, and a focus on cultivating local leadership to meet the challenge.

“My biggest hope is that in twenty years, Hoonah remains this place we can all be proud of,” says Styers.

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Strength and Xaat (Salmon): Haa Yaakwdáat Kusteeyi Yanshuká (Yakutat Culture Camp)

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From sea to summit, Yakutat’s horizon boasts the tallest, most rapidly ascending mountain on Earth. It is here, below Mt. Saint Elias (Was’eitushaa), where the Yakutat Tlingit (Yaakwdáat) have carved their home.On the banks of the S’itak River, Elora fearlessly admires the beating heart of a freshly killed sockeye salmon.

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Elora’s Tlingit name is Sei S’oox’, and she belongs to the Teikweidí clan. Her people settled in Yakutat centuries ago. Today, she is salmon (Xaat) fishing.

“When I was a little girl, I would make mom crazy trying to run into the river to swim with the salmon,” she asserts, her eyes transfixed on the heart as it dances its final rhythm into her palm. “I ate a salmon heart once because sister dared me to.” Gasps and giggles erupt across the plywood processing table. Boys and girls are learning how to properly fillet sockeye salmon they plucked moments earlier from turquoise set nets.

The group is participating in Yakutat’s Culture Camp (Haa Yaakwdáat Kusteeyi Yanshuká). This overnight camp is a place where kids are given space to be their honest selves.

“Culture Camp strengthens us as a native community, and it shows kids a lot of the skills they need to just feel proud of who they are,” says Gloria Wolfe. Gloria’s Tlingit name is X’aal Eex’ Tláa, and she belongs to the Wooshkeetaan clan. She is the Cultural Heritage Coordinator with Yakutat Tlingit Tribe.  “A lot of native folks here feel lost in their identity. It can lead to things like suicide or not really knowing how to combat bullying because they just don’t have a strong base.” Across society, people are increasingly estranged from their heritage, the land, and the local resources that feed their families. Culture Camp is changing that for people with ancestral ties to the Yakutat area.

Whether in the art of salmon filleting, weaving or pulling oars through the S’tak River, the children are naturals and their movements instinctual.

“We had one girl who came here from a difficult background who lives in a city separated from all of this,” Wolfe says as she opens her arms to embrace the scene. Siblings process salmon, and kids chase each other with fistfuls of mud, teeter on giant driftwood castles, or wade in the silty river. “What that girl told us was very impactful,” Wolfe continues. “She told us that ‘During this camp, I realized why I am the way that I am. I have never felt like I fit in anywhere before, and now I know why I feel the way I feel, why I do things the way I do. I never knew that I belonged to a people before.’” Wolfe smiles, her son tugging on her waistband. “It was emotional for her to have that connection. That is what we are hoping for with this camp, to ground kids and let them be healthy being who they are.”

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Forty kids aged seven through seventeen are participating in this year’s camp. Activities include salmon and seal processing, Tlingit language classes, canoe paddling, form-line painting, and cedar bark weaving. The goal is to encourage campers to respect themselves, the natural environment, and the traditional tribal values and clan systems of the Yakutat Tlingit.

“Every single kid wants to try and cut fish and smoke the fish. There is 100 percent participation. Same with seal, you would think blood and guts would freak them out, but they can’t wait for their turn. There are these impulses and these instincts that show up out of nowhere, and their amazing fish cutting abilities just come out,” says Wolfe.

 

Whether in the art of salmon filleting, weaving, or pulling oars through the S’itak River, the children are naturals and their movements instinctual.

“Culture Camp strengthens all of us, and it strengthens kids who may be fishermen and hunters. They can be one of the top dogs here and share those skills, whereas in other scenarios, they may not feel like a leader. Here, they can be shining stars,” says Wolfe.

Culture Camp Reborn

The Yakutat people have not always celebrated Culture Camp beside the S’itak. In addition to carving their homeland into one of the most dynamic landscapes on Earth, the Yakutat Tlingit have overcome myriad social challenges in their journey. Under an increasing concern for Japanese attacks during WWII, the US military scrambled for a foothold to defend the Aleutian Islands. One of the communities they looked to was Yakutat. At its peak, 15-20,000 troops were stationed in this isolated Alaskan village, which is now home to roughly 600 people. Military occupation brought dramatic changes in lifestyle for the Tlingit and new technologies, and it increased pressure on natural resources. Tlingits were denied access to many traditional fishing grounds, and important berry sites were replaced by roads and regulations.

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“After the war, land was redistributed and the Yakutat Kwann (the local Native Corporation) acquired the Ankhouw area,” explains Wolfe. “We were thrilled to return back to where we traditionally harvested, and we celebrated and had a Culture Camp on that land for many, many years until we came to find that there was tons of contamination left on-site: asbestos, agent orange, unexploded bombs, quonset huts, a huge oil tank that has been leaking ever since.”  The Yakutat Tlingit Tribe ended Culture Camp abruptly in 1996.

 

“Those days at Culture Camp were the best times of my life, seriously,” says Wolfe. Later returning to Yakutat after years of schooling, Gloria Wolfe became the Cultural Heritage Coordinator and went to work. With the help of countless volunteers, financial risk-taking, and hours of grant writing, the Yakutat Tribe was able to secure a permit for new lands from the United States Forest Service and begin building camp. Yakutat’s Haa Yaakwdáat Kusteeyi Yanshuká was reborn in 2015. “It was a truly collaborative effort,” adds Gloria.

Salmon and Strength

The sun starts its slow summer tilt toward the horizon, illuminating the children’s faces as they race through the wildflowers with makeshift bows and arrows. In the smokehouse, seal fat oozes from purple flesh beside carefully hung strips of dry salmon. Students focus intently on form-line as they paint a new house front for their camp. Others practice weaving by dipping strips of red cedar into water for their regalia. One baby collapses in the mud with shrieks of joy. Tlingit is spoken casually across generations.

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In the cookhouse, volunteers prepare dinner. Unsurprisingly, the food that sustains this sacred scene is fresh sockeye salmon. Ted Valle, Naatsk’i.éesh of the Galyáx Kaagwaantaan clan, is a community elder. He prepares his famous “supersoup” for bustling campers. He stirs seal fat, ribbon seaweed, salmon roe, salmon, and onions into a cauldron. The savory aroma crawls across Culture Camp.

 

“Here, steak is the rich man’s food and salmon, the poor man’s food,” Wolfe laughs. “Salmon is a major staple, and we literally eat it twice a day for three to four months out of the year. Unfortunately, kids, we are eating king salmon again for dinner,” she mocks.

Coho, King, Dog, Sockeye, and Pink salmon all pulse through the braided rivers and streams that surround Yakutat. In town, access to fresh healthy food and affordable protein is a challenge. Yakutat is not alone in its pursuit for community health. Across the state, 65 percent of Alaskans are either overweight or obese (dhss.alaska.gov). Access to salmon and the sharing of recipes, processing skills, and preservation is not only integral for cultural wellbeing in rural Alaska, but it is essential for community health.

“Not all of these kids come from healthy homes, and this is a healthy environment to talk about things. They get to be safe here, are well fed, and they have a place to laugh and have fun. We don’t serve sugary drinks here, and the kids don’t ask for them. The whole theme of this camp this year is ‘What makes me healthy?’ Part of that is having a cultural identity and part of that is eating your mother’s food.”

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Gloria and a group of kids are running fingers across a blanket of black seaweed, carefully separating the pieces to dry.

“These recipes, these foods have been passed down to you, and your body craves it, but sometimes you don’t even realize what exactly you are craving. It just feels like you need carbs or energy,” she says with a laugh. “But actually, what you need is seaweed! Or sockeye!”

Nearby on sheets of cardboard, Kimberly Buller, Kuwúx, empties buckets of fresh salmon roe that the kids harvested this morning.  She and her sons begin to prepare the roe for the smokehouse. “My son told me that all he wants for his birthday is fish eggs,” she says and then laughs. Clearly, the smallest generation at Culture Camp has the appetite to herald family traditions long into the future. He plunges his chubby fingers into the glowing orbs, pounding fistful after fistful past his toothy grin.

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This site, these rivers, these practices, these foods, and these ceremonies are sacred. Organizing this camp has demanded resilience and community champions in the face of asbestos, loss, and hardship. The true champions, however, are the kids themselves.

“Even though we eat salmon all the time, those skills are not necessarily passing down. Some families here make the best dry fish, and their grandkids have no idea how to make it. That generational separation is hard to navigate. But, when the kids are here, their peers provide the positive influence that brings more of their peers to the table. ‘Hey, this is what I know how to do, and I’m pretty cute, and I’m going to fillet this fish faster than you!’” Wolfe teases.

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Across the camp, supersoup is served. “I could wrestle a bear after this,” Ted whispers after taking his first sip. Tlingit words are practiced, and elders share stories of great migrations and the Little Ice Age. Beside a blazing driftwood fire, counselors remix old songs with fresh beats. With salmon in their bellies, their smokehouses, and their streams, Yakutat’s Haa Yaakwdáat Kusteeyi Yanshuká closes another day beside the swelling S’itak.

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Culture Camp is a cultural leadership resource for Alaska Native youth. Elders believe that Tlingit values, worldviews, and a sense of morality are embedded within their culture. It is important to the entire community of Yakutat that their children become culture bearers, Tlingit language speakers, and ambassadors. Culture Camp focuses on the health of the mind, body, environment, and community.

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Written and published with Salmon Life. 

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.