Written by Natalia Povelite
Bethany and I recently spent five days volunteering at the Forest Service-managed weir at Redoubt lake in the Tongass National Forest. Located just twelve miles from the city of Sitka, Redoubt falls is one of Sitka’s most important subsistence fisheries, especially for sockeye. Locals dipnet and cast for salmon to stock their freezers and cupboards with the rich red flesh of this iconic fish. In past years, Redoubt has provided up to 60% of the total sockeye subsistence harvest in the Sitka Management Area (US Forest Service, 2011).
Redoubt lake is unique because it is one of the largest meromictic lakes in North America, which means its top layer is freshwater, and there are several hundred feet of saltwater on the bottom layer of the lake. The two layers don’t mix, and the lake is about 900 feet deep at its deepest. The Forest Service maintains a weir system to count and record the fish entering the lake, and coordinates with the Alaska Department of Fish & Game to make management decisions based on the data collected each season.
Subsistence harvest defines life in rural Alaska, and Sitka is no exception. In July when the sockeye are running, Redoubt is the buzz of local conversation and activity. Employees and volunteers at Redoubt work hard to maintain the health and sustainability of this salmon run, serving the general public by caring for the most important resource of Southeast Alaska.
Redoubt lake is long and narrow, protected on all sides by mountains and cliffs in a glacial valley. Salmon swim from the weir at the falls up to the northern tip of the lake, spawning in a clear stream that originates in a pristine lake in the mountains. The Forest Service runs a mark and recapture study of sockeye returning to the stream, which entails occasionally snorkelling the stream to survey marked and unmarked sockeye.
Bethany and I donned warm and buoyant drysuits to snorkel in the clear, cold water with stunningly red sockeye. When they pass through the weir, sockeye are silver-scaled and relatively normal-looking salmon. The physical transformation they undergo between the weir and their spawning stream is spectacular. The sockeye we swam with had bright scarlet bodies and a defined and unwieldy hump on their backs. Olive green heads ended in sharply hooked noses dripping with snarling teeth. They nipped and bit at one another, fighting to reproduce as a final dance before laying and fertilizing their eggs for future runs.
Redoubt lake is one of the most important public spaces in Sitka for people to fish and recreate. It is a community gathering place for Sitkans in the Tongass National Forest, and it is vital that this place remain public for this tradition to continue. Currently there is pressure from Sealaska to privatize Redoubt, potentially excluding many people from this vital public fishery and gem of the Tongass. The public service done by the Forest Service at Redoubt is highly valued, and a reminder of the incredible importance of keeping salmon, our most valued economic and cultural resource, accessible to all. Redoubt has been identified as one of the T77, or top 77 fish-producing watersheds in the Tongass. It’s awe-inspiring beauty and vital habitat is absolutely deserving of this designation.
Click here to learn more about the Tongass77 and what you can do to help protect our salmon forest!