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

Print_1.jpg

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.  

deerkstock1.jpg

 

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.”

 
 

 

 

Chasing Herring Spawn on Sitka Sound

Herring eggs on kelp. Each year in Sitka Sound, herring return to our waters to release clouds of milt and eggs that coat everything from kelp to our beaches.

SITKA — In early spring, the forests and estuaries begin to thaw. With the softer earth and longer days, Sitka's residents thaw too. We stretch our arms and arch our backs, padded with a little extra winter weight, toward the increasing sunlight. We look to our coastline for the return of the herring.

In Sitka Sound, herring have always been harbingers of spring. As they return en masse each year they carry on their iridescent backs the promise of warmer weather and seasons of subsistence. Seabirds, sea lions and fishermen compete aggressively for this plentiful food source. Hoards of humpback whales return from Hawaiian waters in pursuit of these silvery fish. Hunting in packs like wolves, they dive deep, flukes slipping into the sea. Our waters erupt with life.

Back in town, Sitka clamors with activity too. Our harbors flood with visiting seiners and tenders awaiting the commercial herring sac roe fishery. Locals prep their skiffs and begin eyeing young hemlock trees in preparation for the subsistence harvest. Wade Martin, 51, is a Chilkat Tlingit who has been harvesting herring eggs locally for 40 years.

"During herring season, there is no place better than Sitka. It's a really happy time of year for animals, for us," Martin said. "Just to be part of it all is a privilege. It's more than cultural, it's in my blood and I could not imagine not doing this. I'd go crazy."

From his 18-foot aluminum skiff named Raven, Martin hustles through the Sitka Sound island chains with his eye to the water and his ear to local chatter. This year, he promised more than a half-ton of roe to friends and family around the region.

During herring season, life returns to our shores. Whales, seabirds, sea lions all flock to the sound in high numbers. Here, seagulls pick eggs off the rocks of Gavanski Island. Mount Edgecumbe, Sitka's neighboring volcano looms in the background on Kruzof Island. 

 

Sheet'ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi: Blessing of the rock

The season begins at the Sheet'ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi Tribal Community House, when community members join the Sitka Tribe of Alaska in prayer.

"We are especially thankful for our culture for our people and our ways that you have taught us as we celebrate the herring run, its history," says John Duncan while Roby Littlefield pours channel water over the herring rock.

News Lawson explains the significance of this rock and the herring season.

"The herring rock has a very long history among our people. Very significant. The days of long ago, the herring would come to our homeland and the first place the herring would spawn would be at the herring rock and this time of year was very significant to our people, the arrival of the herring on our shores that meant the arrival of new food, new food for our homes and the end of the old foods that sustained us through the winter months."

The timbre of the prayer is calm and steady. Out on the water, the pace is entirely different.

 

Defined by patience

Seiners strategize their position and await the Alaska Department of Fish and Game countdown.

"Three.

"Two.

"One."

The rodeo begins.

Sitka's sac roe commercial fishery is legendary for cutthroat hustle. Spotter planes scope fish movement from above and dozens of seiners narrowly avoid one another, dodging rocks and whales as they compete for masses of herring.

This year, seiners harvested 9,758 tons of herring, about 66 percent of the quota. Fishermen target the golden herring egg sacks, or skeins, coveted in Japan as a traditional delicacy called kazunoko. Fish and Game estimates that 10.7 percent of the nearly 10,000 tons of herring pulled from Sitka Sound this season was the target mature roe. The subsistence harvest stands in stark comparison. Participants still target herring eggs, but the technique for accessing these eggs will leave the fish breathing. It's a methodology defined by patience.

In quiet coves foaming with turquoise milt, participants lower hemlocks from small boats, anchoring them into the spawn. Days later, they return to pull in branches, hoping that thick layers of eggs coat the limbs. While the process sounds idyllic, the reality isn't always quiet and serene. Like the commercial sac roe fishery, locals are in hot pursuit of this sacred resource.

Sitka at heart of harvest

Martin and I pull the Raven up to a wooden troller anchored in a protected cove of Middle Island. The F/V Shirley N travels annually to Sitka from Hoonah.

Located on Chichagof Island, Hoonah is the largest Tlingit community in Alaska. Martin grew up in Hoonah and spent herring season traveling to Sitka on local trollers, gathering eggs. Today, Hoonah residents depend on Vernon Hill, a veteran troller with a local crew, to return with a hull weighed down by eggs on branches. The Hoonah Indian Association and community members contribute funds each year to support their travel. Martin reconnects with his hometown friends in the wheelhouse, while on deck Brandon Hill explains how a triumphant return to town looks.

"It's crazy when we get back to Hoonah. Usually, we pull up to the dock and there's about 200 people out there and we lay the eggs out on a tarp and watch people like seagulls fighting over this stuff. It's just madness. It is really rewarding and it means a lot to a lot of people, especially elders," Hill says.

Some people describe herring eggs poetically as the most culturally revered subsistence food after salmon. Others use a more crass nomenclature: Indian Viagra. Some people prefer to munch on egg-coated kelp pulled directly from the sea. Some blanch them, dress them with soy sauce or cook them in seal oil. Others kindly refuse.

Whether you like herring eggs or not, they are in demand across Alaska and Sitka is the beating heart of the harvest. Participants spend weeks gathering eggs, packaging and pumping thousands of pounds of this treat by boat or by box along airline arteries to eager families from Metlakatla to Barrow. Martin alone ships his bounty to Yakutat, Kake, Hoonah, Juneau and Angoon.

Atypical Easter egg hunt

It's Easter. While little girls in Sunday dresses play hide and seek with colorful eggs, I sip thick coffee and talk herring with the crew aboard the F/V Shirley N. Days earlier, we anchored branches in coves across Sitka Sound. Today, we hop on skiffs for a different kind of egg hunt.

Cutting through a cold sharp rain, Martin and I race to Crow Pass, an epicenter for herring egg subsistence. The turquoise foamy spawn has subsided, the water fading to a more familiar and less tropical shade. Peering past the raindrop-mottled surface, we look deep in the water for color. Martin does not attach buoys to his branches, fearing the egg wranglers — people who steal branches laid by others. He hides his branches and has done such a fantastic job that we struggle to find them.

"See that? That yellow glow down deep," calls Martin. We drop a grappling hook and yank. A growing pale form rises to the surface, a young hemlock heavy with eggs. "Not ours!" The line, and anchor are unfamiliar.

Martin is many things, but he is not an egg thief.

"For me, this is all about honor. I honor my culture, honor where I come from, honor my father and honor this resource." Thievery is not honorable. He loosens his grip and the tree slips back into the darkness.

We continue in this way for hours, though most of the trees we pull are ours. This year, however, most of those trees are empty. "Junk! Junk!" Martin says as he clips the small sections of tree worth keeping. "It's getting worse every year. It's getting harder to make this happen."

We motor back to the Shirley N. All the sets the Hoonah crew pulled were empty. Barren hemlocks balance sadly on deck. Everyone is tired, feeling defeated.

A changing harvest

Martin and the crew of the Shirley N were not alone in their struggles this spring. Sitka Tribe distributed 3,240 pounds of this culturally revered resource, not even half of what they distributed a year ago.

Harvey Kitka, born and raised in Sitka, has been chair of the tribe's herring committee for 10 years. "Harvesting … was really bad. Usually, I have so much that I distribute to not only family in town but some friends, too. We all have friends who don't have boats; some of them are older … and we usually get eggs for them," Kitka says.

He remembers a time growing up in Sitka when the herring were so thick that the crack of their flipping backs would echo across the Sound like a hailstorm. Back then, subsistence seasons were more reliable. "It used to be that the duration of the spawn was so long you could see which way the herring were heading, you could watch them every day as they got closer in town. We would try to get there right before the herring would start spawning, anticipating their movement."

This season, the spawn seemed different.

"The herring came in tiny bunches, just scattered on the surface and there were just little balls of herring. It was just a little spot here and a little spot there," Kitka says. "You had to be really lucky."

Persistence, rejoicing

Back on the water, Martin and the Hoonah boys are determined to get lucky. By chance, while Martin and his buddy Russ James are hunting seals and otters north in Salisbury Sound, they stumble upon a late spawn. They move fast, lay branches and lead the Hoonah crew there to do the same. They all cross their fingers.

After weeks of battling waning optimism with die-hard persistence, the Hoonah crew and Martin taste salty, crunchy success. They pull plentiful branches from Salisbury Sound. The next day, I join Martin, James, his girlfriend Teresa Moses and her sons Eli and Andrew as they sort and package the spoils. The sun is bright, the atmosphere warm with relief and rejoice.

"I was pretty worried that I wasn't going to be able to hold up my obligations, but now I'm very happy," Martin says.  "I try to be honorable and honor my word. This was the first year I almost didn't make my obligations. It's getting worse every year. We all but gave up on this season and just lucked out and stumbled into it in Salisbury Sound, the farthest north I've ever had to go," Martin says.

The afternoon is rich with celebratory sounds: pruning shears clip, packaging tape stretches across burgeoning fish boxes, Creedence Clearwater Revival sings "Proud Mary" on the radio and two little boys crunch gleefully on eggs.

"I wish that we could have herring eggs every day," one says. With a grin, their mother promises fresh eggs in tomorrow's school lunchbox.

All together, Martin packages more than 2,000 pounds of herring eggs on branches. Four-hundred pounds are set aside for a particularly important purpose: Martin's father passed away earlier this spring. These eggs will feed guests at a ceremonial party to honor Chief George Martin Jr., clan leader of the Chookaneidi. The rest are distributed to family and friends within Sitka and across the state. He pushes cartload after cartload through the gates at Harris Aircraft Services. He estimates these eggs will hit the tongues of nearly a thousand Alaskans.

"There's not a lot of people who can do this anymore, and it's my culture. A lot of people do their culture with dance and music. With me, it's the thrill of showing people this, sharing whatever is in season," Martin says.

In Hoonah, the community celebrated the triumphant return of their hardworking men on the Shirley N. Residents fought with fervor and glee over the thickest branches.

As spring tapers off into summer, Sitka's residents wear down our winter weight, pulling skates and hooks heavy with halibut and salmon from the Sitka Sound. As we clean our bounty, we look graciously to our plentiful waters and curiously in the pink bellies of our chinooks. We are reminded of the little fish that begin it all, the shimmering foundation of our rich subsistence culture.

How to Gill a Girl: Salmon Fishing in Hydaburg

Like a salmon, I grew up running wild. As a toddler, I chased my brother through the trees behind our childhood home. Later (braver), with dirt beneath my nails and calloused feet, I trailed new boys through those same woodlands. And when I discovered that all the land I knew and loved was slated to become rows of cookie-cutter colonial houses, I ran away, right out of Massachusetts. I chased ambitions across the globe before finally falling face-first in love with the rich and plentiful waters and rainforest of Southeast Alaska.

Southeast is now my home, and I'm lucky enough to travel and explore the region for work, shadowing locals and documenting their ways of life. In each community I've found teachers who have helped me establish my gait in this new backyard. Teachers, like my friends in Hydaburg, who have taught me how to stop running through a landscape. To instead, take root. This is a story of beach seining with the Haida, of finding my footing. This is a story of how you gill a girl.

Beach Seining with the Haida

Hydaburg is one of only two Haida villages in Southeast Alaska. Located on Prince of Wales Island, this community of 400 pulses with energy. Colorful salt-worn homes border streets alive with laughing children. Gangs of all ages look out for one another, dropping fishing lines into cold clean waters and sneaking thimbleberries from neighbor’s yards. Yells, hollers and revving engines fill the evening as people return triumphantly with deer strapped to their ATVS. Haida dancers practice songs before scrimmaging basketball in open gym. Uncles tease and chase their nieces for hugs with the lingering stink of a successful salmon fishing day.

I head out on the water with Sam Mooney, Edward Peele and Toni Rae Sanderson to beach seine sockeye at Eek Inlet. Sam runs the show and I know he’s testing my character from the moment I step onboard. Who is this peculiar lanky white chick with the camera anyways? Ed sits on board with a grin like a Cheshire cat. He dips his hands into a giant bag of taffy before burning one of Sams cigarettes and whispering a prayer as we cut through the water and head out to fish.

We arrive at our spot and the fish rodeo begins. Scanning the horizon for jumping fish and disturbed water, we hunt for our target. Sam explains to me the significance of salmon, of harvesting rich nutrition from the landscape as being the crux and backbone of being Haida. His lesson is quickly brought to life.

“There!” Sam points and rams the boat into gear. Toni, watching from the dingy attached to our skiff, gets poised and ready. “Go!” screams Sam. She drops the bucket attached to the net into the water. Sam speeds the skiff in a circle, lassoing the school of sockeye. The loop is completed and the dingy reaches the skiff. Ed jumps on board with Toni and starts beating the metal plunger into the water. He is trying to startle the salmon into the net and also prevent the fish from sneaking through the open end. Toni slowly pulls the net in, tightening the circle, smaller and smaller. No fish this round. We try again and again, each time a little more successful than the last.

It’s getting late and we plan for one last rodeo. Sam looks at me with his testing expression and a mischievous smile. He doesn’t need to ask twice. I hop on the dingy and he sets off in pursuit of our glittery friends. “Go!”. We let the bucket loose and hold tight. I plunge as hard as I can to the yaps and demands of my mentor. “Faster! Deeper! You won’t scare the salmon like that,” he shrieks. As we pull in the fish he reminds me to take over for Ed, that you don’t ask to help an elder you simply do it. I take note.

Sam howls. He points his finger at me from the skiff, my tired arms collapsed pathetically at my sides. “Now, you’ve gone beach seining with the Haidas!” he hoots. “This is what we call a deck-load,” he says gesturing to the salmon overflowing the cooler resting on deck. The sun is starting it’s slow summer descent toward the horizon. Toni collapses at the nose of the skiff in exhaustion. The golden light trims the water and illuminates the proud beaming grin of Ed resting content beside our deck-load of salmon. We turn our tired faces toward town.

A successful day on the water means celebration. But first, it means work.  When we pull up to the dock, exhausted and weary I hop into the truck bed with Toni. They slow at my door and I feel the gaze of my teachers land upon me as I leap out with my things.

“So where are we going to process these?” I ask.

Their stoic expressions crack and Sam lets out a guffaw and slaps his door. “Haha! You pass the final test. Drop your things and I’ll be back in fifteen to get you.” Salmon fishing is a means for testing each other’s character. It is also an opportunity for testing and building your own.

A warm dark night settles over Hydaburg as we head down the dock. We battle bugs for hours as our assembly line carefully heads and guts our bounty. We work until we can barely keep our eyelids from collapsing. Washing the blood and guts off our hands, we finally itch the bites that litter our faces necks and backs. I’m not sure if the blood on my body came from me, the mosquitos, my comrades or the salmon and I’m far too tired to care. Sam’s heart-melting smile erupts across his sleepy face. “You can be a little Haida now,” he says. He points to the very itty bitty tiny tip of his pinky finger, “That much!,” he laughs.

Well, it’s a start anyways.

The next day I process salmon with Toni and her sisters Mary and Jennifer. Neighbors stop by to offer advice, recipes and secrets. We float a potato in our brine to test its salinity and kids poke in to see the fish, learn the process and help. The sisters teach each other how to clean the sockeye and filet properly so the salmon straddle and hang in the smoke house. They take turns brining, hanging and using berry bushes to swat bugs from our bounty. The fire is set and the girls trickle off to their families. Toni will check on the fire through the night.

Trails of alder smoke chug out the chimney and through cracks in the wooden smokehouse. Streams of this potent heat sneak through my open window as my head hits the pillow. My drained mind slowly wanders and processes the days as it heads full speed to sleep.

I think about salmon fishing and my new friends. While we are united in our exhaustion and contentment, our perceptions of fishing are unique. For Ed, salmon fishing is a tradition as familiar as the sunrise. He explained how when he grew up in Hydaburg, there was no road that connected his village to the outside world. Your grocery store was the alpine or river mouth. 

For me, this seasonal tradition is still fresh. With each passing year, I feel more tempered to the way of life here but I still have a lot to learn. 

I roll over and stuff a grin into my pillowcase, thinking about salmon and all that they mean to this region. I visualize the fish as they tie together our forest and ocean, our economy and families, our health and our hopes, Hydaburg to Kodiak, age-old Alaskans to newcomers. They tie all these things into a complex web, a big ‘ole net. This is the net that finally gilled my wandering body, the net that caught me and roots me to this land. A net where I rest my bones, where many Alaskans place their futures and tonight, the net where I curl up and graciously succumb to a hard-earned sleep.