Subsistence Success on the Tongass

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SourDough News | August 19, 2013

 

Seine arches in a circle
The seine arches in a circle as the boat motors into the beach, encircling the fish that have run up against the net. Photos by Kari Paustian.

 

Ankle deep in fish
Employees of the Sitka Tribe wade through fish on deck as they prepare to leave the beach and motor out for the next seine set. Photos by Kari Paustian.

Klag Bay is tucked back into the outer coast of Chichagof Island, forty-five miles north of Sitka. The island’s western coast is incorporated into the West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness area on the Tongass National Forest. The bow of the Sitka Tribe of Alaska’s work boat splits the glassy water of the bay, which is shielded from the rough swell off the Pacific by the right angle bend of Elbow Passage and a smattering of craggy barrier islands wearing wigs of tousled green foliage and weathered, wind-beaten trees.

 

Every year sockeye, pink, coho, and chum salmon make their way in from the open ocean to this secluded area, following tidal currents through gurgling narrows and around seaweed crusted shoals into the bay itself. As the fish move into Klag Lake Creek to spawn, they encounter the metal pickets of a monitoring weir that’s run by the Sitka Tribe of Alaska with oversight from the Forest Service. The weir is one of around 10 different salmon monitoring projects in southeast Alaska that the Forest Service helps coordinate as part of its Fisheries Resource Monitoring Program. The goal of the weirs is to gather information on the sockeye salmon populations that are very important to subsistence users in Southeast.

 

The weir at Klag Bay was first installed in 2001, because there was significant subsistence harvest of sockeye there, and relatively little was known about the size and long-term productivity of the run. In the last twelve years, weir workers have studied population trends of sockeye in Klag Bay, and collected data on the number of fish caught here by subsistence and sport users. This information enables fisheries managers to set harvest limits to insure the longevity of the run and still provide subsistence users with plenty of fish.

 

I came out to Klag with the Tribe to learn about the weir program, but also to help them harvest sockeye. Every year the Tribe nets hundreds of fish to be donated to their Traditional Foods Program, which provides customary and traditional foods like sockeye and herring eggs to elders and tribal members who aren’t able to harvest for themselves. This trip, they’re hoping to net three hundred sockeye, which will be processed and distributed back in Sitka.

 

First we untangle a beach seine net on the shore and pile it neatly onto the edge of the drop-bow boat. The seine is much longer than it is deep, with buoys along its top edge and the weighted lead line hanging about six feet down in the water. Mike Smith, who’s in charge of harvesting for the traditional foods program, stands onshore with one end of the rope wrapped around his waist, while Jeff Feldpausch, the director of the Tribe’s Resource Protection Department, backs the boat out into the bay, the net unfurling out into the water between them.

 

With the net stretched taunt from boat to beach, we wait for the sockeye. A fish jumps, and then another, splashing down close to the net, and Mike yells that it’s time to close the trap. Jeff backs the boat quickly into shore, drawing the net in an arching circle around the uneasy water where the fish have congregated. The boat runs gently aground and we pile out and start hauling on both ends of the seine, pulling the circle tight and into the shore. Fins break the surface inside the net, slick and bright, the first indication that we’ve managed to net something. Closer still and the net gets suddenly heavy, and then there’s an explosion of spray and flapping silver as we drag our catch into the shallows. There are more fish than I can count, more than I can really comprehend at one time, and the noise and the splashing and the bounty are overwhelming. Laughing, soaked in salt water, we start pulling bright fish from the net and throwing them up on the beach.

 

Growing up here, I thought that abundance was an intrinsic part of living on the Tongass, that the forest and ocean would produce infinite amounts of delicious fish always, forever. Now, I’m realizing that these salmon are as much a gift of good management as they are a gift of nature. For thousands of years Tlingit and Haida communities regulated fishing on salmon streams within their territory, to preserve strong runs that would feed future generations. Today stocks are jointly managed by federal and state agencies, working with local communities and Tribes that have a long history of reliance and symbiosis with sockeye salmon. This work is providing a better understanding of these salmon and their relationships with the streams, lakes, and people of Southeast Alaska. The monitoring weirs help provide the current information agencies need to manage Southeast’s important and abundant subsistence resources for future generations of salmon and fishermen alike. 

 

By Kari Paustian, Sitka Conservation Society