Archive for May, 2010

Thinking of Others and the Future on This Holiday

May 31, 2010

May 31, 2010

We just heard that a crew member who had hoped to return to work with us this summer is facing some serious medical issues and will not be able to.

This young man, Peter, is a US Veteran and served in the Middle East.

His news that things were serious enough to send him out of state for more testing, that involve his brain, and possible treatment was worrisome. He asked us to keep him in our prayers. Although Peter doesn’t even know I am doing this I am asking that you also keep him, and all the others you might know who are in need too, in your prayers and kind thoughts. I firmly believe the energy we all generate will find him as he travels to the lower 48 for his medical needs.

My concern for Peter led me to something else that has me distressed, which is our lack of understanding of what and how our government works. Let me explain.

We were catching up on the news the other evening and caught the last part of an interview with the former Supreme Court Judge, Sandra Day O’Connor.

She is involved in a great project that draws attention to the need for American students to learn civics!!

The lack of teaching civics in school is a subject that has come up a number of times in our blog as comments concerning all sorts of subjects.

For those of you who might not have been taught Civics in school, the definition according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is:

Date: 1886: a social science dealing with the rights and duties of citizens

It probably won’t surprise you how much Alaska, both on state and local levels, has not been held up lately as the best example of a government truly run in the best interests of its citizens.  All that got me wondering:  What if we followed Judge O’Connor’s example and saw to it that we began a new program with our middle schoolers, those in grades 6-8, and taught them civics?  Would some of the apathy, the widely-held view of rampant corruption, the misuse of tribal and local authority, and general negativity start to fade from our villages and cities?

Would our citizens start attending council, borough, city and state meetings feeling they could question things with some assurance they were correct to expect answers?

Would people start to call out our boards, assemblies, and legislators when they felt questionable things were going on?

If they did this, would they begin to feel a greater sense of control over their lives, villages and futures?

Would the numbers of alcohol and domestic abuse drop if our citizens felt more in control of their surroundings?

Judge O’Connor is spreading the idea that even something as simple as a computer game can help teach these civic principles to our kids.  It is a game that uses examples and simulates decision-making as a Supreme Court justice. Examples talk about basic things like school rules forbidding a boy from wearing a T-shirt depicting a certain music band.  The game can be found at iCivics.org and is part of former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s web-based project to push civics education in the United States.

When I read that only one in seven Americans can name the Chief Justice of the highest court but two in three can name a judge on the TV show Idol, I was appalled!!

We are in trouble if our own citizens do not understand how our government works or why their being involved in it is vital.

How can we hold our leaders accountable and understand the laws that govern us if we do not have even the basics in civics?

So I got to wondering…maybe we could do this as an afterschool club, taught by concerned parents or volunteers, with some help.

Maybe this could even lead to debate clubs and other activities to help our kids move into the future better-prepared.

Ultimately, should we not honor the service of our American military veterans, like Peter, some who died for our country, to give us the rights and privileges of involvement in our governmental process?

Do we not owe it to ourselves, our kids and grandkids to take control over this gross lack of civic understanding?

As Alaskans and US citizens, it seems damn important we get a handle on this, and darn soon.

If nothing else, we should do it to repay those like Peter whose devotion to duty in service to our country guarantees that we CAN do it!!

~ Victoria Briggs

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Chinook Bycatch Plan Approved

May 21, 2010

May 21, 2010

Fishing groups decry approval of chinook bycatch plan with upper limit of 60,000 salmon

By ALEX DEMARBAN , Alaska Newspapers

U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke has approved a controversial king salmon bycatch plan for the Bering Sea pollock fishery, said Doug Mecum, deputy regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries Service’s Alaska region.

Many Western Alaska fishermen have bashed the plan, passed last year by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, saying it allows the pollock industry to catch far too many king salmon before they return to rivers to spawn. The plan won’t help struggling king runs rebound, they’ve said.

Locke approved the plan May 14, Mecum said.

Changes might still be made to the rule, scheduled to begin in January 2011, but they shouldn’t be significant, he said.

The Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association shared Mecum’s letter describing the decision with The Tundra Drums

Below is a written reaction sent by YRDFA this afternoon:

Today Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke approved a plan proposed by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (the Council) to manage Chinook salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea pollock fishery.

The plan, called Amendment 91, allows the pollock fishery to catch up to 47,591 Chinook salmon in any year, and up to 60,000 Chinook salmon in any two out of seven years without penalty if they participate in an industry run “incentive plan.”

Groups throughout Western Alaska endorsed a lower cap including AVCP, the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN), TCC, Kawerak, the Western and Eastern Interior Regional Subsistence Advisory Councils (RACs), the Federal Subsistence Board, the Alaska Board of Fisheries, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Department of State and the Yukon River Panel.

“Amendment 91 completely ignores the unanimous recommendations from across Western Alaska for a cap of around 30,000 Chinook salmon,” said Myron Naneng, President of the Association of Village Council Presidents.

“Western Alaskan tribes as well as those responsible for managing our fisheries inriver spoke loudly and clearly, but our requests fell on deaf ears to both the Council and the Secretary of Commerce.”

The Bering Sea pollock fishery catches Chinook salmon as bycatch while fishing for pollock.

These are the same salmon whose return we await each year, including those from the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers, Bristol Bay and Norton Sound, as well as Cook Inlet and the Pacific Northwest. These salmon cannot be retained by the pollock fishery and therefore must either be thrown back into the water — dead after hours in the nets — or saved for donation to food banks.

In 2007, the pollock fishery caught over 120,000 Chinook salmon as bycatch, in contrast to the 10-year average (1997-2006) of 43,328. According to recent estimates over 50% of the Chinook salmon caught as bycatch are bound for Western Alaska.

Low returns of Chinook salmon throughout Western Alaska have caused severe economic distress in recent years as subsistence harvests are restricted and small commercial fisheries are eliminated. The Yukon River Chinook salmon fishery was declared a fishery disaster for the 2008 and 2009 seasons by the Secretary of Commerce.

“It is beyond unjust that the pollock fishery will be allowed to continue catching Chinook salmon virtually without limits offshore while inriver families sit on the banks watching their food and income swim by. This conservation burden should not be borne by rural residents, commercial and sport fishers alone,” said Becca Robbins Gisclair, Policy Director for the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association.

The 60,000 upper limit approved in Amendment 91 has only been exceeded three times in the past eighteen years, and essentially preserves the status quo. Even the 47,591 cap in essence preserves the long-term average bycatch.

“Amendment 91 does little more than preserve the pollock fishery’s current bycatch numbers. The Council and National Marine Fisheries Service missed an opportunity here and disregarded their obligation to actually reduce bycatch. All that has been accomplished is to put the current numbers in regulation,” said Karen Gillis, Executive Director of the Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association.

Amendment 91 relies on a system of industry run incentive plans to reduce bycatch below the stated cap levels. However, the plans operate outside of Council/agency control with no guarantees of bycatch reduction. The plans have changed already from what was presented to the Council when they voted to approve Amendment 91 last April.

“By relying on industry incentive plans as the primary means of bycatch reduction, the Council and NMFS have once again allowed industry to self regulate. We’ve seen how well this has worked for the banking and oil industries. Its irresponsible to leave the management of our precious salmon resources to an industry that just a few years ago, when regulatory measures were relaxed, caught over 120,000 Chinook salmon in one year,” said Loretta Bullard, President of Kawerak.

A coalition of Western Alaska groups had asked the Secretary to reject Amendment 91 because it did not meet NMFS’ legal requirements to reduce bycatch, nor the needs of subsistence users, nor the United States’ obligations under the Yukon River Salmon Agreement, and international treaty with Canada.

“In approving Amendment 91, the Obama Administration has chosen to prioritize the economic interests of the pollock fishery over the needs of salmon users throughout the state. In doing so they’ve ignored an overwhelming message from Alaska’s tribal governments that the bycatch reduction measures of Amendment 91 will not provide our people and Chinook salmon populations with the protection they need and deserve. This is a very sad day for our Chinook salmon and the people who depend on them,” said Jerry Isaac, President of Tanana Chiefs Conference.

reprinted with permission from the Tundra Drums

Amendment 91 can be viewed here.

It’s That Time of Year Again…Spring in Ugashik

May 18, 2010

It has been a heck of a ride since this time last year. So many ups and downs. We got through last summer – one that saw a fish harvest that was drastically better than the season of ’08.

My understanding, from my contacts on the Yukon and the season’s forecasts, is that they are expecting something better this year, after the disastrous the ’09 season. We will see if we can get you an update on how things are looking up there after breakout.

Our winter temperatures of 2009/10 were not as cold, although we did get caught with higher than normal snowfall during what many call the start of spring – February to April and finally onto a late break up of the river.

Thank the heavens the fuel prices were much lower, $2-$3 in our area, than the previous year.

To think that just a little over a week ago the river was chocked full of ice and now the beaches are ice free. We still have some drifts of snow hanging around in places, but they are fading fast.

The first of the freight hauls, of all sorts of equipment, supplies and big things you can’t bring in other ways, started this week. So much to move in such a short window of time.

May 5th with ice in the river and YES that is a walrus that just washed up on our beach, 20 miles up river. No one in the area remember ever having a  “Wally” this far up river!!

During all this we had a little excitement…..a walrus washed up on our beach. Mind you we are 20 miles up river and no one remembers, EVER remembers, us having a walrus this far up river. There had been a week of heavy winds that we think blew him in and then he somehow got trapped or hurt in all of it. It is sad that he died, and on our front doorstep, but neat that we all got to see him, how huge and just the wonder of these guys.

This might give you an idea of the size of one of these guys!!

Bear season, which is an every other year thing, opened this past Monday in this area. So far, from what we hear, most of them are not out and moving around much as there is still a fair amount of snow pack up high still.

A local ‘growler’ deciding he wants to check out a local’s target. He is just a ‘little’ guy, standing probably about 6′-7′ (Photo: Robert Dreeszen, Ugashik Lakes)

Please understand I enjoy our Brown Bear (Grizzly to some of you) and all they bring to the area. What I do not like seeing is them starving. There are so many of them that they wander into the villages looking for food. This can’t be allowed as it is just too dangerous. This includes moms and babes, which usually means the moms get shot and then in a few weeks, when the babes are REALLY starving we have to shoot them too.

I am hoping that the guides and the lodges in the area are very successful in thinning the ones they can, which is usually the males. That the locals who have a tag on their hunting license allowing them to kill a bear, which we are only allowed one every 5 years, can do still more thinning, again usually males.

This might give the moms and babes a better chance…but I am off the general subject I started on.

We are currently hiring crew for the operation. Thankfully that chore is almost done. It is hard to choose people that you feel will make the journey, work out well, make as much money as they possibly can and most importantly go away from our part of Alaska feeling they had a heck of a good experience. Since no matter how much you send pictures, have people read testimonials or try to prepare them for either Alaska or the fishing season in Bristol Bay you just can’t.

We continue to work on getting our new airstrip improved. This project will likely take another couple of years to get it where we can accept most aircraft used in the bush and used on a year around basis if needed.

I am sure most people have no idea how vital airstrips are to most of rural Alaska. Given we have no highways connecting major hubs or even between most villages. Without airstrips that are long enough to allow various sized freight and passenger airplanes to make deliveries and pickups it leave us to the mercy of many times only one airline. I AM sure most people can guess what that means when it comes to cost and service.

Fishermen, processing and support companies are scrambling to get people hired, supplies shipped in for these few short months of work. The barges from the lower 48 and Anchorage have been heading this way for the last few weeks. I heard today the ice pack is still not far off shore in the bay which has to be delaying some deliveries farther north.

Village governments are putting their orders in for at least their spring and summer fuel. Projects that require good weather are in full swing, or close to it.

The Ugashik Lakes have ‘blown out’ most of their heavy ice and thus pretty much ice free. This year there is a research sonar project to count our out migration of salmon smolt, baby fish,  in the next few weeks. I will be giving you a glimpse into that project in the next weeks. It is exciting for us and a great tool that is so needed.

The ‘rural’ part of Alaska is alive and busy and we will be sharing more as we move forward.

~ Victoria Briggs

Alaska’s Sap-Suckers

May 13, 2010

May 13, 2010

“Sap begins to run when nights are still cold enough to form “sapsicles ” from the spouts. Only the water in the sap freezes; the tree sugars remain as a syrupy coating. Evan Humphrey, the original Birch Boy, tastes one.”

photo courtesy of  Birchboy Gourmet Birch Syrup

Spring has been TRYING to arrive in  our area of Alaska, until the past two to three days. After days of sun, low wind and day time temperatures well above freezing, our river broke out, ground was thawing and things looked to be heading in the right direction.

Then came the last few days when temperatures dipped into the 20s during the day, freezing rain and blowing snow arrived and projects we thought we might get a jump on are stalled.

During the these warmer days I was torn between getting much needed inside things done and wanting to be working in the garden.

I had a post about ready on some research that seemed to show that fish was a very digestible protein for humans, but wanted to check some details. Let me just say that is has been one of the biggest run arounds and  I am still chasing it. I will get it to you but at this time I need to head into other things that have been planned.

As you know if you follow our blog, I attended Alaska’s Sustainable Agriculture conference in Fairbanks. We talked a lot about having the opportunity for remote areas to produce more of their own food, among other sustainable agriculture issues.

Something that is new to me is the Birch Syrup industry here in Alaska. From what I have been able to find there are a few Alaskan producers who seem to be doing a growing business. In talking to producers, expenses are still high and the public is also on a big learning curve to actually go looking for the product.

One producer is in Haines, Birchboy:Gourmet Birch Syrup , and two others are in the Mat-Su area: Alaska Birch Syrup Co and Kahiltna Birchworks .
I had heard a tad bit about them in general conversation at the conference and then came across a write up in the ADN recently.

The industry seems to be similar in a number of ways to the famous Maple Syrup industry of the NE, BUT rarer! The trees are still tapped but instead of producing 1 gal of syrup for every 40 gal of sap as is average in the Maple industry, it is 1 gal for 100 gallons of sap. Only about 10%-15% of the sap is taken each year so it allows this to easily be a sustainable process for the trees.
Numbers like tapping 5,700 trees by just one Alaskan company helps to understand that demand for the product is growing.

Everything I have read show these to be a labor intensive small  family owned operations. Many of them more rural than urban.

Beyond something to go over your ice cream or pancakes, Birch syrup is being used in all sorts of other products. Things like marinades, barbeque sauces, baked beans, coffee, breads, sodas and ice cream.

I got to thinking of a marinade for that fresh salmon we should be getting soon? How about then smoking the salmon? I don’t know about you but my head gets to spinning about all the possibilities!!

There are some recipes on one site that will get you going along these lines too.

But back to sustainable, local, and something we can participate in to help local Alaskans, the  tiny industry was summed up well by one birch syrup company owner…

“It’s development, but on a small-scale,” Dulce Ben-East said. “I love the local movement. It’s so much a part of how I like doing things. Being a part of that is great.”

~Victoria Briggs~

Economic Development Can Wear an Apron!

May 3, 2010

May 3, 2010

IF there were a list of only a few things that a community could do to spur economic growth I am a firm believe near the very top of the list should be designing, building and running a ‘community kitchen’!

Be it a small village or a urban area like Anchorage, any area can do it.  In fact larger cities than Anchorage and small towns like our villages already do have them in many parts of the United States.

Community kitchens are just what  they sound like: food-preparation facilities that can be used by communities. What makes this more than just another coffee klatch at the neighbor’s house is that these kitchens are officially open to everyone. And larger ones can be commercially certified, so that cooks who prepare things here can sell their products, according to Come to the Table (pdf). p 24

These facilities don’t have to be very big or complex. They don’t need a high  priced consultant to be designed. There are lots of sources for ideas and specification can be found on the Internet.

It can start out as simple as good sinks, work areas, refrigeration and possibly freezer storage. Equipment can be added as demand  shows the need. The local food safety department ,or in Alaska, our state DEC office can assist you on what is needed to be ‘commercially certified’. It is not as complex or hard as it might look.

Facilities such as a community kitchen can serve many needs. From the basics of being a place where people can gather to do large volume cooking needs, such as community celebrations or potlatches.

It can be used as a place for people who want to develop food products to sell. They develop their ‘process’ to the point they feel it is ready for production. Then working with the state on that process to get it certified so it can be replicated in a safe manner by anyone. No, you do not have to share your secret formulas!  Then you are ready to go with a few more basic business steps.

Products such as jellies from local fruits, a favorite smoked fish recipe or even a pet treat turned into something that can be sold over the Internet are  things that can be developed in a community kitchen.

Things like cooking classes for new moms on the how to get your kids to eat more veggies or an elder passing on some of their special recipes can also use a facility like this.


Someone who wants to start a catering business would not have to invest in all the equipment immediately and instead build the demand for their services first, using one of these kitchens. Then maybe go onto open a small eatery?

Community Kitchens most often charge a small fee, usually daily or hourly, for the use of the facility that is then used to maintain and/or upgrade the facility. Most communities get the initial facility built by using grants. This is an easy and excellent use for those villages that have CDQ monies and can be done easily done in  total as an ‘local effort’, keeping as much of the monies local and costs down.

One such effort, of a half dozen in southern Wisconsin county has spawned dozens of food based companies.

“The real goal, in addition to sustainability, is economic development,” said Dan Viste, owner of the Mazomanie Heritage Kitchen and Market, which opened late last year. “

Leaders of the various kitchens in those counties coordinate efforts through their extension service. They have built networks to share everything from ideas to some equipment and contacts. Some offer marketing and technical assistance to help get products and businesses up and running.

Amongst a number of us at more than one table at the Western SARE meeting in Fairbanks, there was a healthy discussion on this subject and its benefits to a number of areas in the state. We got into quite a discussion on pet treats from salmon alone!! A billion dollar market…pets!

Having a place where villagers could prepare subsistence foods for those in urban areas who would want to buy them, is another idea. They can also serve as training facilities for those who are disabled to learn more hands on skills. Even as places for school groups to make products they can sell for fund raisers.

There continues to be a rise in holistic products, like a caribou leaf salve I get from a lady in Juneau to help with joint pain, and this can serve as a base for these ideas as well.

The ideas mentioned here are but just a few . I have to think there are so many more. It would be great to get an idea of what all you are thinking from your village or city. What can you see being developed from your area?

Given all the creativity of people, it would be great to hear other ideas you all felt could be developed with the help of a facility such as this.

Victoria Briggs~

photos courtesy of finnskimo

Cassidy and Maddisen are making The Perfect Gift!