Resilient Fisheries, Resilient Alaska

Mar 29, 2021 | Kachemak Bay, Alaska, Prepared Communities, Reserves, What We Work For

At the Kachemak Bay Reserve, Alaskan fishermen and their families discover how landscape impacts on salmon affect their livelihood.

Seafood directly engages more workers than any other industry in Alaska, employing on average 56,800 people each year. As in many natural resource dependent industries, fisheries jobs are threatened by the impacts of climate change. When the COVID-19 crisis hit in 2020, it underscored the need for Alaska’s Kachemak Bay Reserve to help these businesses build their current and future resilience, not only in the face of climate change, but other disasters.

“The COVID-19 crisis hit hard and taught us many things about the importance of emergency preparedness and resilience,” says Coowe Walker, manager of the Reserve. “We know that even as we recover from the pandemic, there will be other challenges, many driven by climate change. By helping fisheries-dependent businesses build resilience now, we all can better weather these challenges and keep Alaskan communities healthy and thriving.”

Salmon spend their juvenile phase in small upland streams, including those conserved and protected by the Reserve.

Fish Need Land Too!

Alaska’s salmon—a $744 million harvest in 2020—are caught at sea, but they begin their lives in small upland streams, some only a foot wide. Juvenile salmon can spend three years in these habitats, where they are vulnerable to the impacts of development and other human activities. For many fishermen who rely on a healthy fishery for their livelihood, this was a threat they didn’t see coming.

“We realized many fishermen had never seen a baby salmon before,” says Walker. “Most had no idea their industry depends on what we do as individuals on the landscape.”

In response, the Reserve partnered with the Kachemak Heritage Land Trust to launch Fish Need Land Too—a field-based program that helps fishermen and other community members understand the impact of land use on salmon, the most valuable catch in Alaskan waters. 

Through this program, the team has provided how many fishermen—including members of the Alaska Fishermen’s Network, United Fishermen, and the North Pacific Fisheries Association—with an up close look at juvenile salmon in their natural habitat. Guided by the same Reserve naturalists who monitor and study these streams, these trips are an opportunity to hear about the latest science on the health of the fishery and how conservation can protect salmon at a critical point in their life cycle.

Members of the North Pacific Fisheries Association were so inspired by their experience  that they purchased conservation land to protect salmon spawning streams.

“Because Alaska has little regulation, much of the resilience work is driven by grassroots action,” says Walker. “That’s what our programs inspire. We see fishermen say to their kids, ‘this is your future, you’re going to catch this in a few years.’ As a Reserve we want to be here to support these families, and the salmon, long into the future.”

The Reserve coordinates a network of volunteers who monitor shellfish for toxins.

Keeping Tabs on HABs

Harmful Algal Blooms (HABS) are an increasing concern in Alaska, and the state saw its first paralytic shellfish poisoning fatality in more than a decade last year. The impacts of HABs on shellfish threaten public health and Alaska’s economy, which includes an estimated $12.8 million in output related to the annual commercial and wild shellfish harvest. 

The Kachemak Bay Reserve initiated an ongoing HABs community monitoring  program that is helping citizens, businesses, and the state respond to the challenge. When the flow of imported food to Alaska became restricted due to the pandemic, the Reserve joined with the Alaska Sea Grant Program and the Alaska Ocean Observing System to form the statewide Alaska Harmful Algal Bloom Network. This collaboration is helping to understand and track HABs and their impacts on a harvest that yields 36 million pounds of wild food annually.  

The Reserve also works with local shellfish growers, tribes, and resource managers to support phytoplankton monitoring, shellfish sampling, workshops, risk communication training, public service announcements, and weekly monitoring reports

Understanding Risk, Preparing for the Future

Harmful algal blooms, ocean acidification, increasing water temperatures—the impacts of climate change are reshaping Alaska’s coasts at a speed that makes it hard for the state’s many fisheries-dependent businesses to adapt. Yet in a recent CNBC survey, only eight percent of local business owners considered the environment critical to their bottomline.Thanks to the Kachemak Bay Reserve’s Fisheries Resilience Index project, awareness of these risks, and what to do to prepare for them, is growing.

“At least 40 percent of small businesses never open their doors again following a natural disaster, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency,” observes Walker. “Fishermen, processing plants, restaurants, aquaculture farms—when these businesses suffer so do the surrounding communities. This project is about strengthening local fishery-related businesses so they can continue to buoy communities in the face of natural disasters.”

This need rose to the top in a series of climate resilience workshops hosted by the Reserve’s Coastal Training Program in 2016 and 2017.  These conversations underscored how important it is for fisheries-dependent businesses to have the tools to understand and plan for the impacts of climate change and natural disasters.

Through the Fisheries Resilience Index, businesses conduct a self-assessment focused on locally-specific issues and relevant science. This process helps them predict whether they are prepared to maintain operations during and after disasters.  

Originally developed by the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium, this process was adapted for Alaska communities through a grant from the NERRS Science Collaborative. It was adapted for Alaska based through a series of focus groups with industry leaders, resource managers, business owners, non-profits, and resilience experts, and shared through workshops and trainings. 

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