Local Seafood Summit Keynote speaker Dune Lankard addresses the crowd. Photo by Amanda Williams

Working together and unity were common themes at the fourth annual Local Seafood Summit, held at Alyeska Resort in Girdwood earlier this month. The summit is designed to be a collective space for discussions, fostering connections, networking opportunities and information exchange for harvesters, businesses, and partners alike in local and regional seafood systems. It brought together people from North America and Canada.

The conference kicked off with a speech by keynote speaker and quintessential community activist Dune Lankard of the Native Conservancy. Lankard, an Eyak Athabaskan Native of the Eagle Clan, covered topics including the impacts of climate change, the critical need and quest for food sovereignty tied to subsistence, the importance of community cold storage and putting our future back in our own hands.

“We see things changing drastically,” he said. Five years ago, only 44,000 sockeyes came home to the Copper River Delta. A couple years later he said the ocean ­waters warmed to dangerous temperatures 20 feet below the surface, killing millions of krill, mussels and wild kelp forests across Alaska. The drought that year caused salmon and birds to perish because of the impacts on wild salmon spawning streams.

Lankard explained that clearcutting (old growth forests) near salmon streams is detrimental to their survival. “You need to protect that habitat. If you destroy just 10 % of wild salmon habitat, those wild salmon can disappear for 100 years. But if you restore it, they will come home in 3 to 5 years.”

Not one to sit around and wait for the next shoe to drop, Lankard decided to begin organizing and rafting the Copper River to share what was happening here in Alaska. “I remember when the clearcutting started, I began flying over the Delta and the Sound to see what was happening to our homelands. We decided to start rafting the Copper, which we did over 70 times and brought over a thousand people here to see it for themselves,” said Lankard.

With perseverance and gumption, Lankard, with the help of statewide environmental groups, went on to help save an abundance of acreage from clearcutting in the Exxon Valdez oil spill zone.

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“I had to go all the way to the Alaska Supreme Court and argue my case, saying we as Native shareholders have a right and need to have a say in how our wildlife and our resources are managed. We ended up winning and over 85 % of the shareholders voted in favor of conservation over development,” Lankard said. “Then we duplicated that (vote) 13 more times in the spill zone, protecting over 700,000 acres of salmon habitat in the Gulf of Alaska.”

Community cold storage, community ice houses and new freezing technology were much-discussed needs amongst summit goers, and Lankard shared his experience and desire to expand these technologies.

“In 2007…I entered the Alaska Marketplace Competition…The big idea was for a community cold storage and to build a facility where artisan fishermen can harvest their catch, then process, package, freeze and sell products direct to the marketplace,” said Lankard. He said local community leaders rejected the project, but he came in second at the competition.

“I always felt like if we had a community processing facility and cold storage, that was owned by the people and the fishermen, then anybody could process their own subsistence and commercial foods and put them up at cost ourselves. Not only would we learn something, but we would have personally branded products to share with family, friends and buyers,” he said.

Lankard said there wasn’t as much interest at the time but today people want to build these community cold storages.

“We need to build them everywhere… because we need to change our relationship with our traditional foods if we are serious about food security and surviving into the future.”

Lankard said being able to obtain your own food is critical to sovereignty. He said a dear friend and cohort, Dr. Elizabeth Hoover, once asked how people can call themselves sovereign if they can’t feed themselves.

“Isn’t that what this conference is about, feeding our people and taking care of each other,” he asked. 

Summit attendees participated in workshops over the course of the two-day event.

These well-attended break-out sessions were wide ranging: from ways to market your brand to a discussion on expanding the kelp industry.

One workshop, “Bringing Kelp to Market: Farmer Perspectives,” had panelists discussing ways in which they bring their kelp to market and what it’s like working in the “off-season” industry. Session leaders included kelp farmer Alf Pryor of Alaska Ocean Farms, with a seaweed farm in Kodiak, Alaska and Sea Lettuce farm in Baja, California, and Skye Steritz of Noble Ocean Farms, based locally in Cordova. Kelp farming is at a fever pitch in mariculture, and kelp could be considered the panacea of the sea with its wide range of uses and benefits.

“I personally would like to see family farms …  and would like to see it stay in the hands of locals. I would like it to be something that the average young Alaskan has a shot at. I don’t feel right now that it’s quite equitable and accessible to everyone because of the high startup costs and high operating cost, especially in a remote place like Cordova,” Steritz said. “I think we need to diversify the economic activities available to people in places like Cordova, and we need community support.”

Steritz, co-founder of Noble Ocean, shared the reasons for her venture into kelp farming, alongside partner Sean Den Adel.

“We started this as something to give back to the community, to have this nutritious local food source and to make kelp available to more people and do something that is creating habitat. We need to talk a lot more about that piece. The fact that when kelp farms go in, you’re creating nursery and refuge for juvenile salmon and herring.”

Steritz hopes that communities in Alaska can devise a clear vision of what they want mariculture to look like, including stakeholder inputs to move kelp farming in the right direction.

“Have more coordination and communication, and for people to stay ethical and careful about it, there are always things we can do better,” Steritz said. “I do believe kelp farming is and can be truly regenerative.”

If there is a major takeaway from the summit, Lankard hopes people learned that we are all in this together, to join forces as one to save this earth while finding joy along the journey.

“The most important thing we all have is collective knowledge, technology and the intelligence to work through these solutions together, we just need to figure out how to set our differences aside and focus our energy — time, money or love — in the direction the Earth really needs us to move towards,” Lankard said. “For all of us to have some sustainable way of surviving, at least preserve and enjoy what we still have, and do our part to restore the rest.”

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Amanda Williams is a freelance reporter for The Cordova Times. She is also Aquatics Resource Management Assistant for Copper River Watershed Project. Williams is a Navy veteran who served during Operation Iraqi Freedom. She has worked for a variety of newspapers in the Lower 48. She first came to Cordova as a VetsWork intern working for the Forest Service as a public outreach specialist on the Cordova Ranger District.