Native Alaskan Fisherman Turns to Kelp Farming to Restore Ocean Health

Dune Lankard, an Eyak Native, was a subsistence and commercial fisherman before the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. In response to the catastrophe, he founded the Eyak Preservation Council and Native Conservancy, which has helped preserve more than a million acres of wild salmon habit along 3,500 miles of the Gulf of Alaska coastline, and is helping to build resilient communities and regenerative economies. Lankard was interviewed by Stephanie Welch of Bioneers.

STEPHANIE WELCH: When did you develop your strong sense of stewardship for the ocean environment?

DUNE LANKARD: Growing up in a commercial fishing family, we would spend three to four months a year on the ocean. When I was 9 or 10 years old, we were heading out to the fishing ground, and my father was replacing one of the big boat batteries that weighed about 60-80 pounds. He asked me to throw it overboard. I said, “You throw it overboard.” Sensing my hesitation, he asked if I was having trouble lifting it. “I can lift it, but I’m not throwing it overboard,” I told him. “Why not?” he asked. “Well, because we make our living in the ocean, and I’m not going to be throwing batteries down where there’s sea life.” He got really upset with me and came flying out of the cabin, but just before he threw it overboard, my mother made him turn the boat around and head back to port to recycle the battery.

When I see things that aren’t quite right, I ask questions.  A few years after the battery incident, we were fishing for Dungeness crab. Every crab pot had a little U-shaped ruler. As long as the tips of the crab on the widest part of their body would fit in that piece, then it was a keeper, but anything smaller was thrown back. All the mama and the baby crabs were too small, but there were no escape hatches in the crab pots. So, I said, “Why don’t we have escape hatches so the mamas and babies can get out before we pull the pot to the surface?” My father got upset with me again. I said, “This is about conservation. This is about preserving those baby crabs for the future so we can catch them when they’re bigger.”

Within a year, he came into the welding shop where we made crab pots and gear, and he threw a bunch of rings on the floor that were about 4 inches in diameter, just big enough for the mammas and the babies to escape. He said, “You got your wish.” I lobbied every fisherman that ever came over to our shop and told them that they needed to put escape hatches in their crab pots too.

STEPHANIE: What was the turning point when you decided to dedicate your life to environmental activism?

DUNE: The day in 1989 that the Exxon Valdez oil spill happened changed my life. For me, that was the day that the ocean died, yet something inside of me came to life. I realized that I needed to do everything I possibly could to preserve not only our fishing way of life but also how we were going to stop future oil spills because we have already lost the war once the oil hits the water. The key goal is to prevent oil spills from ever happening.

I decided that I was going to spend my life being a community activist. Fishing became kind of secondary because if I was going to continue to be able to fish, the only way that was going to happen was if I became an activist to try and change laws, legislation and policy.

STEPHANIE: How did the oil spill it affect your community?

DUNE: It impacted everybody in a profound way because this once pristine, road-less habitat of abundance and beauty-beyond-belief was tarnished. When the spill happened, we realized that we are expendable. Even though we provided millions of meals to people around the world, that didn’t matter to government or industry. No one came to help us.

Exxon came to town and said, “We’re Exxon. We do it right. You’re lucky that the oil spill happened on our watch because we’re going to make you whole again. If your nets don’t fill up with fish or your hotels and your restaurants don’t fill up with people, then we’ll make it right.”

 But instead, Exxon appealed the $5 billion verdict that we won in 1994 17 times over 20 years until they got the Supreme Court of their dreams. Out of the 30,000 original plaintiffs, 20% of them died without ever receiving a settlement.  Our $5 billion was reduced down to $500 million, which for 30,000 plaintiffs was equivalent to one good day of fishing.

As a result, there were divorces, suicides, fishing cooperative breakups, friends and family were fighting, a lot of people left town; they couldn’t make a living anymore. The price of our fish, our permits, the value of our boats all plummeted. For 15 to 20 years, we couldn’t make a living. It was hard for me to see our community being torn apart like that. A lot of people had their hands out wanting to become “spillionaires” and receive big settlements from Exxon.

I had known that it was inevitable that a spill of that magnitude would happen in our lifetime. When they first passed a law to allow Prince William Sound to become the terminal for the Trans Alaska pipeline from Prudhoe Bay into Prince William Sound, they said that an oil spill of that magnitude would only happen once in every 432 years, but it happened in the 13th year of operation, and it changed our lives forever. That was the day that I decided I was going to be louder than everything else, yet remain a voice of reason and take on the powers that be.  I believed that as long as I was a voice of reason, people would listen. That’s when I received my Eyak name, Jamachakih, which means little bird that screams really loud and won’t shut up.

STEPHANIE: What is the state of things now in regards to the region’s ability to recover?

DUNE: There are four species on the Endangered Species List – the Pacific herring, the marbled murrelet, the pigeon guillemot, and the AT1 resident killer whale pod. Killer whales only mate with lifelong partners so their herd of 36 or so has been reduced down to about six killer whales. There are many areas in Prince William Sound that are still considered dead zones where it used to be full of life every spring, but no longer.

There used to be 200,000 tons of herring returning annually to Prince William Sound to spawn. It has dipped as low as 4,000 tons. In the last couple of years, it’s bumped up a bit to about 20,000 tons, which is only 10% of what it was. It’s not enough to support a commercial fishery. For the first time in 33 years, they had a subsistence fishery, so some of our native family and friends were able to go out and catch some herring. If herring ever do recover, then every species impacted from the Exxon Valdez oil spill would also recover because all of those critters made a living off of the herring. Herring are eight or nine inches long, little torpedoes of energy. They’re just full of oil, and that’s what keeps a lot of those other species happy and alive.

STEPHANIE: As a Native fisherman who experienced a catastrophic oil spill you turned into an activist. Now, along with your activism you have taken up ocean farming. How have those transitions affected you personally?

Copper River, Alaska

DUNE: I miss fishing every day. Monday was the first opener on the Copper River. All my buddies are heading out today and tomorrow. I feel like I’m beached, like I should be on the water.

But in the last five years, we’ve had terrible returns. From 44,000-500,000 sockeye salmon depending on the year. Prior to that, on an average run, we would catch a million-and-a-half to two million sockeye salmon annually. The Copper River Delta / Prince William Sound were the second largest and richest fishery in Alaska after Bristol Bay. This year they’re predicting another bad return. One year, the ocean heated up for three weeks to 76 degrees down to 20 feet below the surface killing millions of krill. Mussels couldn’t migrate quick enough, wild kelp forests suffered, and birds and salmon had to deal with the drought with no freshwater in the streams where salmon spawn. To watch that decline and that demise happen over the last four or five years, I knew that I had to do something.

When the spill happened, I sat down with my family and friends and said, “This is not the way it ends. This is the way it begins. We’re going to have to do everything we possibly can to preserve our wild salmon way of life.”

When you go back in the history of Prince William Sound, we had the 1964 Good Friday earthquake that rocked our world and our fishery, and turned everything upside down for about 25 years. Then 25 years to the date of the anniversary of the ’64 quake, we had the Good Friday Exxon Valdez oil spill happen in our backyard. And again, our fisheries and our way of life was rocked and turned upside down. And then 25 years later, we are dealing with climate change with ocean acidification, ocean warming and ocean rise.

The good news is that not only is the community resilient, but the ocean environment is too. But with climate change, I don’t think we’re going to rebound as quickly. With climate change, if we don’t change the way that we think and act, then we’re not going to recover, we’re not going to make it.

I realized that rather than putting my net around fish or seafood, I had to learn to put my net around people and corral them and convince them that there was a different way to do things. Over the last 33 years, we’ve been able to protect a million acres of wild salmon habitat. We’ve been able to start a food security program to feed our elders and youth in this time of hardship. We’re realizing that if we’re going to talk about change, we actually have to lead that change and create examples of how to live on the planet differently.

As much as I miss fishing, I miss the ocean more. Kelp and mariculture farming give me an opportunity to get back out on the ocean on my own terms and be a part of restoring the ocean, feeding my people a traditional food source and creating a regenerative economy that I can be proud of. The work I do benefits 300 critters that live off the wild kelp forests, and hopefully it’ll give the herring and the salmon a chance to recover as well.

My family has spent several generations making a good living on the sea. The ocean took care of me; it’s my turn to take care of the ocean.

STEPHANIE:  How did you get stated with ocean farming?

DUNE: I met Bren Smith who used to fish Alaskan waters, and who now has a company called GreenWave. Bren has developed an ocean polyculture farming system based on kelp that grows a mix of seaweeds and shellfish and requires zero inputs. Whenever we talked about what he was doing with kelp and mariculture, I would say, “Bren, you’re the future, and I’m still living in the present; I’m still making a good living. But when things go to hell in a handbasket, you’ll be one of the first people I call.” So, when we had four crashed fisheries in a row, I called him.

Kelp can sequester carbon five to twenty times more than living terrestrial forests, and bivalves can filter 40 to 60 gallons of water each per day. One oyster farm can clean an entire bay itself in an afternoon. I wanted to learn more about that and see if it can apply for Alaskan waters.

“Imagine a vertical underwater garden with hurricane anchors on the edges connected by floating horizontal ropes across the surface. From these lines, kelp and Gracilaria and other kinds of seaweeds grow vertically downward next to scallops in hanging nets that look like Japanese lanterns and mussels held in suspension in mesh socks. Staked below the vertical garden are oysters in cages and clams buried on the sea floor.”. … Bren Smith

I went to the East Coast with the Native Conservancy team and some of the members of the Baum Foundation, and we had several meetings on how we could do ocean farming in Alaska. Indigenous People have thousands of years of history harvesting kelp along our coastlines. The first job I ever had making money from the sea was harvesting herring roe on kelp when I was 12. It was the first $4,000 that I earned. And now here I am, 50 years later, and one of my last incomes from the sea will be from kelp farming, which can help restore habitat and sequester carbon.

But there are many barriers to entry for Indigenous Peoples; your average native person can’t afford to even get a permit let alone get a farm. The Native Conservancy began looking at the bottlenecks and the barriers to entry and ways to address them in different pilot programs, everything from building our own wild sea nurseries to growing and sourcing our own kelp seeds. We had to figure out how to have certified native divers harvest kelp seed so that we could cultivate it in our own nurseries. We needed to make our equipment. We needed to develop a pilot program with test farm sites to learn what could grow where.

Now we’re interested in figuring out how to capitalize building our own processing and value-adding centers so we can do our own marketing and deal with transportation and renewable energies, because the thing about Alaska is it costs a lot to live there and energy is expensive. The way I look at it is nobody’s figured out how to stop the sun from coming out or the tide from running in and out, or the wind from blowing, so if we can capture and utilize that energy to run our processing facilities, then we can power this industry ourselves.

We also have to address building different boats because this is a different fishery. It’s a whole different ballgame because commercial fishing starts in May and ends in October while kelping starts in October and ends in May. We’re kelping in the darkest, coldest, stormiest times of the year, so you need sturdy vessels that have a lot of deck space so you can carry a lot of totes, because unlike a salmon, where you have an hour-and-a-half to figure out what to do with it when you get it aboard your boat, with kelp you’ve got about 20 minutes. After that it starts turning colors. The quality, the texture, everything starts going down. So, you’ve got to take care of it right away and get it in a cool, dark place or into refrigerated seawater.

So, we bought two boat companies to start building boats for Indigenous Peoples. We want to figure out how to start an indigenous ocean farmer loan program that also has a grant division so we can help Native Peoples get permitted on their ancestral lands that they have thousands of years of history with. We are thinking long-term about how we’re going to make it in this industry. The wonderful thing about farming kelp is you don’t have to chase it around like a salmon. You don’t have to feed it, you don’t have to water it, you don’t have to fertilize it, and if you do it right, you can get paid to watch kelp grow. It’s the fastest growing organism on the planet at 18 to 24 inches a day.

Our goal, through the Native Conservancy, is to help Indigenous Peoples get a leg up and an opportunity to get this industry off the ground, and to be a part of it in a big way because the reality is there is no mariculture plan for Alaska. There’s not one for America, and there’s certainly not one for the world. We want to help devise that plan and lead the policy and infrastructure to correct a lot of things that aren’t right in the industry.

Kelp is important in so many ways. It creates vital ocean habitat that supports many ocean species. And when it’s harvested, it can be made into biofuels, bioplastics, pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals, fertilizer and compost. If you add 2% kelp to animal feed for cows and pigs, it reduces their belching and methane emissions by 50 to 60%.

There are 200 different food products that you can make from it. It has numerous nutrients, 14 different vitamins, iodine, and 10 times more calcium than milk. It’s one of those magical things that grows in the water and is good for the ocean and can be turned into many different products that are good for people.

Kelp and oysters

STEPHANIE: What do you hope to accomplish with ocean kelp farming for yourself, your people and the local marine ecosystem?

DUNE: The biggest thing for me is if I’ll be able to teach my daughter how to run boats and how to make a living on the sea, not quite like how her daddy did, hopefully, it’ll create that habitat that’ll allow the herring and salmon to come back, and, possibly, she’ll be able to fish one day.

On a personal level, for me to be on the ocean is different than being on the land. I remember my father wasn’t so nice on land. He was always barking orders, and we had to deal with the jurisdiction of the city and the state and the federal government. It was just always one drama after another, but once he would untie the boat and we’d leave the harbor and there were no lines that we had to stand in, and we could make a livelihood on the ocean out in Prince William Sound or on the Copper River Delta, I always marveled at how his personality would change. He’d be a nice man; we got along on the ocean. It wasn’t until I started skippering boats when I was 12 or 13 years old that I realized why he was that way. Once you get out there in the wild on the ocean, there’s nothing like it. You’re your own person. You’re your own boss. You go out there on your own terms and catch what you can.

When we started our elders’ food security program, I told all of our young kelpers: “When you go out there, throw your hooks in the water, do all your kelp work, and then go up in the mountain and kill something, come back to town with kelp and venison and seafood – whether it’s halibut or cod or crab or snapper, spotted shrimp, whatever it is – and bring it home and we’ll freeze it and package it. Then we feed our elders and our youth and they love it. We’ve had people call us to thank us over and over, saying “oh my god, that is the best quality seafood or venison” or whatever it is that we’re feeding them every month. They’re thrilled because in this time of COVID, a lot of people weren’t able to get out and catch their traditional resources that they normally harvest every year. We saw that that was a detriment and it could lead to health issues, so we decided to start that program so we could feed our people ourselves.

All the Native Peoples that we’ve spoken to in about 36 tribes across the state of Alaska want to get in kelp and mariculture for three reasons. Number one is to do something restorative for our oceans because Native People traditionally have been the original stewards and guardians of the land and the sea; that’s why we still have something to fight over.

The second thing is that they want to grow a traditional food source that they’ve been enjoying for thousands of years. A lot of people say this is a brand-new industry. Well, maybe to you pal, but we’ve been doing this for thousands of years.

The third reason is to build a regenerative economy by re-localizing fishing jobs that have been lost to the seafood industry that has owned and controlled us for 150 years. It’ll give the native villages, which are seeing upwards of 75 to 85% unemployment, an opportunity to create blue-green jobs or blue carbon jobs helping restore the planet, feed their people, and re-localize native women and youth, because if both of those demographics come back home, the men will follow.

Kelp farming is an opportunity to change not only our relationship with our food sources, but also our relationship with the sea. People will start remembering things that they never knew but that are part of their cultural DNA. If you restore wild salmon spawning habitat, salmon runs that disappeared 100 years ago, can come back within three to five years to spawn and die. It is in their DNA and that DNA is who we are. We are the salmon people.

Our salmon runs have diminished, not only in run size but in smaller fish size. By growing more habitat and helping the juvenile herring and salmon have cover, then the mortality rate is going to be less, and the returning number is going to be greater.

Salmon go on their world tours– pinks and chums head out for two years, sockeyes and coho go out for four to five years, and the kings go for seven or eight years – and then all return home, but they’re coming back smaller in size because they’re competing for the same food source with a lot of other fish and animals out in the sea. Our hope is that, with the work that we’re doing, salmon are going to be a little healthier and stronger before they go on their world tours, so they’ll come back a little stronger and happier and in bigger numbers.

What a lot of humans don’t understand is that preservation is key to restoration. As long as you preserve what you still have, whether that’s pristine habitat, or wild salmon, or endangered languages, or clean air, or clean water, then you have some opportunity to restore what’s been lost.

 As humans, we’ve lost our ability to connect with nature and reality. When you’re out in the wild, either you figure it out and you start remembering things that you never knew, because they will come to you, or you will perish. Indigeneity is decolonization. When you indigenize, that is decolonizing our minds. It’s about thinking differently, acting differently, being differently. That’s what we all have to do if we want to survive.

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