Take Your Salmon Love Higher

By Jennifer Tarnacki

Homer Folk School, in keeping with its ethos of responding to community needs, is unveiling “School of Fish”, a series of classes intended to make Homerites all the more salmon savvy.

In this little drinking town with a fishing problem, where so many people are involved directly with the catching of salmon, the course is designed specifically for the community. A collaboration between the Homer Folk School and Cook Inletkeeper, classes are held at the lovely Lindsey Stowe’s Stowaway Cafe.

Each class responds to a unique community need, something useful to people. From informative classes on salmon science from the science director of Cook Inletkeeper Sue Mauger to the best salmon dish with chef Brian Gobleski, the classes aim to expand people’s knowledge of salmon and elevate it’s uses. The idea is to educate people about proper handling, find effective ways to utilize all parts, and to prevent waste from entering our landfill.

“Even if you have lived in Alaska your whole life, sometimes you take salmon for granted” explains executive director of Homer Folk School, Saskia Esslinger.

The series kicks off July 19th with Zero Waste Fishing taught by Willow King. Other classes, which run throughout the summer, will address the in-depth science behind the lives of salmon as well as how to perfectly smoke the stuff. How to make salmon caviar, salmon sausage, and salmon leather preparation will all be taught, along with chef’s takes on flavor pairings for salmon dishes.

Does any other topic inspire as much hand-wringing joy as salmon? Alaskans love their salmon. From fisherfolk and fisherpoets to cooks and chefs, no other topic seems quite to inspire as much all-encompassing longing, anticipation, worry, and concern as the beloved sockeye or silver. How many people spend summers on commercial fishing boats; their arms lugging piles of salmon out while their eyes shine with dreams of a good run, a good paycheck. How many work the canneries, doing the work of drying, smoking, canning, preserving, shipping, selling, transporting, cooking, preparing, and storing fish? Our livelihoods now still are bound up in the salmons lives, and this seems to have been true since time eternal.

Fish is the main source of protein for millions of people around the world, and yet the scientific evidence pointing towards a worldwide overfishing crisis is alarming. “Fishing, or as I like to call it: overfishing” joked one scientist. The seas are more fragile than we ever knew; depending on delicate balances of ions, minerals, acids, cycles of life from plankton to krill to whales. The delicate cycles repeat and unfold on each other everywhere, whales act as carbon sinks, krill as sieves; symbiosis in action, as interdependent as a web. As sustainable as Alaska’s top notch, world-class fisheries are, the overfishing in the rest of the seas around the globe can’t help but affect everywhere and everyone.

Bristol Bay tribes just asked for emergency relief for five communities in the Chignik area, located on the Alaska Peninsula southwest of the Kodiak Archipelago, who depend on the sockeye return for cash income and for subsistence, but the fish just aren’t there this year, according to the petition. The low salmon returns in the Gulf of Alaska are thought to be caused by a mass of warm water that remained in the gulf from 2014 to 2016. Bristol Bay Native Association has asked the state's Board of Fisheries to request the governor declare the sockeye fishery 2018 season a disaster.

OK, so it’s a little scary thinking about depleting fish stocks and acidifying oceans; visions of diminishing returns and fading livelihoods produce anxiety and doom-and-gloom paralysis. Thankfully, here is where the positive, solutions-oriented souls who tackle such challenges come in. The local players responding to climate and environment and cultural crisis in hands-on, groovy, grassroots ways.

In a timely connection, the two organizations hosting School of Fish combine their strengths. Cook Inletkeeper, a non-profit aimed at science-driven advocacy, focuses on protecting the Cook Inlet watershed and the life it sustains. Inletkeeper’s education and advocacy efforts are intended to enhance stewardship and citizen participation in this mission, while the Homer Folk School does the work of finding and pairing local community knowledge with those interested in learning.

In a class on August 16th called Nose-to-Tail (Minus the Filet), Willow Jones will teach how to utilize all parts of the salmon; the whole fish, from nose to tail, a practice inspired by Inupiaq traditions. Infusing hands-on skills with the ecological knowledge of cultures who lived sustainably alongside salmon for centuries.

Within subsistence coastal cultures of the North, seeing salmon emerge from their watery matrix was a spiritual source of gratitude; salmon had mythological importance. Their sustenance and nourishment mysteriously returning to them, cyclical and true, was something for human and bear alike to count on.