From Creek to Plate

children smile as one holds a fish caught by
A lucky angler lets Jenessa, Taurean, and Zach see his catch up-close. Photo by Sydney West/Boys and Girls Club

By Katrina Mueller, Fisheries, Alaska Region

Anchorage is Alaska’s largest urban center with a population just shy of 300,000 people. A major jumping off point for the state’s 1.5 million summer visitors, Anchorage is home to the world’s busiest seaplane base (Lake Hood) and fifth busiest air cargo hub (Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport). The Port of Anchorage receives 95 percent of all goods destined for Alaska.

Anchorage has big-city diversity with 95 languages spoken by Anchorage School District students (behind English, the top five are Spanish, Hmong, Samoan, Tagalog and Yup’ik). It also has areas of big city poverty, and the Service is targeting these in an effort to teach area youth about local fisheries and the outdoors.

In combination with its urban character, Anchorage offers some of the wildest outdoor opportunities in the country — 135 miles of paved paths and 300 miles of unpaved trails, offering access to multiple river systems with all five species of Pacific salmon, close encounters with moose, migratory bird viewing and thousands of acres of wildlife habitat.

Despite this close proximity, a surprisingly large number of Anchorage’s urban residents are unaware of and/or do not have the means to access and enjoy outdoor opportunities within blocks of their homes and schools. Like most urban populations, cultural, socioeconomic and safety barriers (both real and perceived) prohibit some of Anchorage’s residents from taking advantage of these outdoor opportunities.

As a conservation agency, the Service understands it needs to create opportunities for people, especially youth, to connect with nature — and help remove barriers to participation.

One of the Service’s six national priorities is: Connecting People with Nature, Ensuring the Future of Conservation.

In 2012–2013, the Service’s Connecting People with Nature Working Group provided $31,250 toward eight projects in Alaska that help connect people to nature (made possible by the Department of the Interior’s Youth in the Great Outdoors Funding Initiative). One of the eight projects, “Creek to Plate,” targeted youth from Anchorage’s Northeast Muldoon Boys and Girls Club, a hub for 700-plus youngsters during non-school hours.

Like the Service, Anchorage Boys and Girls Clubs want to get kids outdoors. Research shows that kids who spend more time outdoors are generally happier, healthier and do better in school.

According to the Muldoon Club’s athletics director, many of the youth enrolled at Muldoon have never been exposed to fishing, nor do they (or the club) have the equipment or know-how to gain that experience on their own.

Until now.

Introducing youth to fishing in Alaska has many benefits. It gets them outdoors pursuing a healthy food source. Salmon and other Alaska native fish are well- known for their heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids that also benefit brain development and function. Fishing also contributes significantly to the state’s economy and funds generated from license fees and equipment help support fisheries management and conservation.

To connect Muldoon area youth to safe fishing opportunities nearby, Service staff from Fisheries, Subsistence and Marine Mammals partnered with the Alaska Departments of Fish and Game (ADFG) and Natural Resources (ADNR).

ADNR’s Office of Boating Safety supplied “Kids Don’t Float” life jackets and instruction on their proper use and coldwater safety. Thanks to a generous discount from B&J Sporting Goods in Anchorage, the Service was able to provide quality Chinook and coho salmon fishing equipment, which will stay permanently at the club along with the life jackets. With help from two giant stuffed salmon, ADFG provide lively instruction on fishing ethics, salmon identification and fishing regulations. The classroom portion of the day wrapped up with casting practice assisted by Service and ADFG staff.

With the basics down, 12 excited kids loaded into the Boys and Girls Club van and headed to Ship Creek, Alaska’s most urban fishing spot — and one of the most frequented. It was August 1, and the coho salmon were just starting to show up. The trip started with a stop to see salmon schooling just below the Knik Arm Power Plant dam fish ladder near downtown Anchorage. A short walk downstream provided an opportunity to learn a bit about salmon habitat and restoration. Then, everyone reached the fishing spot—just below an old timber-trestle (now pedestrian) bridge.

The fishing was slow — VERY slow — but there was never a dull moment. The new anglers experienced bird’s nests (balls of tangled line), forgot to engage reel bails and crisscrossed lines. Other anglers seemed to give the group an extra wide berth.

The fish likewise stayed away, but enthusiasm continued to grow as casting techniques improved, fish were sighted from the bridge and other anglers allowed the kids to view and handle their catches of pink and silver salmon.

The final take-home message? It’s called fishing, not catching… and there is more to fishing than catching. A nice, albeit fishless, day spent outside during the short but sweet Alaska summer was further improved with a shore-lunch among friends, and it ended with a tour of the new state-of-the-art William Jack Hernandez Sport Fish Hatchery further upstream and lucky photo-op with Alaska fish artist Ray Troll, visiting from Ketchikan.

The 700-plus youth enrolled with the Northeast Muldoon Boys and Girl Club now have direct access to the fishing gear and life jackets housed there. Service and state of Alaska staff will interact with some of these youth at least twice a year — when the kings are running in May and when the coho salmon move up river in August. The Service also purchased enough fishing equipment to make a loaner set available at another Boys and Girls Club in Anchorage.

With Anchorage serving as a gateway to Alaska’s world class fisheries and 16 national wildlife refuges covering more than 76 million acres, this project took a small but important step toward engaging the next generation of conservation stewards in Alaska.

Last updated: May 2, 2014