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Improving Salmon Habitat and Food Security in Tyonek, Alaska

In a remote community where subsistence is agriculture, partners are working together to remove barriers to fish passage.
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A culvert in Tyonek Alaska.

In a remote community where subsistence is agriculture, partners are working together to remove barriers to fish passage.

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“Subsistence is our Agriculture” – these four words are the crux of food security in Alaska, and the tagline for the Tyonek Tribal Conservation District (TTCD).

The Native Village of Tyonek is located about 40 miles south of Anchorage on the west side of the Cook Inlet. Because no roads connect the village to the rest of Alaska, Tyonek is accessible only by small plane or boat, making food security a paramount concern for residents. About 170 people live in the village year-round.

Like Tyonek, hundreds of rural Alaska Native villages located off the road system depend on subsistence activities such as hunting, fishing and berry picking for their primary sources of food. Community gardens supplement local food supply. The rest of their food is either barged or flown in at a high shipping cost.

TTCD was the first Tribal Conservation District established in Alaska in 2005. Since then, the District has ramped up its staffing and capacity to perform a variety of conservation projects that support their mission. They are a key tribal partner with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to accomplish voluntary conservation projects on private lands using Farm Bill programs.

“Our goals are to support the community to maintain salmon habitat and food security,” said Laurie Stuart, TTCD executive director. “Salmon is a primary food source, so we focus on conservation practices that enhance salmon habitat and improve access to subsistence resources in our community.”

The Problem: Inadequate Culverts

When the Tyonek road system was originally constructed in the 1960’s, many of the culverts installed under roads were improperly sized and poorly engineered to sustain salmon habitat. Over the years, the problem grew worse as high-water events caused culverts to clog with heavy debris and blow out. It created a negative impact on salmon populations in the community because the fish could no longer access their historical spawning habitat.

Salmon and other anadromous species are born in fresh water and spend their early years living in freshwater systems; then they migrate to the ocean where they live their adult lives in salt water. Toward the end of their lifecycle, they journey hundreds of miles from the ocean back to the unique freshwater habitat where they were born where they spawn and then die.

To keep this critical lifecycle intact, salmon need unobstructed access to their freshwater spawning grounds. Lack of access to historical spawning and rearing habitat has resulted in negative impacts on salmon populations in and around Tyonek. The streams in Tyonek are home to all 5 species of Pacific salmon: chum, pinks, coho, sockeye and kings.

Water flowing inside a culvert
A new, salmon-friendly culvert installed with NRCS assistance.

Removing Barriers to Fish Passage

The TTCD took on fish passage as a priority and forged strong partnerships with state and federal agencies to obtain technical and financial assistance to repair or replace culverts.

TTCD, Tyonek Native Corporation, NRCS, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) are working together to assess all stream crossings, prioritize replacement projects, and eventually remove all known fish barriers within the District. Each agency provides technical assistance and financial assistance in different ways.

NRCS provides engineering design work and financial assistance through its Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). With NRCS assistance, TTCD has replaced 12 culverts since 2012 which restored about 46 miles of stream habitat. The new culverts opened up more habitat for salmon to access their spawning grounds. Staff have noticed an increase in juvenile salmonids upstream of several culvert replacements.

Three juvenile salmon collected from a stream in Tyonek.
Three juvenile salmon collected from a stream in Tyonek.

“NRCS has been a great partner. They help us prioritize practices and they help us along every step of the way, engineering design, technical assistance, and financial assistance. We have an ongoing, engaging relationship with NRCS that we are very grateful for,” Laurie said.

Many of the culvert replacements also include construction of an access road. These roads provide reliable transportation routes over the culverts without creating multiple points of disturbance.

Tonya Kaloa holding zucchini in a high tunnel
Tonya Kaloa harvests zucchini squash inside a seasonal high tunnel.

Tyonek Community Garden

Tyonek established a 1.5-acre community garden in 2012 which is managed by TTCD. The District partnered with NRCS to install two seasonal high tunnels using EQIP funds and have incorporated cover crops into the operation through NRCS's Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP).

Tonya Kaloa manages the garden and coordinates involvement from local youth to keep things running smoothly.

"In our high tunnels we grow things like tomatoes, zucchini, celery, cucumbers and onions," Tonya said. "It’s been very beneficial for our community to have fresh, local vegetables grown here, and having youth involvement helps spread that community growth and encourages adults to get involved, too."

Tonya’s great grandmother used to garden in the early 1920's.

"It really blows my mind to think how far Tyonek has come and the comparisons between how Tyonek is growing our food now and how we have done it in the past. Having that history in my family of gardening gives me pride in knowing that I’m providing food to Tyonek like what my grandmother did in the past. My family has done it for generations."

"We have the strength to grow our own food for our community in times of need."


Story and Photos by Tracy Robillard, NRCS Alaska Public Affairs Specialist.