Southeast Alaska is a highly productive ecosystem that extends from coastal mountain ranges to the open ocean. It provides a diversity of natural capital that supports fisheries, wildlife viewing, hunting, and subsistence as well as 11 million acres of mostly old-growth forests that are a global champion in terms of carbon sequestration. Economic outputs worth billions of dollars a year accrue to Southeast Alaska residents, non-resident workers, visitors, and society as a whole.
The other night I was walking along one of the trails in Sitka (Sheet'ká Kwáan), on the ancestral lands of the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian. The sun was beginning to set to the west of the Pacific; hues of pink and purple settled upon the water. One Bald Eagle after the other began their return to Baranof Island from soaring along nearby small islets. They had just spent another day preying on various species of fish, may it be a salmon or flounder. Whether the eagles know it or not, they’re a part of this intertwined ecosystem of land, water, vegetation, and culture that all work together in this great oneness.
Have you ever wondered why birds, like eagles, are attracted to a particular place, such as Southeast Alaska? Out of various biomes that consist on the planet, why are these birds, whether resident eagles or migratory birds from elsewhere in North America, or even from Central and South America, attracted here along the coastal marine environment? And why should we care?
In partnership with Alaska Longline Fishermen's Association, the Alaska Sustainable Fisheries Trust’s annual SeaBank reports describe the region’s ecosystem values for fish and wildlife and the importance of intact habitats.SeaBank seeks to make people aware of Southeast Alaska’s natural capital, measure its value, and inspire residents, visitors, and policymakers to make sound long-term decisions.
SeaBank emphasizes the need to protect the value of the region’s 12,000 highly productive estuaries that are teeming with life. These rich and diverse ecosystems provide essential habitat values for multiple fish species, for marine and terrestrial mammals, and include seagrass habitats of incredible ecological value. Estuaries provide essential areas for breeding, refuge, and forage for millions of migrating shorebirds such as sandpipers and oystercatchers who visit the largest estuaries at the mouths of coastal mainland rivers, especially the Stikine River Delta and Yakutat. Bald eagles frequent large estuaries to harvest salmon or other fish.
SeaBank also promotes the conservation of Southeast Alaska’s forests which are some of the largest tracts of temperate old-growth rainforest remaining on the planet. These forests support fish and wildlife species that are no longer abundant in other parts of North America. Industrial logging remains a concern, threatening rare, old-growth-dependent birds such as Queen Charlotte Goshawks, Marbled Murrelets, and Spruce Grouse, as well as reducing habitat values for Bald Eagles.
The region’s ecological value benefits from the largest system of temperate icefields and glaciers in North America. Annual runoff delivers a seasonal blast of cold water, nutrients, and sediment to the region's fjords and bays, creating an aquatic food web that provides primary forage for fish and supports large numbers of seabirds. Some of these seabirds depend on tidewater glaciers such as murrelets in Glacier Bay and others, such as auklets and storm petrels, occupy the rocky shorelines of the outer coast, often in large colonies such as at St. Lazaria here near Sitka.
The greatest global threat to birds is habitat loss or degradation, whether through industrial resource extraction or now, increasingly, climate change. SeaBank monitors and describes these impacts each year with the goal of educating the public about the value of intact ecosystems.
Read the 2022 SeaBank Annual Report.
— Jessica Anaruk with the Alaska Longline Fishermen's Association
If you’d like to learn more about the birding opportunities in Southeast Alaska, check out the Southeast Alaska Birding Trail which spotlight nearly 200 birding sites across 18 communities in the region. Explore the birding trail and download the app here.