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A Native-led Land Trust Is Working to Empower Indigenous Youth Through Kelp Farming

Just east of the Kenai Peninsula in south central Alaska sits Prince William Sound, an inlet full of tidewater glaciers spanning 3,800 miles of coastline and flanked by the jagged Chugach Mountains. Home to several species of salmon and other fish, commercial fishing has been the main industry that has sustained its communities for decades. But warming waters caused by climate change has led to fewer fish stocks, making commercial fishing more challenging and less profitable.

“I never had any interest in buying a fishing permit or owning my own boat because I saw the changes happening,” says Rion Schmidt, a Sugpiaq Native who has worked in fishing and fish research his whole life. “Fewer and fewer fish, water warming up; I realized while I might be able to live a subsistence lifestyle and eat these foods, that making all my money off the fisheries might not be totally sustainable for someone like myself.”

Instead, he’s looking to another species that has supported Indigenous Alaskans for millennia: kelp. The nonprofit Native Conservancy has started a program to empower and equip young Indigenous people with the resources and training to start their own kelp farms. The goal is threefold: creating economic opportunities, supporting the health of the ocean, and connecting people to a traditional food source.

Schmidt is one of seven soon-to-be-kelp-farmers working with the Native Conservancy to build out his 22-acre kelp farm next year. Cultivating this traditional food in its natural environment is a prime example of food sovereignty, which Schmidt defines as “protecting Native people’s right to the resource.”

Dune Lankard holding a large piece of sugar kelp grown at one of the seven Native Conservancy test sites in Prince William Sound. (Photo by Ayse Gursoz)

The Native Conservancy is the first Native-owned and Native-led land trust, which empowers Alaska Native peoples to permanently protect and preserve endangered habitats on their ancestral homelands.

The Conservancy was founded in 2003 by Dune Lankard, who grew up in the Copper River Delta and Prince William Sound. There, his family fished and hunted wild game and always had more than they could fit in their freezers. They regularly delivered their excess to friends and family who appreciated traditional foods and didn’t have the time, energy, or resources to hunt and fish themselves. He learned at an early age that sharing an abundant harvest was not only an act of philanthropy and good will, but also a responsibility.

When the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill left subsistence foods contaminated in oil, Lankard began to focus his life’s work on conservation and protection of the wild foods that had sustained his community for thousands of years. He started the Eyak Preservation Council the day of the spill, which then worked to successfully protect 765,000 acres of forest from clear-cutting in the spill zone in 1995. The Preservation Council became a nonprofit in 2001 and now focuses its efforts on salmon habitat protection and environmental justice.

Since its founding, the Native Conservancy has worked with the Preservation Council to preserve more than 1 million acres of wild salmon habitat along the Gulf of Alaska coastline. Many of the Native Conservancy’s current projects work to build resilience and food sovereignty by delivering traditional foods to elders, piloting a portable freezer model in the community, and training kelp farmers.

“Indigenous peoples are interested in the kelp space for three reasons,” Lankard says. First, “restorative purposes; second, growing and eating a nutritious traditional food source; and third, building a regenerative local economy.”

The ecologically restorative benefits of growing kelp are well documented: Kelp grows in the ocean and requires no land, fresh water, or fertilizer. In contrast, it takes 108 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of corn and 216 gallons to produce one pint of soybeans. Kelp can also sequester carbon up to 50 times faster than terrestrial forests, which means it’s a powerful tool in countering the impacts of climate change, such as ocean acidification and warming.

To Lankard’s second point, kelp is nutrient-rich, with high levels of potassium, magnesium, iron, and calcium, so it can support human health, too. Coastal tribes have harvested and dried kelp for generations, using it in a variety of dishes from soups to kelp cakes—a delicacy made by smoking and curing kelp and dried berries. Lankard remembers that during his childhood, his mother and grandmother harvested kelp in the spring during low tide and brought it home to dry and eat.

To Lankard’s final point, a regenerative economy is one that promotes cooperation and environmental sustainability rather than extraction. By supporting young Native kelp farmers, Lankard wants to empower communities to decide their own fate. He also hopes to get ahead of what could be a burgeoning kelp industry before it’s entirely profit-driven. The idea is to equip young Indigenous farmers with the skills and resources they need to successfully source, cultivate, harvest, process, and market kelp themselves.

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