Wash-ashore subsistence: Beaches of St. Lawrence Island provide a bounty

Edmond Apassingok takes a bite of kemkeghnak, one of several tunicates that wash ashore that many residents there eat. Photographed on April 24, 2017. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)
Edmond Apassingok takes a bite of kemkeghnak, one of several tunicates that wash ashore that many residents there eat, on April 24.  (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

Fourth in a series about life on St. Lawrence Island. 

GAMBELL — A secret bonus for the people of St. Lawrence Island is the foods that wash ashore from the Bering Sea.

They call the bounty seafoods, sea vegetables or, in St. Lawrence Island Yupik, tepaq.

Most people hear the term “seafood” and think crab, shrimp or fish. Out here, it is something else entirely. There are the tiny orange creatures shaped like baby toes, the leathery-skinned ones that locals call uupa or sea peaches, potato-like tukughnak and the red ones with a tail, aghnaghuq or sea mice. There are dozens of different ones.

Try one, a Gambell resident says on the island’s western shore, with wind howling and big waves pounding. A visitor asks: Plant or animal? Maybe something in between, he answers.

Biologists say they are animals, invertebrates called tunicates.

[Read more of the series: Stories from St. Lawrence Island]

Locals walk along the shore to harvest them by hand or sometimes go to the edge of sea ice or out in boats, dangling special rakes on long ropes to the seafloor to collect sea peaches in particular.

Residents of Gambell refer to this tunicate as kemkeghnak. It's one of several tunicates that wash ashore on St. Lawrence Island that residents gather to eat. Photographed April 25, 2017. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)
Residents of Gambell refer to this tunicate as kemkeghnak. It’s one of several tunicates that wash ashore on St. Lawrence Island that residents gather to eat. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

Mostly, the Bering Sea churns them out in fall storms, and that’s when the food tastes ripe and right, say Gambell residents.

“When ripe, all the bottom seafood we gather harden,” said Edmond Apassingok, a lifelong Gambell resident, corporation leader, hunter and boat captain. They are less salty and some will taste a little bit sweet.

“It’s a blanket of seafood in fall time,” says Bethany Soonagrook, a 2009 graduate of Gambell’s high school. “We go out and pick them from the beach. There could be a line of people on the seashore.”

People often take their first bites right on shore, fresh as can be. Some like it boiled, fried or frozen. Everyone has their favorite sea vegetable.

Nutritionist Betsy Nobmann collected information on four beach-harvested foods in the early 1990s when she was working for the U.S. Indian Health Service and spent a week in Gambell analyzing the diets of residents. Testing done in an Oregon lab found these tunicates were low-calorie, high in calcium and high in sodium — from all the sea salt. They provided moderate amounts of protein.

Residents of Gambell refer to this tunicate as tukugnhak. It's one of several tunicates that wash ashore on St. Lawrence Island that residents gather to eat. Photographed April 25, 2017. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)
Residents of Gambell refer to this tunicate as tukughnak. It’s one of several tunicates that wash ashore on St. Lawrence Island that residents gather to eat. Photographed April 25. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

Some of the washed-ashore foods appeared this spring when the ice went out earlier than ever but they weren’t ready for eating. Too bland, said Kenny James of Gambell after sampling what he called sea carrots, or kemkeghnak.

More frequent storms and lack of protective sea ice may be disturbing the undersea ecosystem — the garden for seafoods — in ways no one yet knows, Apassingok said.

Sometimes foods familiar to mainlanders, such as clams, wash ashore. Often there’s kelp, the long greenish strands of seaweed or sea algae that locals add to pots of boiling walrus or whale. Those who shop in exotic groceries or dine-in sushi spots may know sea squirts.

Residents of Gambell and Savoonga know all those and so many more, their sea vegetable treats scooped up right from the beach.

Alaska Dispatch News reporter Lisa Demer and visual journalist Marc Lester recently spent a week on St. Lawrence Island. This is the fourth in a series of articles about life in Savoonga and Gambell. Next: What subsistence looks like at the Apassingok family dinner table.