Written and published with Edible Alaska Magazine
On a sunny Sitka afternoon, a group of Pacific High School students and community members carve four inch deep lines into the soil. Gingerly, the students cradle seed potatoes in their palms. These small fingerlings, studded with dimples also known as ’eyes’, aren’t your typical Russets or Yukon Golds. The United States Forest Service and Sitka Tribe of Alaska are partnering to cultivate a unique community garden. With sprouting eyes facing toward the sun, the group carefully lowers ‘Tlingit potatoes’ into the earth.
This variety of potatoes is also called Maria’s Tlingit, named after Maria Ackerman Miller of Haines. Because potatoes are cultivated not by seed but by planting part or all of the tuber, each new season of potato is a genetic clone to it’s parent. This means that a potato planted now could be genetically identical to the original ‘cultivar’ planted a century ago. Families may care for potato varieties that fare well in a given climate and pass these unique lines from one generation to the next. Maria’s Tlingit family cared for this particular lineage for over 150 years.
If we could teleport back in time, Maria’s Tlingit potatoes would be found in many south facing gardens and patches across the region. The method of cultivation for this variety was pretty hands off. “I call it ‘plant it and forget it’,” laughs Elizabeth Kunibe. Kunibe is the leading academic researcher of Alaska’s unique potato past. Because of their easy cultivation, Kunibe explains that Native gardeners often planted large patches on nearby islands with ideal growing conditions.
In Sitka, oral history traces local potato cultivation north to the turbulent and wild coast of West Chichagof Island. Tucked into a calm cove, sits the ‘Potato Patch’ where story has it, that the Tlingit people would plant rows of these potatoes on their way to fish camp annually. Each autumn, in wooden dugout canoes laden heavy with dimpled spuds, they would return home each autumn to stock underground cellars with a winter load of these nutritious root veggies. Attentive locals still report stumbling upon potato plants in this lush meadow today.
Potatoes are not native to Southeast Alaska however. So how did spuds migrate to our island-clad rainforest?
“At first people thought that European settlers brought them, but the thing is, there were potatoes here before the settlers,” says Kunibe. Settlers did bring potatoes from Europe but they were different varieties.“The other theory is that Russian explorers and fur traders brought potatoes as they circumnavigated Chile. And then there’s also many Alaska native stories about Tlingit and Haida travelers who were going down to South America in big canoes who brought potatoes north.” Kunibe believes that potatoes populated our coast via a combination of these theories.
Artistic rendering of the Potato Patch of West Chichagof by Michaela Goade (click the image to see more of her work)
Maria’s Tlingit potato is a ‘primitive cultivar’ meaning they have not been selectively bred and genetically altered like most commercial varieties today. Their ancestry has deep roots. According to Kunibe, primitive cultivars “usually have more eyes and some may be oblong and finger shaped.” Thanks to advances in genetic research and collaborations like ‘The Potato Genome Project’ that Kunibe works with, we can trace Maria’s Tlingit back to Mexico or Chilean varieties.
There are only four varieties of primitive potatoes traditionally grown by Native North Americans according to Kunibe. Two of those, the Tlingit potato and one other, are grown right here in the temperate rainforests of Southeast Alaska. To learn more about the second spud, we need to leave the garden plot in Sitka and head South to Prince of Wales Island.
Down an ambling gravel road is the tiny remote village of Kasaan. With just 60 year round residents, Kasaan is the smaller of only two Haida villages in Alaska. Here, between ocean and forest, Eric Hamar and his family prepare to plant Julie’s Kasaan. This genetically unique variety is often referred to as the Haida potato.
“Deer don’t eat them, that’s nice. They pretty much bother everything except the Kasaan Potatoes,” says Hamar. His family has been planting Haida potatoes in their hometown for six years. “They are definitely more suited to the climate compared to other potatoes. They are really rot resistant,” says Hamar and that’s not the only reason his family digs Julie’s Kasaan. “They taste very, very buttery. You almost actually don’t need to put butter on them,” says Hamar.
When it comes to chatting about the deep history of Julie’s Kasaan potato, Eric defers. “Don’t ask me, ask Julie,” says Hamar. Julie Coburn, the ‘Julie’ in Julie’s Kasaan gave Eric’s father a box of shriveled old seed potatoes years ago. Today, she lives in the Pioneer Home up in Anchorage. “She’s 95, sharp as a tac and fiery,” Eric warned.
“Let me tell you, those potatoes have been in my family for well over a hundred years!” says Julie Coburn. Coburn has a melodic laugh and a sing-song voice that could draw a grin from a stoic. Her great aunt on her father’s side brought the original Julie’s Kasaan potatoes up from Washington State by dugout canoe over a century ago. She has many fond memories of her potato planting past.
“Oh yes, potatoes were a very big thing. Just about everybody in Kasaan had a garden,” say Coburn. Each spring, Julie and her family would scramble aboard her father’s 45 foot seiner and head to Adam’s Point up the bay where it was flat and south facing.
“We made a big deal of it and we would spend maybe a couple days planting potatoes and cooking over a beach fire and we always had a big coffee pot of course. We would put herring in a barrel and let it rot, good and proper and we used that for fertilizer and a lot of kelp and seaweed which was easy gathering.”
Julie is read this story at the Pioneer Home in Anchorage
After the leaves died down in autumn, Julie and her family would return to reap their harvest. “That was the fun part! You never knew what you were going to find as you kept on digging and digging each hill. I can remember my dad said it was a good year when we harvested 800 pounds of potatoes for our family alone!”
He built an underground root cellar for their bounty and while 800 pounds of potatoes may seem excessive to some, this is not the case for Julie Coburn. “Potato salad, fried potatoes, baked potatoes,” Julie sings. “Mashed potatoes, stuffed potato, boiled potatoes, potato salad! We enjoyed those potatoes every which way we could think of,” says Coburn.
Julie is certainly a fan of her namesake. How would her parents and great aunt react if they knew this potato would pass down in history named after her?
“Ha! They would be shocked, amazed and delighted,” says Coburn. “I was the keeper of the seed for a while but I just did it for the community. I never called myself the ‘keeper of the seed’, I just did it because I wanted to and didn’t expect anything as return,” says Coburn who has shared seed potatoes across Kasaan, in ports along the coast, in Oregon and in Washington. “I do always tell the people I shared with to spread it amongst your friends so they can have a garden too.”
Julie’s generosity is contagious. With support from SEARHC, the Organized Village of Kasaan and the Alaska Native Fund, the school in Kasaan is preparing to plant a community garden plot of Julie’s famous buttery fingerlings thanks to a donation of seed potatoes from Eric Hamar’s family. This tiny Haida village is dead set dedicated to keeping Kasaan’s potato heritage thriving long into the future.
Protecting Sacred Seeds
These little potatoes are more than a lip-licking connection to our region’s colorful cultural heritage. Protecting seed diversity is important and Tlingit and Haida potatoes are uniquely suited to thrive in our rainforest climate. Protecting hardy plant varieties and maintaining a diversity of types translates into greater resiliency and more success for growers in the long run helping to combat climate change and beat out yearly fluctuations.
Good news for Julie, Maria and all the other seed keepers and sharers across the Southeast, efforts are ramping up to cultivate and share these traditional Tlingit and Haida potatoes. From the Klawock Cooperative Association’s garden to community and household gardens in Juneau and beyond, Southeast Alaskans are hungry for these unique little tubers.
Back in Sitka, the students delicately blanket their tiny time capsules with seaweed in the same way Native Alaskan gardeners have done for over 220 years. Michelle Putz, one of the lead organizers of the event hands over two additional seed potatoes for the students to plant in their own school garden. With dirt under their nails and smiles splayed across their sun-kissed cheeks, the students pile back into the bus and eagerly look forward to the autumn harvest.
Written for Alaska’s Capital City Weekly & Juneau Empire
Public lands surround Southeast Alaskans. The 17 million acre Tongass National Forest is where residents go to hike, camp, fish, and gather food to nourish their families and wood to warm their homes. It’s where kids hunt their first buck and where friends gossip while munching on succulent salmon berries.
There are other integral values that Southeast Alaskans derive from public lands too: economic values. Tourists flock to soak in vast untrammeled Alaskan views and the majority of salmon begin their lives in streams among the trees. There is untapped economic opportunity as well and in Sitka, the United States Forest Service (USFS) and local entrepreneurs are exploring options for cultivating small businesses using resources on public lands.
Salvaging a business on the Tongass
Zach LaPerriere grew up in Ketchikan but has since built his home and raised his family in Sitka. He’s always gravitated toward the woods.
“From boat building to construction, woodworking has always paid the bills for me,” LaPerriere said.
He runs a business out of his humble one-room home nestled in the forest. In his open studio overlooking Silver Bay, he turns bowls from dead trees that he salvages from the Tongass National Forest.
“Making bowls satisfied something in me because I was involved at every single step in the process from selecting and harvesting the raw material in the forest right to handing a customer a finished bowl. That really attracted me,” LaPerriere said.
“Making bowls satisfied something in me because I was involved at every single step in the process from selecting and harvesting the raw material in the forest right to handing a customer a finished bowl. That really attracted me,” LaPerriere said.
He’s building his business from the ground up, literally. Wandering through the temperate rainforest, LaPerriere seeks out ideal dead trees, applies for the necessary permits, turns the bowls on his lathe, grows his business and hones his technique as he goes. His family partakes in the process and his wife Jenn Lawlor supports with marketing.
“Local woods are harder to turn and they take more skill but we live a deliberate life here where we try to live as local as we can and stay connected to this vast place. We don’t buy meat, we don’t buy fish; it all comes from the forest and ocean here,” he said.
LaPerriere is also deliberate about his choice to salvage wood on public lands.
“Public lands are getting used here and are providing jobs in huge ways with tourism and fishing for example but there is tremendous untapped potential and that is part of the reason I pursued getting wood off of public land versus private. I really felt like why not be an example for what can be done here,” LaPerriere said. “I’m not getting rich off of a new business making bowls but it is something and it is contributing to my family’s livelihood and it’s growing. It takes a few people to show what change can be done on the Tongass.”
And his customers love it too. “It’s a way for me to show people, like this gentleman in Ohio who just bought a couple of my bowls for example, his public lands. That wood came from his forest and that’s amazing. Even if he never comes to Alaska, he is going to have a little piece of a tree on the Tongass that he and more than 300 million other Americans share,” he said. “It’s meaningful.”
Spruce tips, mushrooms, berries and more
LaPerriere isn’t the only individual hoping to catalyze small business exploration on public lands. The Sitka Ranger District (SRD) is making headway in the region.
“Right now, we have the first special forest product permit issued on the Tongass ever to my knowledge and it was for 150 pounds of spruce tips this year,” SRD District Ranger Perry Edwards said.
Special forest product permits are issued for the commercial use of forest resources like berries, spruce tips and mushrooms. This particular permit is being used to explore selling spruce tips to home beer brewers across online markets.
Harvesting resources like spruce tips and berries requires a public review process. The Forest Service adheres to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process to ensure that commercial activity on public lands does not harm the environment and is done so sustainably, responsibly and in the best interest of the many stakeholders who share rights to these forest resources.
“We have NEPA — cleared up to 10,000 pounds of spruce tips from the Sitka Ranger District. We worked with the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, community members, and our silviculturist and biologists to look at every possible angle to ensure proper management. There are caveats on where you can collect them and how. You can’t collect them from trees of a certain height for instance and you need to tell us where you are getting them from so that we can monitor use and learn about the impacts,” Edwards said.
Since SRD has now received NEPA clearance for up to 10,000 pounds of spruce tips to start, interested individuals can apply for commercial spruce tip picking permits in the district without having to go through the entire public review process from the beginning.
“I’d just love to get the NEPA done for more of these forest resources. Down south there are a lot of entire forests that have a special forest product plan in place for the whole forest,” Edwards said. “For example, on the forests that have big fires, whole tent-towns spring up to harvest morel mushrooms and they make hundreds of thousands of dollars doing that,” Edwards said.
“We might not have the mushroom thing in that quantity but jeez, I look outside and I see spruce tips and I see blueberries and I don’t know how we could ever pick out the blueberry crop,” Edwards said.
The permit process looks different depending on the request, the size of the harvest, the type of resource, the location etc. For example, LaPerriere’s permits for salvaging dead trees was processed as a timber permit and did not require a public review process in part due to the quantity and nature of his request (only a handful of dead trees a year). The recent spruce tip forest product permit for 150 pounds in Sitka did not need to go through public review because the SRD had already NEPA cleared 10,000 pounds.
There is opportunity to be creative. Groups of harvesters could combine efforts and apply for a permit to pick berries to sell wholesale, for example. Edwards explained that tribal governments or organizations could even apply for permits to pick, say 10,000 pounds of blueberries and administer smaller permits among tribal and non-tribal citizens. The most efficient and appropriate required permit and process will differ based on the resource you seek and your plan but the USFS is more than just receptive to the idea, they are encouraging, excited to work with more Alaskans to develop business plans based on public lands.
“I would love to see more of these and see more people come in. Like with Zach’s stuff, I never would have thought of that business in a million years. I keep going to my typical berries and chanterelle mushroom examples but spruce tips too,” Edwards said. “I never would have thought of that.”
If you are interested, develop a business plan and start crunching some numbers.
“Come to us early on and say ‘Hey I have this idea, how can we make this happen.’ Don’t come to us and say, ‘Hey, I need this and this needs to happen tomorrow or this month,” Edwards said. “Depending on the proposal it could take 5-6 months maybe less, maybe more.”
The cost for the permit is determined by the resource, the amount, whether you intend to sell wholesale or retail. It’s all determined case by case. If you have an idea, Edwards recommends you call your local Forest Service office and start the conversation and begin to research.
“We would be happy to work with you. We are absolutely open to it. I love the idea of people coming to me with new ideas, I’m waiting. I’m here with the government and I’m waiting to help,” Edwards said.
A country founded on small business
Back at the lathe, LaPerriere is busy churning out between 150-200 wooden bowls a year and he’s seeing growth and encouraging others to explore their own ideas.
“If anyone is interested in this, fire it up, try it out. If you like making jam, try making a bigger batch, talk to the Forest Service about harvesting off public lands. Start small and scale up,” LaPerriere advised.
“The Forest Service has gone from adversarial to small businesses to wide open arms. I could not ask for a more encouraging agency to help make the process as simple as possible. They see the value in small industry because our country was founded on small business! Some things come and some things go but small business will always be here,” LaPerriere said.
We’re hiring! The SSP is making a downpayment on the future of our region and our network by hiring a Regional Catalyst for Sustainability. This is an exciting and challenging role that has the potential to make a significant impact.
Do you know any outstanding professionals? Have friends who love Southeast and want to invest in our rural communities? How about any MBAs who are building a career in social enterprise? Help us spread the word by sharing this role with them!
Click here to learn more
Written for Alaska Business Monthly
The Southeastern community of Haines was once known as the strawberry capital of Alaska. In the 1900s, Charlie Anway’s prolific red berries were shipped throughout the state—his largest berry measuring seven inches in circumference. During the harvesting season for more than two decades, Anway hired up to twenty pickers and grossed more than $700 a day.
“Charlie Anway wasn’t alone. During this time there were at least eight operating farms in Haines producing a wide variety of fruits and vegetables for sale in the community, the state, and down south,” says Madeline Witek, who is the community coordinator of the Sheldon Museum in Haines.
Witek presented on the strength of Haines’ colorful agricultural history to a fascinated audience during the opening of the second biennial Southeast Farmers Summit in February. More than seventy-five fruit and vegetable growers and livestock farmers from across the region flocked to Haines to reinvigorate the entrepreneurial spirit of local agriculture.
Much has changed since the days of Charles Anway. When it comes to fresh produce in Southeast Alaska today, the Farmers Summit emphasized that there is ample opportunity for growth.
Southeast Alaskans spend $19 million each year importing roughly 96 percent of its fresh produce, according to the Current Potential Economic Impacts of Locally-Grown Produce in Southeast Alaska report published by the McDowell group and presented at the Summit. Consider potatoes, a crop that grows locally, as an example. According to the report, more than $3 million is spent on some 2 million pounds of imported spuds each year. Roughly 38 percent of Southeast households grew food last year, and about thirty commercial growers are cultivating in the region. While completely closing the import gap is unlikely, farmers are confident that improving local production is not only possible but important for our state’s food security and good for our wallets too.
The Farmers Summit was organized by the Southeast Alaska Watershed Coalition, Takshanuk Watershed Council, and the Sustainable Southeast Partnership to cultivate momentum in the industry. “While production in Southeast Alaska is currently limited, there are many individuals who are working hard to provide fresh food for our region and create livelihoods around local food production,” explains Lia Heifetz, the organizer of this year’s Farmers Summit. “This is a venue to nurture growth, to provide a space to share lessons learned between commercial farmers, connect farmers to resources, boost entrepreneurial know-how, and present research-based technologies pertaining to commercial agriculture.”
Emily Garrity runs a successful farming business in Homer named Twitter Creek Gardens. She journeyed south to this year’s Farmers Summit to share her experiences with farmers in the Southeast.
“One of the key opportunities with farming in Alaska is that it is pretty much an untouched market,” says Garrity. “We have lots of room to grow with very little competition and that gives us a lot of leeway getting started, starting small, growing, and being successful.”
During peak growing season, every week Garrity and her crew move $4,000 worth of produce through their farm to thirty Community-Supported Agriculture members, eight restaurants, two farmers markets, and one food hub. Since 2003, she’s escalated her business from growing in a 1,000 foot garden on borrowed land to cultivating on her 1.5 acre property equipped with raised beds, high-tunnel greenhouses, and one innovative greenhouse built into a hillside.
It’s been a long process for Garrity—exploring markets, seeking out proper loans, building partnerships with Homer’s fishing industry to save on shipping costs for inputs, and experimenting with different produce. Her advice for Southeast farmers working to build careers in farming: treat your garden like a business.
“We need to take the business aspect very seriously, which I think is one of the major hurdles for people first getting into farming. Newcomers tend to feel like it is a lifestyle, which it is for sure, but treating it more like a business as opposed to a hobby is a really important piece to being sustainable,” says Garrity.
What does that look like?
“Coming up with a business plan, looking at budgets, putting dollar per square foot values on all of your garden space, growing crops that can make you enough money to make a living from. You need to look at the high value crops and the markets that are available and tap into all of them,” she says. Garrity focuses on high-succession crops like radishes and salad greens that can be harvested and replanted several times during a growing season.
Many of the commercial growers in the Southeast did begin as hobby growers, and many of their farms are large vegetable gardens that reflect personal taste more than profit. Serious farmers are reevaluating what they grow and in what percentage and are seeing returns. Marja Smets and Bo Varsano run Farragut Farms off-the-grid, thirty-five miles north of Petersburg. What began as a home garden Smets and Varsano have nurtured into a farm that provides more than forty different varieties of vegetables to Petersburg, Juneau, and other markets.
“On average, our sales have increased each year by approximately 30 percent, so we are definitely growing a lot more than we did during our first years in business,” says Smets. “We continue to figure out which crops have the highest demand, and which crops grow most productively. Each year, we then try to adjust our crop plan accordingly for the upcoming season.”
Local growers are also investing in equipment and infrastructure such as high-tunnel greenhouses and aquaponics to improve production and profitability in this difficult climate. Farragut Farms is installing their fifth high-tunnel greenhouse this year.
When it comes to being successful in agriculture in the Southeast, innovation and creativity are key. Colter Barnes, superintendent of the Southeast Island School District on Prince of Wales Island, is overcoming the high cost of labor and the limits of available land and soil by avoiding the two completely. Barnes and Damon Holtman, a student of Coffman Cove, traveled to the Summit to share the story of their island’s success. “I love working with dirt,” Barnes explained to a captivated audience of farmers. “But I challenge you to find soil on Prince of Wales Island.” The School District is managing a series of four biomass-heated aquaponic greenhouses that are providing hands-on entrepreneurial and agricultural experience to students while cultivating produce to feed students and sell in their communities year-round. The dynamic duo even brought twenty-five pounds of fresh lettuce (note this was held mid-February in Alaska) to share at the Summit and explained how this project is not only improving access to fresh produce on Prince of Wales, it is also creating new revenue streams for a financially struggling school district.
Tapping into tangential industries has also proven helpful for farmers. Ed Buyarski of Juneau is finding success by pairing produce with landscaping because the two require similar infrastructure and equipment. He also sells seeds and starts to growers, and this highlights another take-home from the McDowell report and Summit: home and commercial growers in the Southeast spend $1.8 million on growing inputs each year. Soil, seeds, fertilizer, supplements, lumber for greenhouses, and other inputs constitute a surprisingly sizable industry.
Nick Schlosstein and Leah Wagner founded Foundroot in Haines, a business selling open-pollination seeds that can withstand Alaska climates. Their station at the Summit was bustling non-stop with farmers eager to make purchases. Finding ways to tie agriculture into our booming tourism and fishing industries is important for maximizing regional benefits. For example, selling value-added products and fresh produce to cruise ships and restaurants during tourism season helps keep money in Alaska that was brought in from out of state.
Value-addition and more in-region processing were also discussed as opportunities for strengthening the vitality of agriculture in Southeast Alaska. According to the Southeast Alaska Commercial Rhubarb Feasibility Study, a report by the office of Representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins which was simultaneously unveiled at the Summit, one acre of rhubarb could yield $170,000 in processed juice. While facilities and machinery would be required to master high-volume processing, the potential is lucrative. Others look to existing processing plants that are certified for value addition of commercial products. Fish processing plants are potential spaces that can be used for the commercial development of other goods during the off-season and churches and other community spaces often offer kitchen space that is certified for commercial processing.
While increasing agricultural production in Southeast Alaska is important, getting product in front of buyers is critical. Participants of the Farmers Summit explained that access to markets and the high cost of transport are notable obstacles. Participants were optimistic that Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS) is a promising option for affordably accessing markets across the region. Southeast Conference is the region’s economic development organization. They are currently leading a statewide effort to refine the governance structure of the ferry system and are actively looking for options to make the ferry more profitable and sustainable with a dwindling state budget.
Robert Venables, the Energy Coordinator of Southeast Conference, is the chairman of the Marine Transportation Advisory Board leading the Alaska Marine Highway Reform Project. Venables agrees that the opportunity for the ferry system to ship more than just people and cars from rural community to community is key.
“The success of AMHS really is going to lie with the partnerships that it can make within the regions it serves. The state will always provide certain basic fund support, but there has to be other revenue streams. Partnering with businesses and communities is one component of a revenue stream that can be developed right now that is largely untapped, so there is a lot of opportunity to move goods, like produce, throughout the region using the AMHS,” says Venables.
A more dependable and consistent ferry service with options for shipping unmanned freight from community to community will not only be important for farmers in the region hoping to access new markets, it would help support the future of the ferry system and benefit intra-regional commerce more generally.
“Sometimes the ferry is the only mode for commerce in some of these more remote communities, because well, there are no roads. So, the ferry can play a very prominent role in the transport of agricultural products,” says Venables. “Maybe someone is producing something that they ship to a network in Juneau who is then adding produce that goes to Pelican, and then maybe they reload some seafood products that go back to Hoonah or Kake. There is a very multi-faceted opportunity for producers across the region to get together here,” says Venables.
Between active farmers’ markets across rural communities, Community Supported Agriculture memberships, and an upcoming food-hub called Salt & Soil Marketplace that aims to connect Southeast markets using an online marketplace and physical pick-up locations in Juneau and Haines, farmers are thinking critically about reaching consumers.
Growing a flourishing agriculture industry in Southeast Alaska is not simple. The hardy, enthusiastic, and inventive group that gathered in Haines in February indicates that the dedication and collaboration necessary to cultivate this industry is building.
“There are challenges like a wet and cool climate, scarcity of good agricultural land in our region, a distance between markets, and a lack of efficient and cheap transportation systems. But the opportunity is that our local food movement is in its infancy; it’s a real opportunity to step in on the ground floor and make a lasting impact on the future of small scale agriculture for our region,” says Smets, who hosted the first Farmers Summit in 2015 and was pleased by this year’s turnout. “There were over twice as many attendees at this year’s Summit! There’s a huge increase in interest and participation. I feel a groundswell arising.”
Written and photographed by Bethany Goodrich for Alaska’s Capital City Weekly
Katlian Street in Sitka is a bustling cultural and fishing hub. Along this winding harbor-side road, tightly squeezed between fishing gear shops, processing plants, and docks crowded with scavenging gulls, is the Sitka Tribe of Alaska’s (STA) Resource Protection Department building.
While the building’s salt-worn front doors look unassuming, behind its modest exterior is a state of the art laboratory dedicated to harmful algae bloom monitoring and shellfish research. This year, the lab will add ocean acidification monitoring to its impressive coastal monitoring toolkit.
The Southeast Alaska Tribal Ocean Research partnership (SEATOR) was formed by the Sitka Tribe of Alaska in 2013 as a network of tribal governments, universities, and nonprofits to monitor harmful algae blooms in the state.
“Alaska is the only state where people still die of Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning,” explained Chris Whitehead who is the Environmental Program Manager at STA. “Alaska was the only state that didn’t have a monitoring program in place and we have such huge levels of toxins so it was very disconcerting.”
Before heading to Sitka to work with STA, Whitehead spent years working in Washington with tribes and researchers monitoring shellfish populations for toxins. So, when a group of community members and local elders inquired about setting up harmful algae testing in Sitka, Whitehead stepped in.
“It was just good timing. There was a need, and I was able to bring up experts I had met in Washington to help set something up locally. Then we went to work writing grants and securing funding,” Whitehead said.
Today, the lab monitors plankton samples under the microscope, tests for harmful toxins and sends out warnings when toxin levels are too high for safe foraging.
“We want to be as proactive as possible to catch a toxic event before anyone gets sick. That means every week, we collect plankton and water samples to make sure there are no active harmful blooms. In addition, we collect blue mussel samples every one to two weeks since they are the first species to pick up toxins and are not widely consumed. If we see any indication that toxins or harmful plankton are rising, we preemptively issue a community advisory, increase our sampling frequency, and start testing all shellfish species,” said Esther Kennedy.
Kennedy was born and bred in Alaska. She returned after receiving a BA in Earth and Planetary Sciences from Harvard University to work with Sitka Tribe and can often be found pulling plankton nets through Sitka’s shoreline.
Of course, Sitka is not the only community where avid shellfish harvesters punch rusty shovels into sand and grit in pursuit of delicious bivalves. Fifteen other tribes in Southeast Alaska also employ specialists who peer through microscopes for dangerous plankton and send water samples to STA for toxin tests every week.
Carrie Davis fills this role for the Organized Village of Kake. She shares updated information about shellfish safety for this community of 600.
That information has given Kake resident John Williams Sr. greater confidence when harvesting this important cultural resource. Williams, 65, has been setting out by boat or by foot to dig for clams and picnic with loved ones for as long as he can remember.
“I’m always talking to Carrie and she posts it on the community board there, to show us where it’s safe and it’s useful because we know where to go and where to stay away from,” said Williams who can now share his chowder and cockles with less worry.
Climate change’s under-recognized twin: ocean acidification
Since the lab began monitoring efforts in 2013, nobody has become ill or died from Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning on any of the studied beaches. Success, one might say, has spread like a sunlit plankton bloom.
“When it first started, it was just six to eight tribes and now it’s 15 tribes in Southeast, four sites in Kachemak Bay and a handful of tribes in Kodiak that are starting up,” Whitehead said.
And the network isn’t just growing geographically.
“When this all started, the tribes hadn’t worked together in this capacity regionally before. Once this began, it really opened the door for the tribes to ask, ‘What else do we have common concerns about, what else can we work together on?’ and climate change was at the very very top,” Whitehead said.
That comes as no surprise. Alaska is warming faster than any other state.
“Ocean acidification, global warming’s under-recognized twin, is also affecting Alaskan waters faster than any other state,” said Kennedy.
“As carbon dioxide dissolves into the ocean, it becomes more acidic. It’s a global problem, but colder Arctic waters absorb more CO2 so it’s hitting us especially hard. Acidification makes it difficult or impossible for creatures like shellfish, crustaceans, and pteropods to make shells. This is bad news because it decimates the foundation of the marine food web,” Kennedy said. “We depend on the sea for everything in Southeast Alaska. It’s hard to imagine that we will be unaffected by ocean acidification.”
So the SEATOR team went to work figuring out how to tackle a challenge as far-reaching and daunting as ocean acidification. That’s where the “Burke-o-Lator,” a scientific instrument which Chris Whitehead called the global standard for measuring ocean acidification, comes in. Burke Hales, the scientist who created it, will be headed to the Sitka lab in mid-May to help install this new addition. He’s excited for what this data set and network will mean for ocean acidification research globally. With more than fifteen tribal governments across the region contributing to the monitoring efforts, SEATOR will paint a representative image of how ocean acidification is impacting a large geographic area.
Chris Whitehead and the entire SEATOR network are excited for what the data set will also mean locally.
“There is not a lot of ocean acidification work being done in the Southeast,” Whitehead said.
“We will have a good data set in Sitka and these other communities across the Southeast will submit their samples and it will all contribute to a robust local picture. And here, we have 15 tribes working together to provide this big data set and not a lot of people are doing that nationally.”
Geoducks and upcoming scientists
Climate Change monitoring is not the only new addition to SEATOR. The lab is working on getting FDA approval to administer PSP testing to Southeast Alaska’s commercial dive fisheries. For geoduck fishermen, this will mean more streamlined and local testing opportunities and a longer harvesting window.
The lab is also dedicated to building capacity among Southeast Alaska’s upcoming scientific leaders. On Thursdays this spring, several Mount Edgecumbe High School students filed into the lab, donned authoritative white lab coats, pulled mussel cages, homogenized tissue, ran genetic testing, peered through microscopes, and analyzed results. They were part of an internship program aimed at preparing the next generation of scientists for meaningful careers in applied research. Sienna Reid, who is both one of those students as well as a member of the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, is heading to Western Washington University this fall to pursue a degree in science.
Energy is building for these programs, and not just among the tribal governments who are actively participating.
“Senator Lisa Murkowski, Sullivan and Don Young too have all been very supportive of ocean acidification work. It’s a bipartisan issue, regardless of your views on climate change, it is clear that the oceans are acidifying and that is going to affect Alaska’s fisheries, so when we have spoken to those offices they have been really excited about doing this work,” said Whitehead.
Of course, like all grant-funded efforts, there is uncertainty.
‘“We are in the same boat as everyone else, waiting to see what happens for Fiscal Year 2018. EPA dollars are the backbone for this. We have other funding in Sitka but the tribes across the region who are doing the consistent weekly work are almost 100 percent funded by EPA dollars,” said Whitehead. “So we are hoping that these programs don’t get targeted.”
SEATOR started as an idea four years ago. Today, it’s helping to not only provide safe access to an important subsistence resource, but is also leading the way in ocean acidification research. All the while, this humble beach-side laboratory is providing opportunities and building capacity for the future stewards of Alaska’s coastal health. In a state that depends on coastal resources for everything, that is certainly something to celebrate with a community clam-dig.
Visit http://www.seator.org/ for more