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
Reflections from Ian Johnson, Community Catalyst in Hoonah
The community of Hoonah is currently working to determine if a district biomass heat-loop and biomass-linked greenhouse are right for our community. We are hoping to save energy and cultivate more local produce here in rural Alaska.
Lucky for Hoonah, schools on Prince of Wales Island are already pioneering biomass-heated greenhouses. The Sustainable Southeast Partnership is great because it helps connect ideas and successes from one community, and share them with change-makers across our region. The Biomass Greenhouse Tour arranged by Shaina Kilcoyne and Lia Heifetz of the Sustainable Southeast Partnership, brought 5 community members from Hoonah and 21 other participants from Alaska and Canada to Prince of Wales to examine their biomass linked greenhouses. The experience was powerful.
We started in Coffman Cove with the gardeners of the future – the kindergarten class is tasked with feeding the chickens each morning and collecting eggs. It was delightful, heart-warming, and inspiring to see their bond with the chickens and the enjoyment of their work. From there we learned from the high schoolers and Principal, Colter Barnes how the local biomass sourcing provides money to the local economy ($175/ cord) while warming the greenhouse at a cost savings compared to diesel – a $175 cord of wood is equivalent to about $500 in diesel.
We then moved to the large greenhouse in Coffman cove and were given a tour by the middle-schoolers who run it’s aquaponics operation and harvesting. The excitement was truly electric as it became evident that the Coffman Cove model creates student involvement, provides to the local economy during the lean winter months, generates food security, and provides money to the school through produce sales. These were just SOME of the benefits of their incredible operation. We continued our learning by visiting the greenhouses at Thorne Bay and Kasaan to learn about how we can scale our greenhouses and about slightly different boiler systems. Ending the day at the the Whale House in Kasaan was just icing on the cake!
I can’t thank enough Shaina and Lia for putting together this incredible event. I know it will cause quite a stir in Hoonah and we begin to look at our greenhouse options here.
By Alana Peterson
One key element to a successful partnership is communication. In the Sustainable Southeast Partnership, our partner organizations model deliberate communication that results in action. We meet on a monthly basis through Google+ video hangouts where we share ideas and information to strengthen our collaborative efforts. We also participate in daily dialogue on our Google+ community page. Our blog posts, emails, phone calls, and community visits all contribute to a network of individuals and organizations that are highly collaborative, sharing resources, and learning from each other along the way. Finally, we commit to communicating through in-person visits as frequently as possible and commit to two full partnership meetings twice a year (once in fall and once in spring).
This year’s autumn retreat took place in Hoonah, Alaska from October 3-7th. We used this time to develop year-long work plans for our individual and collective projects, learn about projects in Hoonah, and strategize ways to grow and strengthen the partnership in 2017.
Our retreat included a site visit to the new deep water dock and Icy Strait Point, a cruise ship destination that includes adventure options, a zip line, restaurants, a museum and shops. The group was not only inspired by the expansive project that is unique to see in a small SE village, but was also excited to learn about how cultural values and the community have been a priority through the development and implementation of the tourism site. Our group was led by a local Huna Totem shareholder, Brittany who started working at ISP as a ticket taker, and has moved up in the ranks to now working administrative functions in the office. It was clear she has pride in her work, and impressed our entire group in her knowledge and ability to answer all of our questions. We learned that decisions at ISP are made based on a filter of authenticity. Icy Strait Point was built to be as true to the culture and community it represents as possible.
We also spent time learning about the Hoonah Native Forest Partnership, a powerful new model for land management in SE Alaska.
The retreat also included a day-long workshop for community engagement. The workshop, led by Element Agency, gave each partner new skills and tools to plan successful community events such as meetings, workshops, etc. We put the new tools to use by planning and facilitating a community meeting in Hoonah. The goal of the community meeting was to introduce our partnership and outline the current projects in Hoonah. We then opened up discussion to the participants to learn about priority projects that the community has identified, and support those efforts through the SSP network. The meeting concluded with a beautiful performance from the Mt. Fairweather dancers who also prepared a tasty dinner for the event.
Other outcomes of this years retreat included a review of 13 successes from last year’s projects. Between all SSP partners, over 50 projects are taking place in 2017. A full list of those projects can be viewed by clicking here. The partners also dedicated four hours to identifying four priority areas to strengthen the SSP in 2017, they include:
(1) Promote the SSP collective impact model and Triple Bottom Line approach to economic development in each of our communities through direct outreach.
(2) Catalysts & Partners will engage the community, new partners and new demographics to increase community ownership of the Sustainable Southeast Partnership.
(3) All partners will work towards making SSP self-sustaining by improving and implementing our metrics to communicate success for potential funders and by building capacity to fundraise within partner organizations (this includes capacity building activities).
(4) All partners will demonstrate success in projects this year through strategizing community outreach through each communications output and achieving one clear project success in each community this year.
For each of these four initiatives, each participant wrote down one or two actionable steps they will take as individuals this year to move the partnership forward on each initiative. Though tired and drained from a long week of collaborative work, each partner left Hoonah reinvigorated and excited about the year of work ahead.