SEATOR: Southeast’s Shellfish Safety Squad Takes on Climate Change

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.

 

Happy harvesting

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

2017 Mid-year Sustainable Southeast Partnership Summit

Partners and collaborators met in Juneau for a two day bi-annual SSP workshop in March. This workshop coincided with SE Conference’s Mid-Session Summit. The success and utility of the SSP network relies heavily on the commitment of partners to meet in-person twice a year. Spending time together to share information and ideas always leads to improved collaboration across the region. We saw over 50 people participate in the two day event, and many of them noted that it was a priority to attend because they see the value it brings to be tapped into the SSP network.

We used the two days to explore specific ideas including; ideas for improving the network in 2017, reflection on how we as individuals and organizations both provide and receive benefits through the partnership, and building an SSP story bank. Southeast Alaska has a rich history rooted in the use of storytelling for sharing knowledge, skills and inspiration. The SSP prioritizes sharing compelling and progressive stories to strengthening projects and connections between our rural villages across the region. We spent one afternoon brainstorming storytelling ideas based on our projects and work and started to discuss and map out strategies for sharing those stories to inspire positive change.

For the full version of the summary with answers to the workshop questions we worked on collaboratively click here.

The 2017 Biomass Heated Greenhouse Tour

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.

HNFP : Taking LiDAR From Sea-level to Mountaintops

HNFP : Taking LiDAR From Sea-level to Mountaintops

Since the field season of the Hoonah Native Forest Partnership (HNFP) concluded in late October, 2016 there has been a lot of hustle-and-bustle behind the scenes as partners analyze the datasets generated by crews throughout the summer. Three of the key analyses hinge on the use of LiDAR data which was flown over >200,000 acres of the island. One analysis seeks to determine vegetation characteristics based on timber stand characteristics. The other two analyses focus on creating an intrinsic potential model of Pink and Chum Salmon habitat and modeling barriers to fish.  Each of these analyses will provide direct information leading to better management of the landscape and rivers.

Vegetation Study

The goal of the HNFP Vegetation Study is to  provide a very detailed map of both forested and non-forested vegetation types for use in timber, fish and wildlife planning as well as to support local residents in their efforts to gather resources for their households and businesses. The methodology being used combines field data collection and aerial photo classification with LiDAR derived vegetation structure and landscape position data. This is the cutting edge of vegetation mapping on planet earth.  The use of LiDAR to model vegetation structure and topographic features can dramatically cut the amount of time that traditional methods take to reach the same end. In order for the LiDAR data to be useful, crews surveyed random forest plots (n=111),as well as stratified sampling for non-forest plots (n=208) across the landscape. Forest plots were created from the LiDAR data by combining the openness of the forest structure (open, sparse, gappy, closed) and the height ( short, medium, tall) and a random selection was generated from that. Non-forest plots were selected to cover the range of spectral signatures that occur in four-band orthoimagery acquired for the project area.Plot categories were linked to landscape characteristics that drive plant community dynamics such as elevation, aspect and slope. Because of this stratification across topographic characteristics crews had to survey from sea-level to mountaintops at 3,000 feet. At each plot the crew followed a Forest Service protocol requiring them to identify every species of plant within the plot, as well as its percent composition.  They also measured the diameter at breast high (DBH) and height of each tree within the plot.

The data generated by the crew proved to be invaluable to the analysis. Vegetation study leads Conor Reynolds and Bob Christensen are using this analysis to estimate potential for future timber harvest, model deer habitat values under various management scenarios, identify locations to promote blueberry production and estimate future wood availability for salmon habitat maintenance in riparian stands.. This is particularly important in streams where logging occurred up to the river’s edge (before the establishment of the Alaska Forest Practices Act) and large logs are not falling into streams with enough frequency to maintain fish habitat.

“The benefit of the forest inventory to land managers would be that we’ve created a uniform dataset covering the variability of the entire landscape that effectively tells us the size and density of forest cover. This allows for more targeted scheduling of management activities mitigating the negative effects of intermediate stand stages on other resources such as deer and berries.”

— Conor Reynolds

Creating an Intrinsic Potential Model

In order to manage a landscape effectively, it is important to forecast future scenarios and to know the potential of existing habitat. Due to the access difficulties and prohibitive costs associated with conducting extensive on the ground population surveys across large area of rugged southeast Alaska, decision makers are turning toward tools based on remote sensed data for evaluating the associations between salmon populations and their critical freshwater habitat.  Bernard Romey, a graduate student, set out to create an intrinsic potential (IP) model that predicted habitat suitability at the landscape level for spawning chum and pink salmon based on LiDAR derived persistent habitat characteristics such as slope and mean annual flow. Previous intrinsic potential models have been created in Oregon for steelhead trout and coho salmon, however, the IP models created through the HNFP will be the first Southeast Alaska specific chum and pink salmon models. They are likely to benefit communities and land managers across the Tongass National Forest.

 “Our chum and pink salmon Intrinsic potential models, paired with the NetMap stream network analysis software, are powerful leading-edge GIS-based tools that will allow decision makers a ‘first step’ approach for predicting broad-scale areas of potential high quality salmon spawning habitat.”

— Bernard Romey

Modeling Barriers to Fish

The ability for a salmon to travel upriver to its original spawning ground is truly remarkable, but even their exceptional skill is limit as streams become steeper, skinnier, or laced with barriers. Knowing the upper limit of salmon distribution is important for guiding management decisions to avoid disturbance of spawning habitat and to protect salmon populations.  The fine-scale resolution of the LiDAR can be used within the NetMAP toolset to predict the presence of passage barriers such as waterfalls or steep cascades.  Crews walked upstream to survey the height and gradient of potential barriers. These data are being used along with Lidar to refine the barrier prediction model and to develop a map of all salmon streams in the region.   

A Model for the Future

The products derived from the LiDAR for the Hoonah Native Forest Partnership are an emmense benefit. It is our hope that as future LiDAR projects are flown, that our results and methods may be used in future community forest products looking to streamline the process of collecting forest metrics and modeling habitat.

“The results of the vegetation mapping work we are doing for the HNFP are important because it provides a much higher resolution, and more detailed vegetation map for all private and public lands that surround the community of Hoonah. Consistent, reliable and up-to-date natural resource data in the jurisdictional patchwork of public and private lands that is common in areas surround rural communities in southeast Alaska has simply been non-existant up to this point. Historically, this state of affairs has undermined resource assessments that are best conducted at the watershed scale so we are particularly lucky to have access to this new product for the HNFP.

Furthermore, the additional detail in this vegetation map will support much more strategic, collaborative and cost effective project planning and implementation for timber, fish and wildlife resources. In the end, these results will save land owners and managers money, enhance returns on their investments over time, and integrate improved outcomes for residents and visitors who utilize these lands for hunting, fishing, recreation and entrepreneurial endeavors.”

— Bob Christensen

The Backdoor Café Installs Red Alder Benches: A Local Young Growth Success Story

Written by Chandler O’Connell

In Sitka, Alaska a favorite coffee shop among locals called the Backdoor Café did a little renovating this season. Alana Peterson, who is both the owner of the Backdoor Cafe and the program director of the Sustainable Southeast Partnership installed brand new benches using locally sourced red alder wood. By sourcing local, Peterson supported local businesses, kept more money in the region, and showcased environmentally sustainable timber. The Backdoor Cafe is also modeling what a market for young-growth products looks like in Southeast Alaska, as the Forest Service moves to shift focus from old growth to young growth timber harvests.

The Tongass Transition, announced by the Department of Agriculture in 2011, is meant to bring an end to unsustainable old-growth logging and implement a more holistic management plan that focuses on young-growth trees that grow after clear-cuts, as well as integrating and valuing non-timber forest outputs. The Tongass Transition will ensure that the remaining old growth forests on the Tongass stay standing to provide wildlife habitat, sequester carbon, support subsistence lifestyles and recreation, and produce prodigious quantities of salmon. The transition also provides opportunities to develop new timber products.

Click through the posters that the Sitka Conservation Society created to hang in the Backdoor Cafe along with a local youth wood arts project to inform customers about the significance of these new benches. 

“Mills and entrepreneurs have successfully experimented with young growth forest products over the last few years since the transition was announced,” said Beth Pendleton, Regional Forester, Alaska Region-Forest Service. “They have found that there are applications for young growth wood products from the Tongass and that local utilization and manufacturing can be part of our regional economy. Red Alder is one of the Tongass Young Growth products that has a lot of potential for value-added applications,” she added.

The Backdoor Café worked with Icy Straits Lumber & Milling out of Hoonah, Alaska to source their red alder. Icy Straits is part of a cohort of local mills, including Tenakee Logging Company, TM Construction and Good Faith Lumber that offer a diverse range of second growth products. Local businesses and individuals planning their next construction project should check out these sourcing options – they may be surprised by the high quality and competitive pricing that is available right here at home. And they’ll enjoy the added benefit of knowing that by buying local they’ve kept more money circulating in the Southeast economy.

From Forest to Café: Art Display Inspired by Second Growth Benches

The red alder benches served as inspiration for a storytelling and art display currently showing at the Backdoor Café. The display, a project of the Sitka Conservation Society and the Alaskan Way of Life 4H Club, highlights the benefits of choosing local young growth products, and tracks the benches from forest to café, sharing stakeholder reflections at each step: management, harvest, construction and purchase. The 4H students contributed relief prints made from “cookie” cross sections of fallen trees and short stories on life as a tree on the Tongass.

Klawock, the Water and Her People

Written by Quinn Aboudara, Supporting Photographs by Kendall Rock, Lee House and Quinn Aboudara

The water laps against the side of the boat gently, the sound rhythmic and steady, like a heartbeat. The engine thrums softly in anticipation then roars to life as I twist the throttle to push the 16 foot aluminum skiff away from the dock and onto Klawock Lake.

My name is Quinn Aboudara, and I’m a lifelong resident of Prince of Wales Island. The Klawock Lake is part of my identity and life. Adopted and raised by the Taakwaneidi Raven/Sculpin Clan,  Klawock Lake is more than just a simple body of water for me. Like many residents of Klawock and the surrounding communities, I harvest food from these waters like salmon, trout and beaver. Its tree lined shores provide me with berries and edible roots, bark and grasses for weaving.

Working for the Klawock Cooperative Association I was presented the opportunity to work with the local tribe and with the Sustainable Southeast Partnership as a community catalyst. Klawock Lake and the watershed that feeds it are a fragile system. Over the last 30 years, this life-giving watershed has seen substantial change which have raised continued concern for the residents of Klawock. Some of those environmental changes include: declining fish runs, decreased snow caps on the surrounding mountains, and development along valuable spawning habitat. In 2016, The Klawock Cooperative Association (a federally recognized tribal government), in partnership with Klawock Heenya Corporation, Kia Environmental, and The Nature Conservancy, with funding provided by the Bureau of Indian Affairs began a four month study in regards to one of these concerns: the declining returns of the wild run of sockeye salmon to Klawock Lake.


We began going to Klawock Lake with a single question: Is there anything feeding upon the sockeye fry? What we returned with was more questions. The data gathered from the first season of the Klawock Lake predation study showed that sockeye fry predation was minimal.  A second predation study is in the works for 2017 to support and provide stronger data to inform decision making. Simultaneously,  we will explore other potential factors in the declining salmon run.


This work, a community priority of both traditional and cultural concern, is a key component of my position within the Klawock Cooperative Association. And as a community catalyst I am given the opportunity to approach this challenge, and many of the other challenges within my community with a holistic approach. There are many challenges of living in a rural Alaskan island community, the high cost of food, a lack of employment opportunities and stable jobs, limited economic development, and through the partnership between the Klawock Cooperative Association and the Sustainable Southeast Partnership I am allowed to address these challenges and pursue solutions. Solutions such as working with local stakeholders to develop a trained local workforce, designing and building greenhouses, providing small business development workshops, and many other opportunities.

It is through this multi-faceted approach toward creating a resilient community that I have dedicated my time and energy to protect the way of life in Klawock. I do this work for myself, my family, and my community, so we may continue to prosper and enjoy our way of life along the bank of the Klawock River indefinitely.

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