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

Yakutat Travels to DC to Discuss Broadband

Written by Paul Harding

The mission of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition (SHLBC) is to promote public policies which improve the broadband capabilities of schools, libraries, healthcare providers, other anchor institutions and their surrounding communities.

Trip Goals
The purpose of attending the 2016 SHLB conference was multi-fold:
1) To be better acquainted with the new E-Rate program rules, regulations, and federal guidelines.
2) To connect with FCC advisors and attorneys in order to better facilitate the current fiber optic project in Yakutat.
3) To develop a network of business and advisory peers that can assist in the complicated process of navigating ‘E-Rate waters’.
4) To promote the current fiber optic project in Yakutat in order to facilitate the RFI and RFP process.
5) To better assess the fiber optic project master plan for Yakutat by means of openly discussing Yakutat’s special geographic and financial hurdles with business leaders, FCC Advisors, FCC attorneys, and technical administrators.
6) To better understand all the nuances of the procurement process within the E-Rate, USAC and FCC arena.

Workshops attended

While there were a number of plenary sessions and workshops offered during this conference, it was the workshops that yielded the majority of useful information. As such, I will only highlight some of the more interesting and notable issues that came up.

E-Rate and Fiber Build-Out workshop

This particular workshop was an amazing insight into USAC’s development and operationalization of the E-Rate process in toto. Everything from how to issue an RFP, evaluating competing bids, and structuring one’s application to maximize the chance for approval was covered in depth. This particular workshop was quite valuable as the lead writer of the E-Rate rules and regulations, Chas Eberle (Attorney Advisor, FCC), was present and available for questions. Also on the board was Joe Freddoso (Advisor to USAC).

Of the many topics covered, the primary tenets of what I found to be of interest revolved around the basic notions of:
• Cost defensibility
• Cost efficacy as it intersects with functionality
• Value to/for a community vs. cost effectiveness
• Cost reasonableness vs. a quality build, all against the backdrop of the notion of ‘community benefit’ and ‘projected community growth’.

Financing and Fiber Construction Build vs. Buy: What are we in for once we ask this question?

The primary discussion during this workshop centered on ‘cost value vs. community benefit’. E-Rate’s central focus in bringing fiber to communities is the ‘lowest possible cost’, and this issue came up many times during this workshop. And while there was much discussion regarding what community benefit was derived from narrowly defining the cost allocation of a project, the usual response from the board was, “those are the rules.” Although seemingly unhelpful, this sort of response generated yet more discussion regarding the FCC guidelines for the E-Rate program such that the principle attorneys later remarked that they would need to revisit some of the more restrictive guidelines and review their utility. Despite the overwhelming time spent on this issue, there was time allotted for discussing the different types of builds that are permissible through E-Rate: dark vs. lit, self-provisioned vs. leased, priority 1 vs. priority 2.

Ask an E-Rate Attorney

Given the previous discussions that had be circulating in previous workshops, the clear point of contention for most attendees was the issue of cost efficacy vs. community value. While much of the time was spent attempting to pick apart E-rate’s cost allocation process by getting FCC advisors and USAC attorneys to voice an explicit equation by which to determine the intersection of community value and cost reasonableness, ultimately USAC attorneys begrudgingly ceded that there must be a cost defensibility. When questioned further on the meaning of this phrase, one of the attorneys simply stated that the cost of any project must be able to be defended given the number of anchor organizations and people served. It was later decided amongst attendees that your ability to argue a case need merely be par with the cost of the project and given the how many organization and people are served.

Discussion

Following the SHLB conference, I was able to spend about an hour with Mr. Freddoso (Advisor to USAC), Kela Halfmann (E-Rate Coordinator, SERRC), and John Harrington (CEO of Funds for Learning). During this time I was able to discuss the current geological and fiscal hurdles that Yakutat faces and ask how we might best work around/through some of these issues given the parameters of the E-Rate program guidelines. In Addition, we discussed additional funding through organizations that support the development of telecommunications infrastructure – i.e., USDA, Health Connect Fund, Broadband USA, and Community Connect. There was also some discussion regarding the master plan for the fiber optic project in Yakutat and plentiful reasons I ought to consider narrowing the scope of the project to better ensure our success in bringing fiber to the community.

I also spent much time with talking with individuals from the FCC, USAC and SERRC regarding the procurement process and the necessary strategies for getting companies to come to the table and bid on an RFP. There was also much discussion on whether or not a pre-meeting with potential builders/vendors could yield any results in conjunction with either an RFI or RFP.

I was lucky enough to garner the attention of a publicist who had much advice for me regarding the RFP process. We discussed at length one of the on-going problems that Yakutat tends to have given the small size of our town and the limited number of vendors we have in town as a result of our population: monopolies. A number of promising suggestions were made on how to better navigate the RFP process on a project of this magnitude such that we are able to ensure we find ourselves with very few bids

Conclusion

After having discussed the logistical issues that Yakutat is facing in the technological, geographic and economic arenas, I have decided to modify the fiber optic master plan to better demonstrate an understanding of the complexities that this project faces. As such, I will immediately dissolve the current consortium between Hoonah, Yakutat, Pelican and Gustavus. I will, then, set my focus to creating a consortium between CBY, YTT, the school, clinic and, potentially, a library. Following this, I will prepare and submit an RFI that will attempt to yield information on Yakutat’s current distance from the pre-existing fiber line, cost for connecting to said fiber line (the build), and cost of service. Additionally, given the structure of the new consortium which will now include in-eligible E-rate participants, I will have E-rate determine what percentage of the project they will fund. With this information in hand I can better determine what amount of monies will be required to satisfy the balance of this project. With this new configuration, the fiber plan will more adequately fit the cost reasonableness of a project of this size and will ensure our success during the E-Rate funding process.

The Sustainable Southeast Partnership Attends Yakutat 2020 Strategic Planning Event

20151110_113934Four Sustainable Southeast Partnership partners traveled to Yakutat in November to participate in the Yakutat 2020 Strategic Planning Event. This meeting is a community wide effort to develop a strategic plan around Housing, Technology/Education, Healthcare, and Economic Development. It was hosted by the The Yakutat Tlingit Tribe and other represented organizations included Yakutat Kwaan, City & Borough of Yakutat, Yakutat School District, Indian Health Services, Rasmuson Foundation, USDA Rural Development, and Action Strategy. Attendee. Participants spent two days discussing ideas, sharing concerns, and identifying roles and actions that each organization can take to move the community forward over the next 5 years.  

Over the two day event, it became clear that if the community wants to successfully build a new health clinic, improve housing shortages, grow the economy, and provide quality education to youth, it will only do so by forging relationships among organizations and finding creative ways together to solve those challenges. At the same time, it was determined that the community of Yakutat could benefit by tapping into the larger SSP network. Yakutat has since brought on a Community Catalyst that is working directly with SSP partners.

Participating SSP organizations included Haa Aaní, LLC, The Nature Conservancy, and Renewable Energy Alaska Project. The success of this event shows that within the region we collectively have the ability to strengthen our communities. Great strides forward can be made by  sharing information, skills and resources across organizational boundaries. SSP is a collective impact initiative where partner organizations and communities share values of increasing community resiliency, and ensuring that future generations can continue to prosper in Southeast Alaska and we look forward to continuing our work with Yakutat!

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