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

Food Businesses Encouraged to Apply to the Path to Prosperity Competition

The 2017 Path to Prosperity (P2P) sustainable business competition aims to identify and support innovative Southeast Alaska food businesses.  Supporting local food businesses reduces Southeast Alaska’s dependence on imports, strengthens community resiliency, and promotes sustainable use of the region’s natural bounty.

Path To Prosperity is a collaboration between The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and Spruce Root, Inc.  Spruce Root and TNC are committed to strengthening local food systems by supporting food entrepreneurs from across the region.  “We’re excited to try something a little different for the next round and connect with the growing local foods movement in Southeast Alaska,” says P2P competition administrator Paul Hackenmueller.  “This year’s competition will provide resources to help local food entrepreneurs incorporate social, economic, and environmental sustainability techniques into their business models.”

Eligible businesses must operate primarily in Southeast Alaska and be involved in the growing, harvesting, processing, aggregation, preparation or distribution of food.  “P2P applicants can be existing businesses or start-ups,” said Hackenmueller. “We want to encourage new entrepreneurs to apply, even if they haven’t started their business yet, so the Round 1 application doesn’t require a full business plan.  We only ask for a basic description of the business concept.”  P2P helps entrepreneurs identify ways to make their businesses profitable, while also having positive social and environmental impacts on their communities.

Twelve applicants will be selected as finalists to advance to Round 2 of the competition and attend P2P’s innovative Business Boot Camp weekend in Juneau.  All twelve finalists receive one-on-one mentorship and consulting that they can use to help write their business plans and grow their businesses after they return to their communities.  The Boot Camp experience is valuable for all finalists who attend, whether or not they win the competition.  “Thanks to P2P, I have a clear vision of where I am headed and a solid business plan that I developed as the roadmap to the future of our company,” said Tina Steffen of Skya’ana Coffee Co. in Klawock, one of two winners of the 2016 competition.

Timeline for 2017 Path To Prosperity Competition

  •         April 1, 2017 – Application Period Opens
  •         May 9, 2017 – Webinar
  •         May 31, 2017 – Applications Due
  •         July 7, 2017 – Announce Finalists Advancing to Round 2
  •         September 29 – October 1, 2017 – Boot Camp Weekend in Juneau
  •         December 3, 2017 – Business Plan Submissions Deadline
  •         February 2018 –Two Winners Announced

The competition is open to all Southeast Alaska residents.  This includes individuals, for-profit businesses and tribal entities.

 

Click here to apply and learn more!

Biomass-Heated Greenhouse Handbook Helps Turn Dream into Reality

Written by Shaina Kilcoyne, Renewable Energy Alaska Project

On a warm, bluebird day in April, Southeast Island School District and the Sustainable Southeast Partnership led a 25 person tour to Coffman Cove, Thorne Bay and Kasaan on Prince of Wales Island to see their biomass and greenhouse projects in person.  Tour participants from Hoonah, Kake, Hydaburg, Klawock, Petersburg, Tenakee Springs, Ontario and the Yukon each had in hand a Biomass Heated Greenhouse Handbook. This comprehensive handbook outlines how to turn these inspiring greenhouses from dream to reality. It was unveiled a day prior at the Alaska Wood Energy Conference in Ketchikan and is a free resource available to schools and anybody who is interested in building a Biomass Heated Greenhouse locally.   The USDA Forest Service and the Alaska Energy Authority commissioned the Handbook, in part to share successes and lessons learned from the Southeast Island School District and help streamline the process for future projects. Nobody wants to re-invent the wheel, and handbooks like these provide the tools so that interested local leaders don’t need to!

“We teach retention, other schools teach compliance” –Colter Barnes

Back on the tour on Prince of Wales Island, five to seven year old students confidently walked out to the chicken coop to do their morning chores – collecting and counting eggs, feeding chickens and ducks, refilling water.  Two high schooler’s run outside to the biomass boiler shed to stoke the fire between classes.  A middle school class weighs goldfish, calculates the amount of fish food to feed them (3% of their mass), and tests the water levels in the aquaponic greenhouse. 

Of the 500 plus schools in Alaska, four on Prince of Wales Island are now displacing heating fuel and imported foods with local woody biomass and greenhouses. According to Principal Colter Barnes, the $200 earned from delivering a cord of wood can make a big difference for families in these high cost communities, and produces about the same amount of heat as $500 worth of diesel fuel.  Students fund sports travel and even requested more duties stoking the boiler and hauling and cutting wood a couple of weeks ago to save up for prom.

These greenhouses are truly inspiring. They are creating jobs and economic development, generating clean, affordable, local energy, teaching nutrition and culinary arts, applied learning, and community engagement.  This is a story of building healthy, culturally vibrant communities and a more resilient region and the newly published handbook will help take this fantastic island-wide project to the next level.

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.

Prince of Wales Biomass Greenhouse Tour, April 13, 2017 – Limited Space

Following the Wood Energy Conference in Ketchikan on April 11 – 12th, 2017, a biomass heated greenhouse tour will take place on Prince of Wales Island on April 13.

Who should attend? School district personnel (leadership, teachers, or maintenance), or community organizations, or individuals interested in championing a biomass system and/or greenhouse.

Southeast Island School District is successfully operating biomass-heated greenhouses in four communities on Prince of Wales (POW) Island: Thorne Bay, Kasaan, Coffman Cove, and Naukati. These communities face many similar challenges to other rural communities of Southeast Alaska. Participants will tour the biomass and greenhouse projects in Coffman Cove, Thorne Bay, and possibly Kasaan. This field trip will facilitate the formation of peer-to-peer sharing of resources and experiences pertaining to the planning and implementing of biomass greenhouses in Alaska’s unique environments. To read about the greenhouses on Prince of Wales, check out this story from Edible Alaska magazine. 

 

This tour is limited to 18 registrants, submit your application today*!

*Travel, lodging and meal costs are the responsibility of the registrant unless otherwise noted. 

Questions should be directed to Shaina Kilcoyne, s.kilcoyne@realaska.org, 907-331-7409

 

 

Tour Estimated Expenses

The expenses estimated below do not include travel to and from Ketchikan.  

Inter Island Ferry Ketchikan to Hollis

$50

POW Island transportation 

$50

Ferry or Flight to Ketchikan

$50 – $230

Per night at Fireweed Lodge

$150

Meals

~$60/day

Total estimated Travel Budget

$360 – $540

Travel Links Here:

Register for the Wood Energy Conference (not required)
Book travel with the Inter Island Ferry
Book travel with Island Air Express
Or book travel with Taquan Air 
Reserve a room with Fireweed Lodge (rooms reserved under Kilcoyne)

 

Itinerary

Wednesday, April 12th

3:30pm MV Stikine Ferry departs for Hollis from Ketchikan, arrive 6:30pm, drive to Klawock Fireweed Lodge. Dinner at Fireweed Lodge

Thursday, April 13th

6:00am Breakfast at Fireweed Lodge

7:15am Depart for Coffman Cove, arrive at 8:30am

8:45am Tour Coffman Cove greenhouse, garden and boiler

Question and answer with principal and students of Coffman Cove School

10:15am Depart Coffman Cove for Thorne Bay, snacks provided en route

11:45 Tour Thorne Bay greenhouse and boiler

Question and answer with Laura Cooper (greenhouse manager), Jonathan

Fitzpatrick (engineer), Priscilla Goulding (finance) and students of Thorne Bay School

12:45pm Lunch at Thorne Bay Cafe (student operated café)

Discussion with students operating the Cafe

1:30pm Depart Thorne Bay for Kasaan (A vehicle will leave to get travelers on the afternoon flight to Ketchikan to the Klawock Airport, arriving at 2:15pm for Island Air flight to Ketchikan airport, Alaska Air flight 67 to Juneau)

2:30 Arrive in Kasaan, tour greenhouse, and biomass boiler

Time to explore the the Carving Shed, the Totem Trail Cafe, and Totem Trail to the restored Chief Son-i-Hat Whale House.  

4:00pm depart Kasaan for Klawock, arrive Klawock 5:30pm

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.

Close

Pin It on Pinterest