Written for Alaska’s Capital City Weekly
The 2017 TRAYLS crew. Rear, left to right: Ryan Billy (Kake), Chad Ward (Kake), and Sealaska Intern Talia Davis. Front, left to right: Bob Girt (Sealaska), Crew leader Terrie Ward (Kake), Yajaira Ponce (Klawock), Noah Rasmus (Hydaburg), Skyler Peele (Hydaburg), and Stephen Hill (Kake). Photo by Quinn Aboudara.
I had the opportunity of meeting the small group of youth and young adults as they assembled at the head of a trail leading into the mist wrapped mountains of Prince of Wales. The trail is in reality an old logging road, overgrown in many places by tall green alder trees and thick salmonberry bushes. The bridges and culverts were removed when the road was closed in the mid-1990s and is often overlooked as residents drive past. But the young crew of the aptly named TRAYLS program is working to change that.
The Training Rural Alaska Youth Leaders and Students (TRAYLS) program was launched on June 5, 2017, as a pilot program designed to train rural Alaskan youth and young adults in various forestry related skills.
Bob Girt of Sealaska dubbed the project “The One Duke Trail,” referencing the trail’s location by Duke Creek and playing on the name of another local trail called “The One Duck Trail.” The trail will consist of approximately one mile of reconstructed logging road and nearly an additional mile of new trail construction that will provide access to alpine areas, as well as areas for berry picking and possibly even viewing stations. The project itself, which is entirely on Sealaska Corporation land, is expected to take at least two weeks of dedicated work to complete.
TRAYLS mentors Bob Girt and Frank Peratrovich sharing a laugh while overseeing work on the One Duke Trail. Photo by Quinn Aboudara.
“This trail is a public usage project really,” Girt explained, “It was originally a logging road, and has since been used by local residents for primarily subsistence use. It’s a great trail to work on because it’s wide enough for ATVs and hiking up to the alpine; we’re going to clear out the brush, make the trail safer, and put in a few culverts and even construct a bridge suited for ATV and foot use.”
The One Duke Trail project is only one of a number of possible projects slated for this summer, other projects include the maintenance of several other existing trails, and it’s hoped by TRAYLS program coordinators that the crew will have the opportunity to begin development of at least one new trail along a recent stream restoration project. But trails, aren’t the only projects that the coordinators hope to tackle; they hope to actively engage in a stream restoration project.
“That’s what sets this program apart from others,” said Stephen SueWing, Development Specialist with the State of Alaska’s Division of Economic Development. “We aren’t just teaching the participants how to build trails or clear brush — we’re getting them involved with an entire gamut of resource management possibilities and basic employability skills. Yes, they’ll get work experience in building trails and the like, but they’ll also get experience in many other fields. We hope that the variety of experiences that the students will be exposed to will inspire some of them to pursue careers in these fields.”
The TRAYLS crew getting their morning briefing. Left to right: Bob Girt, Terrie Ward, Stephen Hill, Noah Rasmus, Chad Ward, Ryan Billy, and Corey Peratrovich. Photo by Quinn Aboudara.
There is already potential of SueWing’s vision forming with 16 year old Noah Rasmus of Hydaburg, Alaska. Noah spent three years attending Mt. Edgecumbe High School in Sitka, and will be finishing his senior year in his home town; after, he plans to enter college, preferably Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to begin pursuing a degree in civil engineering.
“I’m excited to build the bridge on this trail,” Rasmus said, “It’s something that I’m already interested in, and being able to gain experience in engineering through this program will look great when I apply for college after my senior year.”
Other participants simply enjoy the fact that much of the learning is hands on, and immediately applicable. Crew leader Terrie Ward and her son Chad are two such participants. Terrie supervises the TRAYLS crew when they’re off shift as well, ensuring that their housing as well as health and hygiene are cared for. Chad, at age 14, is the youngest member of the TRAYLS crew but works just as hard as the others.
“I like working outside,” he said. “I learn better this way, when I can see how it’s done, then do it.”
Yajaira Ponce clearing and leveling a section of trail. Photo by Quinn Aboudara
“It’s a great opportunity for these young folks,” Terrie said. “They’re developing a good work ethic, learning that if they work hard then they’ll get paid. In the evenings everyone is tired. We’ve worked all day, but they’re learning that when they get home someone has to cook, and someone has to clean. These are good skills to have, especially for the ones that are going to be going on to college and will be on their own.”
Another component to the TRAYLS Program, an opportunity to teach good work ethics as well as combining applicable life skills and resource management skills to provide the students with a good foundation to enter the workforce and lead happy, productive, and healthy lives.
The program was initiated by the Organized Village of Kasaan through a grant funded by the Bureau of Indian Affair’s Youth Initiative Program, as well as a Summer Intern Scholarship from the Native American Fish and Wildlife Society. Additional funding was also provided by a Challenge Cost Share Grant agreement the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) has with the State of Alaska Division of Forestry. The State of Alaska Division of Economic Development, who is tasked with workforce development under this agreement, also contributed.
The Organized Village of Kasaan partnered with the Organized Village of Kake, Sealaska Corporation, and the Sustainable Southeast Partnership with support from the Klawock Cooperative Association, the USFS, and The Nature Conservancy.
TRAYLS crewmember Ryan Billy clearing a scenic area for future trail users. Photo by Quinn Aboudara.
The crew completed their first month in Kake, where they worked closely with the USFS on a variety of projects, including stream and culvert surveying, documenting an archaeology site, and training in USFS Safety Standards. On July 6 the crew arrived on Prince of Wales Island, where they will spend the remainder of the summer.
Loretta Gregory, the Community and Economic Development Specialist for the Organized Village of Kake and a Community Catalyst with the Sustainable Southeast Partnership expressed her gratitude to the many people and organizations that helped make the first month in Kake a success.
“The TRAYLS program had a few bumps but we were able to land on our feet, figure it out and continue,” Gregory said, “A big thank you to Alaska Seaplanes for their generous help in getting groceries and supplies to Kake and for their generosity in helping transport the TRAYLS crew from Kake to Klawock!”
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.
Today we (Terri, Skylar, Yajaira, Chris, Ryan and Bob) went to the estuary meadows of the Hamilton River to look for a place to install a trail camera. We are hoping to capture photos of Moose, Bears, Wolves, Mink, Marten and other wildlife that may be using the area. We took the Hamilton River Trail down to the meadows but we did not want to install the camera on the people trail, even though it is likely a popular trail for wildlife too, because we did not want to be taking pictures of people without them knowing about it.
Testing the trail camera on the bear trail near Hamilton River.
We talked about how vegetation provides food and cover for wildlife and how if we understand how to identify food and cover values in wildlife habitat we can use that information to choose a good location for setting up the trail camera. We also talked about animal sign and how there are two important categories for it: ephemeral sign only lasts for a little while, like tracks and scat; and perennial sign lasts a long time like well-worn trails and sign trees.
We decided to pick an area that provided food and cover for as many species as possible so we looked for some big trees (cover) that were next to shrub thickets (foods in the form of berries and woody browse), meadows (food in the form of herbaceous leaves, stems and roots), and the river (food in the form of salmon).
After hiking to a spot with good food and cover values, we looked for perennial wildlife sign and found both a well-worn trail as well as a set of sign trees. There was even some ephemeral sign in the form of bear scat and a bear bed along the trail (look close in the photo). We found a good mounting tree that could take in the view of the trail and we set up the camera. Then we tested the camera by taking turns walking the trail like a bear or wolf might do.
That was fun.
Students from the Klawock Middle School hike through the Harris River Interpretative Site.
Spring is turning into summer and schools around the nation are releasing their students to a well-deserved vacation. The schools in Klawock, Alaska are no exception. There’s a catch however. Before letting kids head home for summer vacation, the Klawock School District is releasing students into the woods.
On May 24th, teachers Abe Horpstead and Corby Weyhmiller loaded 18 students from the Klawock Middle School into vans to go on a field trip put together by a diverse group of professionals who make their living working in the woods.
Weyhmiller, of Klawock City School District, stated “This was a great opportunity for students to learn in the greatest classroom we have available. Our students had a blast learning from nature and seeing local people that have made a living that allows them to explore, protect, and manage our natural world. ”
Bob Girt of Sealaska Timber, along with Gary Lawton, a forestry and silviculture consultant for Sealaska Timber coordinated with Stephen SueWing, a Development Specialist with the State of Alaska Division of Economic Development, Michael Kampnich of The Nature Conservancy, and Quinn Aboudara a community catalyst with the Sustainable Southeast Partnership and Klawock Cooperative Association to engage local youths. Kai Environmental Consulting Services, based in Southeast Alaska generously provided lunch for these students and instructors in the field.
Bob Girt of Sealaska demonstrates some of the equipment used in many forestry careers.
Eighteen students from the Klawock Middle School first stopped along the Klawock Lake watershed where introductions were made and the students were able to speak with Aboudara. Aboudara spoke of the many restoration and research projects throughout the watershed. The students asked questions in regards to local sockeye salmon populations and possible careers in research fields.
Next, the students met Bob Girt and Gary Lawton at the Harris River Interpretive Site, a United States Forest Service experimental forest site that demonstrates various land management prescriptions such as different forms of tree thinning. Lawton, who had worked for the United States Forest Service for thirty-six years, discussed some of the benefits of the various forms of tree thinning as well as the numerous career paths associated with the Forest Service. Girt, demonstrated various types of equipment used by many in forestry careers.
Left to Right: Gary Lawton, Bob Girt, Stephen SueWing, and Michael Kampnich
The students then joined Michael Kampnich at the Harris River Campground, where they learned of The Nature Conservancy’s role in a number of projects around Prince of Wales Island, including genetic sampling of wolves, various restoration projects around the island, and supporting the various works engaged in by multiple tribes and other interested organizations.
This field trip is one of many ways in which the State of Alaska’s Division of Economic Development has been partnering with local tribal organizations such as Klawock Cooperative Association and the Organized Village of Kasaan, regional corporations such as Sealaska, other interests such as The Nature Conservancy, and local schools to engage with youth to foster opportunity and interest in the forest and promote local workforce development.
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.
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