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 Hills, 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.