Climate change looks different in Southeast Alaska. Here’s how tribes are planning for that.
Alaska’s most recent plan to address climate change was removed from the state’s website back in December. Meanwhile, some municipalities and tribal governments are moving ahead with their own ideas about how to respond to the growing problem.
And now, Southeast Alaska’s largest tribe has a plan. It wants the region to be included in the climate change discussion.
At a point near the Auk Village Recreation Area in Juneau, Kenneth Weitzel jokes that he’s drawn the short straw. Today, he’s going in the water.
“The boss told me,” he says with a chuckle.
His co-workers at the Central Council of the Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska are on the shore — dragging rakes across the sand to collect butter clams, mussels and cockles to be tested for paralytic shellfish poisoning.
But Weitzel is doing a different task.
He’ll be sampling the water for the two types of phytoplankton that can cause those shellfish to become unsafe for humans to eat.
He says it’s kind of ironic this is part of his job now, as a natural resource specialist. He grew up in a community where he saw jars of smoked cockles stacked on his neighbor’s shelves. It was frequently on the menu at his home, too.
But he admits it wasn’t always his favorite food.
“I remember all the times as a kid in Hoonah crying because I wanted McDonald’s and not something out of the ocean,” he said.
He appreciates eating smoked cockles now.
But Weitzel says consuming this important subsistence resource can be a little like rolling the dice, as warming ocean temperatures become increasingly persistent.
This monitoring program — started by the Sitka Tribe of Alaska six years ago — is addressing a huge need.
Weitzel says it’s an example of what the region needs more of.
For the past three years, Weitzel has been working on Tlingit and Haida’s climate change adaptation plan — a kind of first attempt to lay out more of the tribal governments’ priorities. A big one is building a more robust network of scientific research.
Weitzel said as he started to the put the policy together, he noticed gaps.
“All the data was focused on Northern Alaska, where the squeaky wheel is getting the oil,” he said.
Of course, in some parts of Alaska, the wheel has nearly fallen off the axle entirely. Sea ice was virtually nonexistent in the Bering Sea this winter.
Davin Holen said he isn’t surprised there’s not more research that’s relevant to Southeast Alaska. Holen works with Alaska Sea Grant and helps coastal communities with climate change policies. He assisted Tlingit & Haida with the creation of their plan.
And he said, for the most part, federal agencies have focused their research efforts on offshore projects — in deep ocean waters.
“A lot of Southeast is the near-shore environment, where the state has more jurisdiction,” Holen said. “But right now, they don’t have the resources to do a lot of the monitoring that needs to be done.”
Like the shellfish testing, tribal governments are doing it themselves.
Raymond Paddock, the environmental coordinator at Tlingit and Haida, described the changes that Southeast Alaska is experiencing as “more nuanced.” Aside from the rapidly-retreating glaciers, there’s a host of slow-moving disasters to consider, like depleting fish stocks and the decline of yellow cedar, a culturally valuable tree species.
Paddock said the region doesn’t necessarily fit the mold for the rest of state. But the concerns are still valid.
“We really couldn’t model ourselves after what’s happening in the north,” Paddock said. “Granted, our brothers and sisters up there are having big problems and issues. But ecologically, it’s different up there.”
So Tlingit and Haida looked to its neighbors south — the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe in Washington state — for a framework to adapt their climate change adaptation plan.
In April, the tribal executive council approved it.
The 53-page document begins with an acknowledgment: The region is at a disadvantage. There needs to be more scientific research and monitoring efforts to better prepare for the future.
Paddock sees this as an opportunity.
“As administrations change, priorities change as well, and we see that on national level as well as here on the state level, though, too,” Paddock said. “So it always comes back to our communities being those leaders.”
Within the next year, Tlingit & Haida hopes to identify a couple of actionable items, like collecting more data on what’s happening to salmon.
At a time when climate change information has disappeared from federal and state websites, Paddock said owning that research will give tribal governments some added assurance.
“Data is power,” Paddock said. “And that’s what we’re trying to build our tribes to have, is to have that power in their back pocket when needed.”
Back on the shoreline, a class of kindergartners randomly show up, as the Tlingit and Haida environmental team finish collecting the shellfish to be sent off to a lab in Sitka. In about a week, the lab results will be back, indicating whether or not the shellfish are safe to eat.
A man tending to a beach fire nearby asks the team if they’re testing on behalf of the state or the feds.
They tell him neither. They’re working with tribal governments.