For millennia, the people of Southeast Alaska have relied on the sea for food. But what happens when country foods can be deadly? This question was the source of the founding of the Sitka Tribe of Alaska Environmental Research Lab in 2016. The lab tests seashells from 17 southeastern communities as well as from Kodiak Island tribes.
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The state tests commercial shellfish for toxins. But Sitka Tribe Resource Protection Director Jeff Feldpausch says subsistence fishermen are on their own.
âThey don’t do any public testing or certify beaches in Alaska like you see in Washington and other Lower 48 states,â he said.
Feldpausch says the state’s official message is simply not to eat clams and mussels on the beach due to the risk of toxins.
âWe just thought, you know, that’s not an acceptable response,â Feldpausch said. âWe started down this path with, I think, 15 other tribes in the southeast to look for ways to ensure safe access to the shellfish resources. “
Paralytic shellfish poisoning, or PSP, is caused by the overgrowth of toxic algae. Filter crustaceans like clams and mussels store biotoxin from algae in their tissues, which can be fatal if ingested.
The PSP has always existed in the South East. Fishermen could once rely only on ancestral knowledge to be safe, but climate change has made PSP more common and more difficult to predict without testing.
âYou know, a lot of old fishermen used to say that you only harvest seashells in a month with ‘r’ in it, and we’re starting to find out that isn’t necessarily the case right now,â Feldpausch said. âIt’s just that with climate change we are seeing a higher frequency of levels of PSP or biotoxins that can cause death. “
It was in the spring of 2016 when the Sitka tribe of Alaska took a risk and opened their research lab, the first of its kind in Southeast Alaska. In November, the lab was recognized by Harvard’s Honoring Nations program at the 2021 American Indian Governance Awards. Of the 70 different programs that applied, Sitka Tribe was one of the top six.
Feldpausch says tribal sovereignty is central to the lab’s mission.
âSadly, Alaska’s state statute and Native Claims Resolution Act has separated tribes and tribal citizens from land and resources, to the point where the tribes really don’t have much more. ‘influence, or much more influence over how these resources are managed than any other entity or individual within the state, “he says. “So basically it gives tribes the ability to act to exercise sovereignty over some of the resources.”
For those who use the services of the laboratory, it is not just a question of subsistence. Yakutat Tlingit Tribe Environmental Director Jennifer Hanlon said the initiative was part of a larger struggle for cultural preservation.
âThis data – it’s really important to let fishermen know about current levels, if there are any concerns about when and where to harvest the shellfish,â Hanlon said. âBecause it’s such an important sustenance food for us that nourishes our people and our communities, on so many levels. Not only nutritional, but also by promoting this relationship with our ancestral lands and waters. “
Feldspauch says the tribe’s shell testing program is still expanding and now includes training for tribal citizens.
âIn fact, we are testing two other biotoxins produced by harmful algal blooms. So we are expanding our range of tests, âhe said. âWe are also testing the livelihood resources for total mercury. And beyond that, outside of the lab, we actually learned how to train tribal citizens or other tribes to do shellfish biomass surveys.
Sitka Tribe offers free seashell testing for Sitka residents and continuously monitors Starrigavan Beach, with new data every two weeks, year round. For more information about the lab and their services, you can visit their website.
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