Sitka Tribe/SEATOR join new Alaska Ocean Acidification Network tribal research working group

Esther Kennedy at the SEATOR lab in Sitka.

While most people don’t know much about ocean acidification, it has become a major concern of Alaska fishing communities. Higher rates of CO2 means the ocean is 30 percent more acidic than it was three centuries ago, and that has impacted everything from how shellfish build their shells to causing harmful algal blooms that result in paralytic shellfish poisoning and other issues.

In order to monitor ocean acidification and its impact in Alaska coastal communities, the Sitka Tribe of Alaska (STA) and its partners in the Southeast Alaska Tribal Ocean Research (SEATOR) have joined the new Alaska Ocean Acidification Network (AOAN) tribal research working group.

Jeromy Grant, left, and Sean Williams of Hoonah Indian Association take water samples for SEATOR.

“Global warming increases the risk of shellfish toxins, while its partner ocean acidification directly threatens shellfish survival,” STA Environmental Specialist Esther Kennedy said. “We monitor ocean acidification and shellfish toxins at local beaches to ensure that shellfish remain a sustainable and safe wild food source despite ongoing environmental changes.”

The tribal working group was formed to coordinate ocean acidification research and monitoring activities, as well as local community outreach activities, between tribal organizations across Alaska. So far discussions have been on creating consistency in data collection, and expanding data collection to sites in the Arctic that are not currently adequately sampled.  This effort is about expanding tribal capacity for research and monitoring, and having tribes take the lead in some areas in Alaska which are under sampled by university and agency researchers, as well as partnering with those researchers to build local capacity.

In addition to Sitka Tribe of Alaska (STA), other members of the AOAN tribal working group include Alutiiq Pride Shellfish Hatchery in Seward, Sun’aq Tribe of Kodiak, the Native Village of Kotzebue, and Yakutat Tlingít Tribe. SEATOR includes 16 Southeast tribal partners, plus Sun’aq Tribe in Kodiak, with its lab located in Sitka. The Sitka Sound Science Center recently posted an online survey about ocean acidification for the AOAN.

“Over the past few years the Sitka Tribe of Alaska (STA) has become a leader in Alaska in monitoring for shellfish toxicity for communities,” said Davin Holen, who is coordinating the tribal working group for AOAN. “This includes working closely with communities throughout Southeast Alaska to monitor stocks important for subsistence harvests. This effort has lead to the establishment of the Southeast Alaska Tribal Ocean Research (SEATOR), which is housed in the environmental department of STA. Recently the STA lab installed equipment to monitor for ocean acidification. STA worked collaboratively with the Alutiiq Pride Shellfish Hatchery in Seward to set up monitoring protocols for ocean acidification. Using their existing SEATOR network for testing shellfish, STA is beginning to monitor ocean acidification levels throughout Southeast Alaska. Additional monitoring will occur in collaboration with the Sun’aq Tribe of Kodiak for Kodiak Archipelago communities, along with two sites under development in the Arctic. Tribal monitoring of environmental conditions in Southeast Alaska by STA through the SEATOR network has become a model for other areas of Alaska, making STA a vital partner for marine science in Alaska.”

The Sitka Tribe of Alaska continuously monitors the carbonate chemistry of Sitka Harbor and is beginning a discrete sample collection program modeled after the Alutiiq Pride Shellfish Hatchery’s existing program. The Sitka Tribe coordinates discrete sample collection and analysis with the SEATOR partnership’s existing weekly phytoplankton and shellfish biotoxin monitoring programs, including with the Hoonah Indian Association and other Southeast Alaska tribal partners.

Kennedy said SEATOR’s participation in the Alaska Ocean Acidification Network tribal working group is a natural extension of its shellfish testing work.

“We installed a Burke-o-Lator (BoL) in early June, which is an instrument that can continuously monitor the chemistry of water pumped through it and can measure individual preserved water samples,” Kennedy said. “While we’re still working to fully calibrate the individual water sample analysis portion of the instrument, we have started shipping kits of bottles and preservative to our partners. Since our partners are already collecting a phytoplankton sample every week and shellfish samples every two weeks, our goal is for partners to add OA-sample collection to their phytoplankton sampling routine and to ship us preserved samples with their clams every two weeks. Ocean acidification’s specific effects on nearshore ecosystems are still not well known, so we’re hoping that by pairing OA samples with phytoplankton assemblages and shellfish toxins, we’ll get a clearer picture of each community’s vulnerability. We are also interested in seeing whether the chemistry in our OA samples helps us to predict phytoplankton toxins, as work in California has suggested that domoic acid production is higher in more acidic waters.”

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Sitka Tribe of Alaska receives EPA grant to study microplastics in subsistence foods

Sockeye salmon hangs from racks in the smoker.

The Sitka Tribe of Alaska (STA) has been awarded a one-year, $30,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency‘s Environmental Justice Small Grant Program. The grant project, “Microplastics in Tribal Subsistence Foods In Southeast Alaska,” will include the University of Alaska, Mount Edgecumbe High School, the Southeast Alaska Watershed Coalition (SAWC), and Sitka Conservation Society as partners.

Esther Kennedy of the Sitka Tribe of Alaska Resource Protection Department samples water near the Starrigavan Recreation Area dock for marine biotoxins such as paralytic shellfish poisoning. (Photo by Emily Kwong, KCAW-Raven Radio)

“STA will collect water and subsistence food samples from four locations within STA’s traditional territory to test for the presence of microplastics and associated toxins,” Sitka Tribe of Alaska grant administrator Rachel Henderson wrote in an email. “These results will be compared to commercially purchased foods and safety standards. These results will be shared with the public so they can make informed decisions about harvesting traditional foods. Local students will assist with the sampling of local food and water.”

Henderson said Jennifer Hamblen is the project manager for the tribe, and she is working with Jeff Feldspaugh of the tribe’s resource protection department and the tribe’s partner agencies.

“Part of STA’s mission is to help ensure that subsistence resources for STA Tribal Citizens are available and safe,” Hamblen said. “In recent years, there have been many studies and publications from other places, such as British Columbia, about microplastics and their associated toxins having devastating consequences on animals, and potentially affecting the people who consume them. This is a pilot project to see if there are microplastics in subsistence foods in our area and comparing locally collected seafood to seafood available at supermarkets.”

Microplastics, aka phthalates, found at low tide. There are concerns microplastics are getting into subsistence foods and that will impact people’s health. (Photo courtesy of EPA.gov)

University of Alaska Southeast was written in as a project partner and the UAS conference in July is one of the places that STA will present the results, Henderson said. The Southeast Alaska Watershed Coalition (SAWC) has done microplastic water collection on behalf of salmon in the past, and Sitka Conservation Society (SCS) is very invested and knowledgeable about microplastics and their effects on the environment.

“We’ll be collecting shellfish from the Starrigavan estuary to process for microplastic consumption. We will also collect water samples using the methods already established by SAWC,” Henderson said.

While the project is just starting to launch, it has had one setback, Henderson said. “When we wrote the grant, we were going to send the samples to a certified, plastic-free laboratory, such as the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Applied Science, Engineering, and Technology Laboratory. That lab ran out of funding and is no longer operational, so we’re looking for another lab. Right now Jenn’s writing the QAPP (an EPA requirement before an sample collection that has to be approved before we can start work) so we can collect samples and we’ll look at presence/absence of microplastics with students from Mount Edgecumbe High School. We’ll save samples in case we get an opportunity for a larger project and find an appropriate lab to run phthalate samples. There will be photos with MEHS collecting samples and processing samples after the QAPP is approved.”

Sitka Ranger District, Sitka Tribe to harvest Tlingit community potato garden

(Photo courtesy of Klas Stolpe/Juneau Empire) Bill Ehlers, assistant gardener at the Jensen-Olson Arboretum in Juneau, holds a Tlingít potato next to some of the potato plant’s flowers.

The community is invited to help harvest the Sitka Ranger District/Sitka Tribe of Alaska Tlingit potato garden and learn scientific and cultural information about the unique crop at 3 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 25, at the USDA Forest Service Sitka Ranger District office, 2108 Halibut Point Road.

Leading Tlingit potato researcher Elizabeth Kunibe will join the group to present information on the biology, history, and cultural aspects Tlingit potatoes. Topics will include harvesting potatoes, learning to store potatoes for seed and for food, preparation for next year’s garden, and the cultural aspects of Tlingit potatoes and native gardening.

The Sitka Ranger District provided the sunny plot of land for the shared potato garden and tended the garden over the summer after volunteers from the Sitka Tribe’s Traditional Foods Program, the gardening class from Pacific High School, and others from the community planted the potatoes in April.

Community involvement is needed for the harvest. Participants should come prepared for the weather as all activities will occur outdoors. All of the attendees are asked to wear boots, gardening gloves, and bring hand trowels or shovels. Bringing buckets of kelp to incorporate into the soil after harvesting would be beneficial.

The potatoes will need to be dried and prepared for storage. Many of the potatoes harvested will be saved for next year’s seed potatoes, Depending on the size of the harvest, the group hopes to share the harvest among the volunteers and through the Sitka Tribe’s Traditional Foods Program and Social Services.

Tlingit potatoes (sometimes called Maria’s potatoes) have been present in Tlingit gardens for over 200 years. The potatoes originate from Mexico or Chile and were a trade item in Southeast Alaska in the early 1800s.

This work day and educational opportunity will be at the Sitka Ranger District office, located at 2108 Halibut Point Road. For more information, contact Michelle Putz at 907-747-2708 or mputz@fs.fed.us. For interviews and information to be used for publication, contactthe Tongass Public Affairs Officer Paul Robbins at 907-228-6201 or paulrobbins@fs.fed.us.

Paralytic shellfish toxin warning issued for Sitka’s North Starrigavan Beach and other Southeast beaches

The SouthEast Alaska Tribal Ocean Research (SEATOR) project, SouthEast Alaska Tribal Toxins (SEATT) partnership and the Sitka Tribe of Alaska Environmental Research Lab (STAERL) on Monday, June 5, issued an advisory warning that people should not eat molluscan shellfish (bivalves such as clams, oysters, scallops, mussels, geoducks, cockles, etc.) harvested at North Starrigavan Beach North in Sitka.

This is one of several recent advisory warnings issued by SEATOR about elevated levels of the paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) toxins above the FDA regulatory limit of 80µg/100g. Recent warnings have been issued for all species of molluscan shellfish at three beaches in Ketchikan (with extremely high levels that could be deadly), Metlakatla, Craig, Kodiak and Hoonah. There also are species-specific warnings issued in Klawock and Skagway.

Harmful algal blooms, such as paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP), typically have not been monitored in Southeast Alaska for subsistence and recreational harvesters of clams, mussels, oysters, cockles, and other bivalves (commercial harvests are tested). Even though many people in Southeast Alaska love to harvest shellfish, eating it comes with some risks. There have been several PSP outbreaks in recent years that sent people to the hospital, and in 2010 two deaths were attributed to PSP and other HABs, such as Alexandrium, Pseudo-nitzchia and Dinophysis.

The PSP advisories are for bivalve shellfish that have been recreationally or subsistence harvested. It does not apply to commercially harvested shellfish, which are tested before they enter the market. The advisory does not apply to other shellfish, such as crabs or shrimp, which do not carry PSP (unless you eat the crab butter or viscera).

The warnings, according to SEATOR, “This does not ‘certify’ any of our monitored sites. Conditions may change rapidly and data is site-specific. Caution should always be taken prior to harvesting.”

SEATOR posts updates and information to its website at seator.org/data, which can help provide Southeast Alaska residents with reliable information so they can choose whether or not to harvest shellfish. In addition to testing water samples weekly from certain Southeast beaches, STAERL also tests samples of butter clams, littleneck clams, and blue mussels (which is STAERL’s indicator species, because of how quickly blue mussels absorb saxotoxins).

In addition to the saxitoxins that cause PSP, the lab in Sitka has been monitoring for other blooms that cause amnesic shellfish poisoning (ASP). PSP and ASP can cause severe health problems, including death in some cases.

Since most beaches in Alaska aren’t tested for harmful algal blooms, SEATOR and the SEATT partnership were formed in October 2014 to train people to test beaches in Southeast Alaska. In April 2015, the Sitka Tribe of Alaska opened a regional lab on Katlian Street, so samples could be tested in Sitka without having to be sent to the Lower 48, which delayed results. By testing for harmful algal blooms, SEATOR and the SEATT partnership hope to be able to provide information so people can make informed choices whether or not to harvest or eat shellfish.

To learn more about harmful algal blooms and how they can raise the risk for PSP and ASP (amnesic shellfish poisoning, which also can be fatal), go to SEATOR’s resources page. If you have shellfish you recently harvested and want to test it, click this link to learn what you need to do to have it tested by STAERL or watch this video. SEATOR also has a new Facebook page, where people can find updates. Please contact STAERL at 747-7395 with any additional questions.

Sitka Tribe of Alaska to host annual Sitka Herring Festival Community Potluck on April 12

The Sitka Tribe of Alaska will host the annual Sitka Herring Festival Community Potluck Dinner at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, April 12, at Harrigan Centennial Hall, and will celebrate the cultural and ecological importance of Pacific herring.

The potluck is open to the community — please feel free to invite anyone you think may be interested. Please bring a dish to share.
The event also will feature talks on recent work on herring genetics and traditional ecological knowledge by Dr. Lorenz Hauser and Eleni Petrou of the University of Washington. Dr. Hauser will present “What can population genetics do for herring management?” and Ms. Petrou will present “Genetics and traditional ecological knowledge detect herring diversity in Puget Sound.”
Dr. Hauser is a Professor with the University of Washington’s School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences and Principal Investigator of the Marine Population Genomics Lab at UW. In addition to his work on herring genetics in Puget Sound, Dr. Hauser has also collaborated with the Alaska Salmon Program to estimate reproductive success of sockeye salmon. Ms. Petrou is a Ph.D. student in Dr. Hauser’s lab and her interests include investigating marine connectivity and exploring the impacts of human activities on marine ecosystems. She is integrating traditional ecological knowledge into her study of the population genetics of Pacific herring.
For a bit more context, here is a brief article on Dr. Hauser and Ms. Petrou’s work with herring population genetics and traditional ecological knowledge, https://wsg.washington.edu/elder-memories-ancient-dna-and-the-fate-of-the-herring-2/.
For more information, contact fisheries biologist Kyle Rosendale of the Sitka Tribe of Alaska Resources Department at 747-7241.

Tlingít potato garden being readied for community of Sitka

(Photo courtesy of Klas Stolpe/Juneau Empire) Bill Ehlers, assistant gardener at the Jensen-Olson Arboretum in Juneau, holds a Tlingít potato next to some of the potato plant’s flowers.

The U.S. Forest Service-Sitka Ranger District and Sitka Tribe of Alaska have joined forces to help create an educational opportunity and traditional food source for community members.

The two groups will show how to grow Tlingít potatoes, and tell about their biology, history and cultural aspects.

The Sitka Ranger District is providing a plot of land to serve as the shared potato garden. The Sitka Tribe’s Traditional Foods Program and the gardening class from Pacific High School will assist on the project, but community involvement also is needed.

Attendees should bring boots, gardening gloves and shovels, and (if possible) five-gallon buckets of kelp to incorporate into the soil. The first work day and educational opportunity is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. on Friday, April 14, at the Sitka Ranger District office, 2108 Halibut Point Road.

Organizers said that members of the community who help tend the shared garden may receive more than gratitude as their reward.

“We hope to share the harvest among those helping out, and possibly share potatoes through the Sitka Tribe’s Traditional Foods Program and Social Services,” Sitka District Ranger Perry Edwards said. “This project will teach people how to grow and sustain a traditional food, while supporting the growing need for food security among Sitka families.”

K’únts’ — sometimes called Maria’s Potatoes — have been present in Tlingít gardens for more than 200 years. The potatoes originate from Mexico or Chile and were a trade item in Southeast Alaska in the early 1800s.

For more information, contact Michelle Putz at 747-2708 or mputz@fs.fed.us.

Paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) advisory lifted for Starrigavan Beach North in Sitka, but others remain

snapshotseatorshellfish11172016

The SouthEast Alaska Tribal Ocean Research (SEATOR) project, SouthEast Alaska Tribal Toxins (SEATT) partnership and the Sitka Tribe of Alaska Environmental Research Lab (STAERL) on Thursday, Nov. 17, lifted an advisory warning that people should not eat molluscan shellfish (bivalves such as clams, oysters, scallops, mussels, geoducks, cockles, etc.) harvested at Starrigavan Beach North in Sitka.

However, the recent harmful algal bloom warning for the Sitka Sound Science Center Beach remains in place. There also have been new warnings issued on Wednesday, Nov. 16, for Gartina/Harbor Way Beach in Hoonah and the Annette Island/Moss Point and Sand Bar beaches in Metlakatla.

Esther Kennedy of the Sitka Tribe of Alaska Resource Protection Department samples water near the Starrigavan Recreation Area dock for marine biotoxins such as paralytic shellfish poisoning. (Photos by Emily Kwong, KCAW-Raven Radio)

Esther Kennedy of the Sitka Tribe of Alaska Resource Protection Department samples water near the Starrigavan Recreation Area dock for marine biotoxins such as paralytic shellfish poisoning. (Photo by Emily Kwong, KCAW-Raven Radio)

Samples harvested by STAERL at Starrigavan Beach North on Monday, Oct. 31, had elevated levels of the paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) toxins above the FDA regulatory limit of 80µg/100g. When samples were taken on Monday, Nov. 14, the toxin levels had dropped below the regulatory limit, which allowed SEATOR to lift the advisory, which includes little-neck clams, butter clams and cockle clams.

The Sitka Sound Science Center Beach advisory is based on shellfish harvested on Oct. 24. Molluscan shellfish from this site should not be harvested at this time. The Hoonah and Metlakatla advisories are based on shellfish harvested on Monday, Nov. 14, having PSP toxins above the FDA regulatory limit.

The PSP advisories are for bivalve shellfish that have been recreationally or subsistence harvested. It does not apply to commercially harvested shellfish, which are tested before they enter the market. The advisory does not apply to other shellfish, such as crabs or shrimp, which do not carry PSP (unless you eat the crab butter or viscera).

There have been several harmful algal bloom alerts released by SEATOR this summer, but this recent announcement is a good reminder that PSP can happen throughout the year. It also discredits the myth that you don’t have to worry about shellfish harvested in months containing an R.

According to SEATOR, “This does not ‘certify’ any of our monitored sites. Conditions may change rapidly and data is site-specific. Caution should always be taken prior to harvesting.”

The butter clam has one set of rings that go one direction only, around the same center point (Photo courtesy of Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation)

SEATOR posts updates and information to its website at seator.org/data, which can help provide Southeast Alaska residents with reliable information so they can choose whether or not to harvest shellfish. In addition to testing water samples weekly from certain Southeast beaches, STAERL also tests samples of butter clams, littleneck clams, and blue mussels (which is STAERL’s indicator species, because of how quickly blue mussels absorb saxotoxins).

In addition to the saxitoxins that cause PSP, the lab in Sitka has been monitoring for other blooms that cause amnesic shellfish poisoning (ASP). PSP and ASP can cause severe health problems, including death in some cases.

Since most beaches in Alaska aren’t tested for harmful algal blooms, SEATOR and the SEATT partnership were formed in October 2014 to train people to test beaches in Southeast Alaska. In April 2015, the Sitka Tribe of Alaska opened a regional lab on Katlian Street, so samples could be tested in Sitka without having to be sent to the Lower 48, which delayed results. By testing for harmful algal blooms, SEATOR and the SEATT partnership hope to be able to provide information so people can make informed choices whether or not to harvest or eat shellfish.

Harmful algal blooms, such as paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP), typically have not been monitored in Southeast Alaska for subsistence and recreational harvesters of clams, mussels, oysters, cockles, and other bivalves (commercial harvests are tested). Even though many people in Southeast Alaska love to harvest shellfish, eating it comes with some risks. There have been several PSP outbreaks in recent years that sent people to the hospital, and in 2010 two deaths were attributed to PSP and other HABs, such as Alexandrium, Pseudo-nitzchia and Dinophysis.

To learn more about harmful algal blooms and how they can raise the risk for PSP and ASP (amnesic shellfish poisoning, which also can be fatal), go to SEATOR’s resources page. If you have shellfish you recently harvested and want to test it, click this link to learn what you need to do to have it tested by STAERL or watch this video. SEATOR also has a new Facebook page, where people can find updates. Please contact STAERL at 747-7395 with any additional questions.