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.”

• ‘Building Food Security in Alaska’ report released during Alaska Food Festival and Conference

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The release of a new report, “Building Food Security in Alaska,” was one of the highlights of the recent Alaska Food Festival and Conference (Nov. 7-9 at the University of Alaska Lucy Anchorage Cuddy Center). This is one of the first comprehensive statewide food security reports compiled for Alaska.

The report was written by Ken Meter and Megan Phillips Goldenberg of the Crossroads Resource Center in Minneapolis, which has done six in-depth statewide food assessments over the past five years and 14 statewide food assessments overall. The report was commissioned by the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, with collaboration from the Alaska Food Policy Council.

The Crossroads Resource Center website provides this summary of the report:

Like most other states, Alaska imports about 95 percent of the food it purchases. Yet this state is more distant from prevailing food production regions than other states. Alaskans feel a special sense of vulnerability. Despite a rich history in dairy and cattle production, most of these foods are now imported. Much of the arable farmland has been paved over by development. Moreover, Alaskans who wish to purchase some of the $3 billion of seafood harvested from its ocean waters typically have no choice but to buy through Seattle vendors.

Still, farms produce a rich variety of crops and livestock. Direct sales from farmers to household consumers run at 13 times the national average, amounting to one of every six dollars farmers earn selling food to humans. Lettuce, peppers, and cucumbers are available year-round from indoor farms. Chickens are grown inside greenhouses that rely upon surplus heat from nearby buildings.

In no other state is harvesting wild foods as important. Subsistence and personal use hunters bring in an estimated $900 million worth of salmon, caribou, moose, foraged greens and berries, and other foods. Yet even here, hunters and gatherers face special challenges: a decline of hunting skills, weakening ice, changing migrations, and radioactive fallout.

Our study, written by Ken Meter and Megan Phillips Goldenberg, offers practical steps for building a more reliable food supply by growing, storing, and marketing more Alaska-grown food to Alaskans. Commissioned by the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.

Copies of the full 180-page report and a shorter executive summary and recommendations are linked below. In addition, most of the presentations and panel discussions from the Alaska Food Festival and Conference can be found here. This link includes a keynote presentation by Sitka Local Foods Network Board President Lisa Sadleir-Hart about the experience of compiling the Sitka Community Food Assessment, plus Sitka residents Keith Nyitray of the Sitka Food Co-op and Gordon Blue of the Alaska Sustainable Fisheries Trust participated in panel discussions about food cooperatives and community-based fisheries, respectively.

In addition, earlier this year two locally focussed food assessments were released. Copies of the Sitka Community Food Assessment Indicators Report (released in April 2014) and the Southeast Alaska Food System Assessment (released in February 2014) can be found in the Documents section of our website.

• Building Food Security in Alaska, Executive Summary and Recommendations, by Ken Meter and Megan Phillips Goldenberg (released November 2014)

• Building Food Security in Alaska, by Ken Meter and Megan Phillips Goldenberg (released November 2014)

• Inaugural Alaska Food Festival and Conference to feature Sitka speakers

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AlaskaFoodPolicyCouncilLogoThree Sitka residents will have prominent roles during the inaugural Alaska Food Festival and Conference on Friday through Sunday, Nov. 7-9, at the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Lucy Cuddy Center. This event is hosted by the Alaska Food Policy Council.

Sitka Local Foods Network Board President Lisa Sadleir-Hart will deliver one of the two keynote speeches during lunch on Friday, when she will discuss food security and the results of the Sitka Community Food Assessment.

Keith Nyitray, president of the Sitka Food Co-op board, will participate in a panel discussion Friday afternoon about the future of food cooperatives in Alaska. Gordon Blue, the president/executive director of the Alaska Sustainable Fisheries Trust (which operates the Alaskans Own Seafood community supported fishery program), will participate in a Friday afternoon panel discussion about innovations to enhancing local fishing livelihoods in coastal Alaska.

This event has a different theme for each of the three days. Friday is the Alaska Food Policy Conference, which features local and national speakers who will present and lead discussions on a variety of food security, production, business and community issues. Saturday is the Alaska Food Festival, which gives participants to sample a variety of Alaska food products, attend short classes on various food topics, shop at the farmers market, etc. The event wraps up Sunday with the Food System Open House, where participants can visit sites in Anchorage that are doing exciting work in our food system.

To register for the Alaska Food Festival and Conference use this link, http://akfoodpolicycouncil.wordpress.com/conference/register/. Registration is $125, or $75 for students. For questions or more information, please feel free to contact the Alaska Food Policy Council at 1-907-269-8072 or akfoodpolicycouncil@gmail.com.