Red Alert: The Impact of Climate Change on Northwest Coast Tribal Fisheries
On April 22-24, the Northwest Indian College in Bellingham, Washington hosted a conference to discuss the impact of climate change on Northwest coast Tribal fisheries. Those attending and presenting included Tribal elders, government scientists, academics, and students of the Northwest Indian College (NWIC). The conference, which was supported by NASA, the Bullitt Foundation, and the Climate Institute, served as a forum for sharing wisdom about the environment and for discussing solutions to the fisheries crisis. In his opening remarks, Steve Pavlik, conference coordinator and professor of Northwest Indian studies and science at NWIC, discussed the importance of mutual understanding between scientists, policymakers, academics and Indians in urgent discussions of climate change. It is essential to bring native people to the table alongside Western scientists, he said, because native “memory and knowledge of the land is long and deep,” while Western science’s “technology is staggering” and critical in adapting to changing ecosystems. According to Pavlik, these groups must collaborate and not talk past each other because “if we lose the health of the planet, nothing else really matters.”
Tom Sampson, an elder of Tsartlit First Nation, set the tone for the conference with eloquent words about the spirituality of salmon. “Humans are the babies of creation,” he told the participants, “so we learn from our older family members how to live. We learn from the salmon, from the wolf, the elk; each of these is older than us and they know how to live.” Sampson discussed that though recent generations have not learned how to be spiritually connected to the land or how to protect the environment, previous generations participated in a ceremony in which the elders gave children four pieces of salmon, saying “this is very little, but it is all you will ever need and you will never be hungry again.” In the course of a few quick decades, humans lost the ability to “fix their appetites.” The resulting greed is a power we can’t control, Sampson said, and rather than be the salmon’s protectors, we have become “the instruments of our own self-destruction.”
Nate Mantua, a member of the Climate Impact Group at the University of Washington, outlined the evidence that we are in fact destroying the resources upon which we rely. Retreating glaciers, declines in low-elevation snowpack, higher air and water temperatures, and lower river flows are all caused by anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. What does this mean for salmon? With less snow melt, the summer low-flow season is shorter, spelling trouble for egg incubation. Ocean acidification and destruction to coastal habitat and food chains are also problematic, as 90% of a salmon’s growth occurs in the ocean. Perhaps worst of all, river temperatures are approaching 21˚C (69.8˚F), the thermal stress threshold for salmon that halts upstream migration and increases vulnerability to disease. According to Bob Bilby of the Weyerhauser Company, 20% of salmon habitat in Washington and 40% in both Idaho and Oregon will be completely uninhabitable by 2090.
Already, adverse conditions are hindering salmon survival. In 2002, the effects of climate change combined in a perfect storm scenario on the Klamath River. Water-use conflicts, two endemic fish diseases, low water flows and higher temperatures due to drought collectively caused the loss of 30,000-60,000 adult Chinook salmon.
Shellfish are affected by climate change as well, as ocean acidification due to higher carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere hinders shell development. Lizzie Oberlander of Lummi Shellfish Operations discussed the implications for entire food-chains: as oysters, clams and mussels are unable to absorb enough calcium carbonate to grow shells and survive, the birds and aquatic mammals that eat shellfish also suffer. This dramatic loss of salmon, shellfish, birds and mammals destroys ecosystems and hurts the Indian nations who rely on them. Whereas in the past, Indians were forced onto reservations, the modern form of marginalization is through environmental destruction, which Preston Hardison of Tulalip Tribe calls “ecological dispossession – when the green rug is pulled out from under you.”
With signs of a changing climate outside our front doors, many at the conference wondered why people aren’t more concerned, as environmental changes are occurring at a faster rate than expected. Terry Williams of Tulalip Natural Resources noted that while “the impacts are startling, even more startling are the people who still reject the idea of climate change.” Williams attributed this disconnect to the fact that the landscape that seems natural to us is the one we see when we’re born. For example, Sampson’s grandson is amazed to see 100 ducks, but Sampson can remember 30 years ago when there were 5,000 or 10,000 ducks at the pond. “We’ve altered everything so radically,” says Williams, “that when someone in the state legislature says there’s no climate change, we can’t show them the lack of ducks, the fish, the wetlands, because they never saw them.”
The accelerating rate of change to salmon habitat has scientists and tribal elders alike worried about the future of the species. Pete Bisson of the U.S. Forest Service is concerned that the rate of temperature change and stream flow may outpace the salmon’s ability to adapt. Mary Ruckelshaus of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center, however, is more optimistic. She suggests a focus on improving habitat conditions at each stage of the salmon life cycle (including spawning, migration, etc) will result in salmon exhibiting positive biological responses. Implementing a restoration strategy can buy time for salmon to recover while waiting for policymakers to address the root cause of climate change: greenhouse gas emissions.
According to Ruckelshaus, effective restoration efforts will include maintaining shade cover to minimize increases in water temperature, promoting a forest structure that retains snow water to stabilize river flow levels, protecting springs from water appropriation, disconnecting the road drainage network from streams to lessen the discharge during intense storms, and ensuring that fish have access to their required seasonal habitats. Scott Vanderkooi of the Western Fisheries Research Center added that removing dams, such as the four on the Klamath River, would allow fall Chinook salmon to migrate and spawn earlier and in better thermal conditions, since dams increase water temperatures beyond the climate change induced warming.
Tim Beechie, a member of NOAA’s Ecosystem Process Research Team, raised the issue of salmon resilience versus sensitivity. Decreased habitat diversity and a smaller population can limit salmon’s ability to absorb imposed stresses such as dams or influxes of farmed fish. Restoration strategies, therefore, should not only reduce climate change impacts but also increase salmon’s range of options. The key actions will counter changes in stream flow and temperature, Beechie said; effective tactics will include reducing water withdrawal (dams), improving riparian areas (shade), and restoring incised channels.
These restoration strategies are necessary to ensure salmon’s immediate survival; long-term protection will require serious reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to alleviate the damage climate change inflicts on river and ocean ecosystems. Hardison warned that “ecosystems have thresholds; once they break down it will be very difficult and expensive to bring them back.” Many at the conference agreed that it would take cooperation on all levels to achieve results, including strong participation from native populations. Hardison called for opportunities for Tribal representatives to speak with U.S. Congress on a government-to-government level about environmental protection. “We have to be at the table, because we bring so much to the table. We’re collaborators,” declared Billy Frank, Jr. of the Northwest Indians Fisheries Commission.
Fawn Sharpe, Chairwoman of Quinault Nation, strives for fair representation of the 110 million indigenous people (largely living on biodiversity hotspots around the world) in climate change negotiations, such as the upcoming talks in Copenhagen. “What is the value of Indian lands to the U.S. in meeting greenhouse gas emissions reductions standards?” asked Sharpe. “The science community is noticing that Tribal restoration strategies are best practice for resource management and a balanced ecosystem,” she added. Sharpe has been working with five tribes in five countries to hold a caucus this summer regarding Tribal knowledge of mitigation and adaptation strategies, the findings of which will be brought to Copenhagen in December.
Efforts such as Sharpe’s are necessary to alert policymakers at Copenhagen of what is at stake should the negotiations fail, or produce emissions reductions standards that are weaker than scientists’ recommended levels. Unless CO2 concentrations are controlled, native populations risk losing not only the environment around them but also their economic livelihoods and cultures.
Oscar Kawagley of the Yupik tribe in Alaska stressed the threat greenhouse gases pose to his lifestyle. “The cold made me. The cold made my language and its 37 words for snow conditions. The cold made my culture and my technology. So what am I going to do without the cold?” The fossil fuel-based development of rich nations has harmed native peoples’ ability to practice their culture and maintain the lifestyle of their elders.
“It’s not just about salmon and shellfish,” said Hardison. “It’s about the whole range of things that sustain a culture. For indigenous people, it’s vital for the survival of culture and identity to work on ecosystem restoration.” In the words of one conference participant, “we want to do what we can in our little corner of the world, but the problem is bigger than that. I don’t know if we can live off the land anymore.” Despite generations of knowledge about environmental protection, many Tribal elders wonder if they will ever see ecosystems as healthy as when the elders were young. Bold action at Copenhagen will allow tribes in the Pacific Northwest to look to a time when salmon populations will recover, rather than if.
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