Monday, June 10, 2013

Tribes Respond to Rampant Climate Change Impacts

Image courtesy of Swinomish Planning Dept

Climate change is a major concern in the Pacific Northwest. The biodiverse and productive ecosystems of the Northwest have historically supported massive fisheries and major logging. Climate
change is projected to have major impacts on ecosystems across the Northwest; some of these projections to extremely biodiverse ecosystems are quickly becoming reality (Swinomish 2008, US Forest Service 2011).Native peoples are at the forefront of many of these concerns. Because of the important role that these ecosystems play in tribal community subsistence, economy, ceremony and society, climate change impacts to native ecosystems are of special concern to native peoples. The obligation of tribal governments to protect and manage natural resources on their lands has made climate change a major focus of many tribal management plans. Tribes have created scientific research and adaptation planning aimed at better understanding how climate change will impact culturally important species and ecosystems; native science and resource management brings together modern, western research with tribal science and philosophy in innovative ways to gain a better understanding of climate impacts and potential solutions. Looking to native research on climate change for evidence of climate impacts is a vital component of ensuring the continued health of biodiversity of Pacific Northwest ecosystems.

Ocean Acidification Explained, courtesy of NOAA
      Ocean acidification seriously compromises the ability of shellfish to calcify shells and survive past infancy (Fabry et al. 2008). Rapid changes in ocean pH levels may not give shellfish, sea plants, and plankton time to adapt, and could result in catastrophic collapse to ocean ecosystems (Guinotte and Fabry 2005). In the last decade, several tribal communities have observed ocean acidification and its harmful impacts on shellfish. The Swinomish Tribal Indian Community has identified ocean acidification as a major concern for their community (Swinomish). Outside research has validated the concerns of the Swinomish. Guinotte and Fabry (2005), for example, note that past mass marine extinctions in the last 300 million years have been linked to ocean acidification and that present ocean acidification rates are changing at levels not seen in the last 20 million years. In a separate study, Faby et al. (2008) showed a rapidly increasing rate of carbon uptake in North Pacific waters, and provide direct evidence that ocean acidification is occurring.
       Washington State's oyster industry is already being impacted heavily by ocean acidification (Welch 2012). Oysters can no longer reproduce in Willapa Bay, and must be reared in hatcheries until they have formed strong enough shells to withstand the altered conditions of the bay. While commercial oysters are certainly not a hallmark of a biodiverse ecosystem, their struggles should be alarming because of the implications for other shellfish. Oysters can be our “canary in the coal mine,” and should definitely sound an alarm that shellfish may be in imminent danger from ocean acidification. This is especially important given the role that many shellfish play at the bottom of food chains: losing them would have profound effects on ecosystems.

For short film on the Willapa Bay, oysters and ocean acidification see:   Oyster Farmers: Facing Climate Change

From Battin et al. (2007): Projected changes in Chinook spawning salmon based on two climate models
       Salmon and other fish make up an important component of many native peoples' diets, as well as support important commercial fisheries. In addition to their importance to humans in the Pacific Northwest, salmon are a keystone species in many Pacific Northwest ecosystems. Changes to water systems, such as changes to temperature and precipitation patterns threaten the health of salmon (Bisson 2008). Research by Battin et al. (2007) used climate modeling to evaluate how climate change may affect salmon restoration in the Snohomish River watershed. They concluded that increased water temperature, changes to seasonality of rainfall, and the acceleration of snowpack melting in the spring are all likely to harm salmon populations. Their modeling included the use of two separate climate models, both of which were chosen for their ability to accurately model the 20th century hydrologic profile of the Puget Sound (where the Snohomish River is found). Research has demonstrated that salmon are especially vulnerable to climate change because of the rapid shift in river temperature and physiology that climate change is causing, and is projected to cause in the future (Battin et al. 2007, Bisson 2008). Given the role of salmon as a critical keystone species in the Northwest, working to ensure salmon health must be priority in management moving forward.

              The Nisqually Tribe has undertaken serious adaptation planning by altering the landscape to help species adapt to stressful changes such as climate change and urbanization. By bolstering the health of these ecosystems, and providing less disturbed habitat for salmon and other species, Nisqually hopes to improve resiliency of these culturally important ecosystems. This will result in ecosystems that are better able to withstand the pressures of climate change. While much of adaptation planning is focused on helping people adapt to climate change, efforts such as these are equally, if not more, important. This work focuses on helping ecosystems adapt in order to support keystone species and ensure that biodiversity is not crippled by sudden changes to climate. Nisqually is also helping salmon adapt is preparing for sea level rise (Kaufman 2011, Cambell and De Melker 2012). Sea level rise is projected to swallow up many estuarine ecosystems along the Washington coast. Estuaries are known biodiversity hotspots that occur where freshwater meets saltwater, usually at the mouth of a river. They are important habitat for young salmon, and are an important cultural resource for many native people and others (e.g. duck hunters, bird watchers). In preparation, the Nisqually Tribe is working with NGOs to manage land around the mouth of the Nisqually River. They hope that by altering the landscape that is currently upriver of the estuaries, they can help to ease the transition as these sites become the new estuaries. This kind of thinking acknowledges that some changes can’t be mitigated, and that we will have to instead adapt to them.

Climate change is rapidly impacting key species across the Northwest. Taking early action to help these species adapt is important for ensuring ecosystem health and preventing a massive loss of the unique biodiversity found on our coasts. Many native communities are working hard to help their communities adapt to climate change. A critical component of this adaptation has been addressing declines in ecosystem health. These tribal efforts are at the forefront of climate change adaptation and the struggle to maintain biodiverse, healthy ecosystems. Despite a lack of public awareness of these issues, and (maybe consequently) with very little outside support, tribal communities continue to do cutting-edge work on climate change adaptation. Looking to these communities for guidance, and providing them with support to continue the good science and work they are doing to protect biodiversity is a vital part of climate change adaptation. Bearing that in mind, I hope tribally-led efforts to reduce climate impacts on our communities are recognized and lifted up in the future!


Craig Welch. Seattle Times. Willapa Bay oyster grower sounds alarm, starts hatchery in Hawaii. June 2012.
John Guinotte and Victoria Fabry. Ocean Acidification and Its Potential Effects on Marine Ecosystems. New York Academy of Science 1134 (2008): 320-342.
Richard A. Feely, Victoria J. Fabry and John M. Guinotte. Ocean acidification of the North Pacific Ocean. Marine Conservation Biology Institute. 2008.
Swinomish Indian Tribal Community. Swinomish Climate Change Initiative. Impact Assessment Technical Report. 2008.
US Forest Service. Climate Change in the Pacific Northwest. Updated October 2011.
Bisson, Pete. 2008. Salmon and Trout in the Pacific Northwest and Climate Change. (June 16, 2008). U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Climate Change Resource Center.
James Battin et al. Projected impacts of climate change to salmon restoration. Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences 104 no. 16 (2007): 6720-6725.
Leslie Kaufman. New York Times. Seeing Trend, Coalition Helps River To Adapt. July 2011.
Kate Campell and Saskia De Melker. PBS. Northwest ‘Salmon People’ Face Future Without Fish. July 2012.


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