Sitka Tribe of Alaska Environmental Research Lab

Discover how climate-ready goals builds resiliency for tribes in coastal Alaska.

By Honoring Nations

Honoring Nations 2021 Awardee

Sitka Tribe of Alaska Environmental Research LabHonoring Nations

A Shellfish Toxin

The Sitka Tribe of Alaska has a population of over 4,000 citizens who are primarily of Tlingit, Haida, Aleut, and Tsimshian heritage. Tribal citizens have a long history of depending on the ocean for food. Families harvest halibut, herring, and numerous types of shellfish.

In recent years, climate change has caused new patterns in ocean temperatures along the Alaskan coast, threatening shellfish. Warming waters increase the frequency and duration of harmful algal blooms. These events produce biotoxins that make marine resources unsafe for human consumption. Traditional ecological knowledge held that harvesting shellfish was safe during the winter months, but rapidly changing ocean conditions made these long-standing guidelines unreliable.

Sitka Tribe of Alaska Environmental Research LabHonoring Nations

Tribal Sample Testing

In 2013, the Sitka Tribe of Alaska reached out to other tribes in the region to form a partnership dedicated to preserving the future of marine subsistence resources. The result was SEATOR, the Southeast Alaska Tribal Oceans Research Network.  

A few years after the formation of SEATOR, the Sitka Tribe of Alaska launched its Environmental Research Lab with the specific intent of providing regional capacity to test shellfish for toxins. SEATOR communities send biweekly samples to the Lab, which tests them using the receptor binding assay method developed by the National Center for Coastal Ocean Science. The Sitka Tribe of Alaska Environmental Research Lab is the only facility in Alaska that routinely tests shellfish for subsistence and recreational harvesting.

The lab provides training to SEATOR partner communities on water quality assessment, proper sample collection techniques, and data management. It now routinely monitors over fifty coastal sites for 27 tribes and processes almost 1,000 samples annually and flags hundreds of shellfish that are over the biotoxin regulatory limit. There has not been a single case of paralytic shellfish poisoning from harvested resources in any of the 52 partner sites.

Sitka Tribe of Alaska Environmental Research LabHonoring Nations

Sovereignty Through Science

The lab provides tribal citizens with the information they need to decide whether to harvest at a given location on a specific day—thereby re-establishing tribal resource management within the context of existing state rules. 

The Environmental Research Lab plays a central role in supporting inter-tribal collaboration by providing testing capacity and outreach for SEATOR. The partners, who meet annually to share information and discuss tribal priorities, guide lab activities. It has also developed close working relationships with various non-tribal partners through its broad geographic reach and technical excellence. In 2019, the Tribe worked with the state of Alaska to draft and disseminate a statewide public service announcement warning about the dangers of paralytic shellfish poisoning.

Sitka Tribe of Alaska Environmental Research LabHonoring Nations

Bringing the Lessons Home

By developing scientific capacity and working with partner communities, the Sitka Tribe of Alaska is exercising sovereignty over coastal resources and helping harvesters adapt to the effects of climate change on tidal beaches.

Tribal management of ecological resources expands tribal sovereignty.

Communities that rely on subsistence farming are best protected from the harmful impacts of climate change when inter-tribal collaboration and building community engagement are prioritized.

Sovereignty through science is driven by partnering with credible external entities and directly engaging tribal authority.

Credits: Story

Honoring Nations: 2021 Awardee
Sitka Tribe of Alaska Environmental Lab
Sitka Tribe of Alaska

This exhibit was curated by The Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, Honoring Nations national awards program. All images were obtained with the permission of the host nation.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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