There’s a saying in the Tlingit tradition that goes “when the tide is out, the table is set.” For millennia, Alaska Natives have relied on the bounty of the sea to sustain their way of life. But what happens when those same traditional foods are potentially deadly? If you’re in Southeast, you turn to the Sitka Tribe of Alaska’s Environmental Research Lab. To learn more about this vital and now, award winning lab, I caught up with Sitka Tribe’s Resource Protection Director, Jeff Feldpausch. He says while the state tests commercial shellfish for PSP toxins, subsistence harvesters are left to fend for themselves .
“They don’t do any public testing or certifying any beaches in Alaska, like you see in Washington and other Lower 48 states.” he says, explaining that the state’s official message is just don’t eat the clams and mussels on the beach because of the risk of toxins.
“We just figured, you know, that’s not that’s not acceptable response. So, we started down this road with I think we started off with 15 other tribes in Southeast as far as looking at ways to address safe access to shellfish resources,” says Feldpausch
PSP, or paralytic shellfish poisoning is caused by toxic algae blooms. Filter feeding shellfish, like clams and mussels store the algae’s biotoxin in their tissues which when ingested can prove fatal. But while PSP has always existed in Southeast, where harvesters could once rely on ancestral knowledge alone, climate change has made it more frequent and harder to predict without testing.
“You know, a lot of the old harvesters used to say you only harvests shellfish in a month with r in it, and we’re starting to find out that that’s not necessarily the case right now ” says Feldpausch. “It’s just with climate change, we’re seeing a higher frequency of PSP or biotoxin levels that can cause death.”
It was spring of 2016 when the Sitka Tribe of Alaska took a risk and opened its research lab, the first of its kind in Southeast Alaska. In November, it was honored by the Harvard Honoring Nations program in the 2021 awards in American Indian Governance, an accolade nearly six years in the making. Out of the 70 different programs that applied, STA was one of the top six.
It’s not the first time the Tribe has been acknowledged by the Honoring Nations Program, but it’s not about the awards. As Feldpausch explains, Tribal sovereignty is at the heart of the lab’s mission.
“Unfortunately, statehood and the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, separated tribes and tribal citizens from the land and the resources to where the point that tribes really don’t have much more input, or much more leverage on how those resources are managed than any other entity or individual within the state,” he says. “So basically, it’s given the tribes the ability to act to exert sovereignty over some of the resources.”
Currently the lab tests samples from 17 communities in Southeast, as well as tribes on Kodiak Island. But for those who use the lab’s services, it’s about more than just subsistence. Yakutat Tlingit Tribe’s environmental director Jennifer Hanlon says the initiative is part of a greater struggle for cultural preservation.
“This data, it’s really important to inform harvesters of the current levels, if there’s any concern related to when and where to harvest shellfish,” says Hanlon “Because that is such an important subsistence food for us that nourishes our people and our communities, on so many levels, not just nutritional, but also fostering that relationship to our ancestral lands and waters.”
Today, the Tribe’s shellfish testing program continues to expand, bringing that vision of Tribal sovereignty even more clearly into focus.
“We’re actually testing for two other by biotoxins that are produced by harmful algal blooms. So we’re expanding our testing range,” says Feldpausch. “We’re also testing subsistence resources for total mercury. And beyond that, we’ve, outside of the lab, we’ve actually grown to training tribal citizens or other tribes to do shellfish biomass surveys.”
STA offers free shellfish testing for Sitka residents and is continually monitoring Starrigavan Beach, with new data out every two weeks year-round. For more information on the lab and their services, you can visit their website.
An earlier version of this story claimed PSP toxins are synonymous with “Red Tide.” While PSP toxins can cause “Red Tide”, they can also be colorless, tasteless and odorless.