Kake ocean monitoring effort takes advantage of quiet waters this summer

A beach in Kake in December 2019. Kake’s new ocean monitoring program is one of several natural resource management projects undertaken by the Kupreanof Island community. (Elizabeth Figus/University of Alaska Fairbanks)

It’s a grey day in Kake, a perfect day for fishing, says 22-year-old Shawaan Jackson-Gamble. He’s taken his subsistence week off work and has just come off the water from trolling.

“My Tlingit name is Ch’aak’ti. I belong to the Tsaagweidi people,” he said.

Jackson-Gamble is studying Native environmental science at Northwest Indian College and has around five years of field experience. He’s part of a team of residents and high school students monitoring nearby waters this summer. They collect water samples twice a week and send them off to a university researcher to be tested for things like heavy metals, fecal coliform and nitrogen. They’re also collecting mussels for testing and monitoring for impacts of climate change.

“And they’re all Kake guys. I think that’s really cool about what this is,” he said. “It’s getting our people into this stuff, and, you know, it’s important work.”

Jackson-Gamble says he enjoys observing his environment. It’s what drew him to science. He also sees the importance of this work. Traditional foods are a huge part of his and his community’s diets. He hunts, fishes and collects seaweed and shellfish. Threats to those food sources could greatly impact the food security of Kake.

“We don’t always have to depend on the store because our store is our lands and our waters,” Jackson-Gamble said. “It always provides for us when we need it.”

That’s a big reason why the Organized Village of Kake wanted to start their own data monitoring efforts, even before the lull in marine traffic. Cruise ships normally pass the Kupreanof Island village via Frederick Sound and southern Chatham Strait.

“And they go right down the middle of Frederick Sound, which is of course right out in front of our village,” said Joel Jackson, the president of the federally-recognized tribe. “They are able to dump their grey water–they call it–out there. And our people go out and gather seaweed and other things from the tide lands.”

In Alaska, cruise ships aren’t legally allowed to discharge untreated sewage or grey water. But, he says, they want to see if there are any adverse effects of what they are dumping.

So when Southeast Alaska’s cruise ship season was virtually cancelled due to the coronavirus, that presented a unique opportunity for the tribe. The idea is that they can monitor what the waters look like without cruise ship traffic. Then, in the future, they can monitor what it looks like with ships and compare the two.

And they’re not alone. State- and federally-sponsored projects are also taking advantage of the opportunity to collect baseline water quality data in other parts of Alaska this summer.

“When people see a difference on the shore or in the fish or in the halibut or any of the fish that’s caught out in Frederick Sound or Chatham, we want to back up all these speculations and hearsay,” said Dawn Jackson. She’s the executive director for the Organized Village of Kake. She says the tribe had been wanting to take on this kind of data collection for a while, but they didn’t have access to a trained scientist or funding.

“I think it’s really important because we live right in the heart of the Tongass National Forest. And gathering all this data is important to us in a Western sense,” she said. “We already have traditional knowledge here. It’s just marrying the two.”

So, when University of Alaska Fairbanks researcher Elizabeth Figus approached the tribe and other local entities last winter to see if they wanted to partner on climate change and environmental research projects, they said yes.

This ocean monitoring project is part of a broader two-year effort to co-produce research with the Organized Village of Kake, the City of Kake and the Kake Tribal Corporation. Funding comes from a patchwork of places, including a USDA grant, university funds and in-kind staff donations from the tribe and other entities.

“Co-production or co-producing research is our jargon for basically organizing research through partnerships rather than as a one-sided agreement where a researcher comes in with a goal and requests permission to extract information from a community,” Figus said.

Figus hopes that by hiring locally and working closely with local entities, people in Kake can continue carrying this work in the future.

“Our hope is that we’re designing a high-quality project…for people in Kake to carry out their own research and then become the archival holders of this data for future work to come,” she said.

Ocean monitor Shawaan Jackson-Gamble hopes to continue that work, too. This is one of several environmental research projects the community has partnered on. He also works with the Keex’ Kwaan Community Forest Partnership, an Indigenous land management project in Kake for enhancing traditional and subsistence food security, developing a natural resource workforce, and investing in tribal sovereignty.

“I think that’s what it’s going to have to come to is incorporating more traditional knowledge to protect our resources. Like what we’re doing now, is to look at what if our traditional foods are being altered. Because they don’t really have a voice to how they’re feeling,” Jackson-Gamble said. “We just have to protect them like we always have.”

He says the seaweed has been particularly thick this year. He’s curious to learn more about why that is.

KCAW - Sitka

KCAW is our partner station in Sitka. KTOO collaborates with partners across the state to cover important news and to share stories with our audiences.

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