As many tribes work to sustainably increase their economic opportunities and food security, aquaculture is a potential business in some tribal communities. Pacific Northwest tribes, including the Skokomish, practice the farming of aquatic species for both economic diversity and the maintenance of cultural roots. Increasingly, indigenous knowledge is providing a crucial foundation for community-based adaptation and mitigation actions that promote resilience through aquaculture and restoration.
“One could assert that tribes in the Salish Sea have always practiced a form of aquaculture by managing specific salmon runs, shellfish beds, macro-algae, and shellfish populations to support tribal communities and cultures, while providing opportunities for tribal children to maintain this culture into the future,” said Blair Paul, shellfish biologist for the Skokomish Tribe.
The Skokomish Tribe is located on a nearly 5,000-acre reservation on Hood Canal at the delta of the Skokomish River. Aquaculture is an important practice to the community and helps further the tribe’s mission to promote, for present and future generations, an independent, sovereign nation. They strive to preserve the traditional values and treaty rights of the Twana people of the Puget Sound region.
Water is the Key to Tribal Subsistence
For the Skokomish Tribe, the river has always been the key for their subsistence lifestyle. Since time immemorial, it has provided transportation, fishing, and access to shellfish. Modern tribal aquaculture activity in the area includes:
- Enhancing and managing beaches and marine resources
- Producing hatchery fish for harvest
- Farming shellfish on tribally controlled beaches
Paul’s work as a shellfish biologist also informs co-management and shared quota allocations between tribes and Washington state residents. “The higher intensity forms of aquaculture are methods that seamlessly integrate with practices that have been in place for generations,” adds Paul. “Seeding beaches, habitat modifications, quarantining of disease, and resource movements are activities that tribes have participated in for generations to support future harvest.”
Paul is a tribal member himself, of the Tlingit tribe in Alaska. The traditional Tlingit law system and community sustainability approach served to maintain an abundance of salmon and shellfish through millennia. However, a shift in resource use following colonization replaced the traditional system to favor salmon traps, canneries, and historic overharvest. “During the following 100 years, many efforts have occurred to work within the established American system to return Tlingit tribal areas to abundance—this includes several forms of aquaculture,” said Paul.
Meeting the Challenges of Climate Change with Aquaculture and Partnerships
Whether in the lower 48 or Alaska, Paul explains that tribal survival has relied on adaptation. “New conservation systems have replaced older tribal laws that were displaced over a century ago. However, tribes still involved in aquaculture retain the values and ethics that come from growing up with stories of the relationships with place and resource.”
With collective knowledge of the land and sea, indigenous communities are increasingly relied upon as observers and interpreters of change in the environment. The community-based and collectively held knowledge offers valuable insights, complementing scientific data that is critical for verifying climate models and evaluating climate change impacts.
Larval shellfish and crustaceans are particularly susceptible to climate change impacts like ocean acidification. Additionally, sea-level rise risks changing the tidal heights that are specific for species found in the intertidal environment. Rising water temperatures could impact aquatic species due to limited temperature ranges for organisms currently found in the Pacific Northwest. “These risks all emphasize the importance of planning, coordinating, and collaborating with other stakeholders to maintain the accessibility of aquatic food resources for cultural and subsistence purposes,” said Paul.
Meeting the challenges of climate change cannot be done alone and the Skokomish Tribe recognize and welcome partnerships. “The importance of collaborations and shared knowledge between all stakeholders in the aquatic environment cannot be understated given the changing environment we are all witnessing,” said Paul. “We welcome future discussions between those interested in participating in aquaculture, educators who teach lessons of the history of local aquatic resources, permitting specialists who are involved in siting specific projects, and storytellers who can emphasize the relationships between land and sea.”