Southeast Alaska tribal council develops climate change plan

Climate change in Alaska’s high Arctic often captures headlines. Images of vanishing sea ice, dead seabirds, beached marine mammals, melting permafrost and houses tumbling into the ocean are common. Less media attention is directed to Southeast Alaska, an archipelago of hundreds of islands around a thin strip of mainland, blanketed by coastal temperate rainforest. But this scenic panhandle of tidewater glaciers, misty fjords and old-growth trees is also experiencing climate change in ways that jeopardize food security, human health and culture.

Wild salmon, berries, clams, herring, halibut, yellow cedar and other species important for subsistence, cash and culture are at risk, according to a new report from Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, the regional tribe for Southeast Alaska. Central Council, a federally recognized tribe, serves 20 villages and communities stretching over 43,000 square miles.

A group picture of 34 people in front of a building
Participants at a May 2019 workshop in Sitka during which time Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska released a regional climate change adaptation plan that can be used by any tribe in Southeast Alaska. The discussion was facilitated by Alaska Sea Grant.

Central Council’s 53-page report is a climate change adaptation plan. It’s a roadmap for prioritizing, monitoring and responding to threats stemming from warming air and ocean temperatures, caused by increasing levels of greenhouse gases trapped in the atmosphere. 

As a result of climate change, Southeast Alaska is expecting wetter and warmer conditions in the coming years, according to modeling cited by the report. Warmer, wetter weather in a temperate rainforest can mean melting glaciers, shoreline uplift, reduced snowpack and a host of other changes. Less snow, in particular, causes myriad problems for rainforest species, including damaging cedar roots and increasing flooding that can scour spawning grounds or interrupt salmon migration patterns. 

Shrinking populations and harvests of salmon, hooligan, herring, shellfish and berries are predicted, according to  the report. All of these have sustained Southeast Alaska’s Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people for millennia.

Rocky beach and small boat harbor on cloudy day
Boats rest at the dock in Hydaburg, Alaska. Photo by Davin Holen.

Climate change will also usher in more invasive species and harmful algal blooms and harm terrestrial species like black-tail deer, yellow cedar and other subsistence plants, according to the report.

“Indigenous people are among the hardest hit by climate change,” said Kenneth Weitzel, the report’s chief author.

Alaska Natives are particularly vulnerable because the effects of climate change in Alaska are more extreme compared to southern latitudes, and because indigenous Alaskans rely heavily on wild plants and animals for nutrition and culture.

The report is not all doom and gloom. It outlines steps that tribal members can take to increase their resilience in the face of climate change, including adopting a more active voice in the regulatory and management processes followed by the Alaska Board of Fish, NOAA Fisheries and other government agencies.

They can also help conduct local research on climate impacts, collaborate with surrounding communities to monitor changes, and incorporate climate preparedness into tribal operations and policy.

“There is a lot we can do to move from observing and planning to action” said Raymond Paddock, tribal environmental coordinator.

Alaska Sea Grant is one of the organizations that assisted Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska with the report’s preparation.

“This is a living document. It’s based on the best available science to date, but it will no doubt evolve as more data becomes available about how Southeast Alaska’s iconic species are being affected by climate change and as tribes and communities learn to adapt,” said Davin Holen, a coastal community resilience specialist with Alaska Sea Grant.

Holen noted a research project Alaska Sea Grant is funding will help Southeast residents better understand and prepare for how climate change affects some of the region’s most productive salmon streams and rivers.

The research—conducted cooperatively by the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), U.S. Forest Service, Southeast Alaska Watershed Coalition, and with testing and feedback by Southeast Alaska tribes—will assess the resilience of Southeast Alaska salmon to shifts in their freshwater environment. Scientists are building easy-to-use models, available to tribes and local communities, to predict how salmon streams respond to fluctuations in flow, temperature and other factors so that steps can be taken to protect salmon productivity.

The research, expected to be completed next year, aims to help tribal members and other Southeast Alaskans take actions, including monitoring and gathering data and observations for managers, so that salmon will thrive for decades to come. It could also benefit communities in the Lower 48 where wild salmon populations are in severe decline.

“It’s going to be important to scientists in other places. We’re lucky to have a lot of salmon here. And the stuff we learn in Alaska can inform what happens to more endangered populations further south in the Pacific Northwest,” said lead researcher Chris Sergeant, a doctoral student at the UAF College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences.

Read more about the project.