Squaxin Island Tribe eying climate change impacts

The Squaxin Island Tribe is taking a close look at how climate change, and specifically sea level rise, will impact the tribe’s treaty foods.

The tribe is undertaking an in-depth study of forage fish populations on Squaxin Island. Forage fish, like sand lance and herring, are vital food for juvenile salmon migrating to the ocean.

Tribal staff take samples of the top layer of intertidal beach on Squaxin Island and sift out the rocks and sand until they can spot individual forage fish eggs.

“These fish spawn and rear in a specific portion of the shoreline,” said Candace Penn, the tribe’s climate change specialist. “When sea level rise happens, it will change the character of the beaches on Squaxin Island. We will see huge changes, and in some cases decreases, in important habitat for forage fish.”

Sand lance is an vital food source for salmon. So, where they spawn on sandy beaches mark critical habitat for weak salmon. If there is no change in the release of greenhouse gases by 2020, marine waters could increase by five feet.

Squaxin Island is the tribe’s original reservation and provides a good representation for a typical deep South Sound shoreline. “Squaxin Island isn’t the only place we’re interested in,” Penn said. “Looking there first gives us a good idea of how the rest of our treaty-reserved harvest area will be impacted.”

“Sea level rise caused by climate change could cause our first foods to no longer be available to our people,” Penn said. The tribe is also looking at other resources, such as shellfish and cedar trees, and how long-term climate change could impact those resources.

“A change of just a few degrees could greatly impact where cedars grow,” Penn said. “We need to assess these impacts across the board so we can decide how to adapt and move forward.”

The research will eventually be wrapped up into a climate change action plan for the tribe. “Developing a plan of action now is key to preserving our community’s way of life,” Penn said.

“We’ve always depended on natural resources as the cornerstone of our economy and culture,” Penn said. “Climate change is turning our world upside down and we need to look forward so we can prepare.”