The Tulalip Tribes are examining the landscape from the tops of the mountains to the sea, to learn what the effects of climate change might be.
“Climate change in marine waters can’t be looked at in isolation,” said Terry Williams, commissioner of fish and wildlife for Tulalip. “We’re looking at what happens to carbon levels in the places where air meets fresh water and where fresh water meets the sea.”
Already, upland soil has been compacted and forests lack duff – the ground cover of decomposing leaves and bark that used to absorb water and prevent runoff. Spring comes earlier and faster, so the snow melt rushes down too quickly, destroying side channels that used to give juvenile salmon a place to rest to prepare for their saltwater journey.
The tribes are working with Terrie Klinger of the University of Washington’s marine ecology department on the climate change research. They also are collaborating with atmospheric researcher Elisabeth Holland of the University of Colorado, part of the team that won the Nobel Prize with Al Gore in 2007. Earth Economics is developing a carbon budget, based on what the levels of carbon in the atmosphere, fresh water and marine waters should be.
A focus will be the nearshore environment, because it acts as nursery for shellfish, crab and other fish in the coastal marine ecosystem. The strip of land along the shoreline has a big impact on the ecosystem because these animals form the basis of the food web.
Increased levels of carbon in the atmosphere have led to a change in the pH of the ocean, a symptom of climate change known as ocean acidification. Nearshore plants such as eel grass and kelp store carbon, in effect removing it from the environment. This process is called carbon sequestration, and it helps lower the acidity of the ocean.
Sea grass and kelp also help stabilize substrate, by keeping sand and deeply rooted vegetation in place.
“We hope the research will demonstrate real value for kelp and eel grass, and show the state and other agencies the benefit of investing in sea grass restoration,” Williams said.
More than 700 miles of habitat on the Puget Sound coast has been lost so far, mostly to development.
“We believe we have to do large-scale restoration, particularly if we’re going to survive climate change and expect to see the same plant and sea life coming out of the ocean,” Williams said. “Salmon and shellfish are cornerstones of Coast Salish tribal culture. If we lose them, our culture will suffer.”
Much of the fight against climate change has focused on mitigation – how to take carbon out of the environment, by storing it and preventing more from being released. More attention needs to be placed on adaptation to the impacts of climate change that can’t be avoided, Williams said.
“Even if we stop now, if we wave a magic wand and stop releasing carbon, the impacts of the carbon already in the environment will continue to increase for at least 20 to 30 years,” Williams said. “That’s if we stop producing carbon and we’re not doing that. We’re committed to some degree of warming for at least 100 years.”
The tribes hope to see preliminary results of the study by the end of year.
“We hope the results will interest more partners in joining this work – we can’t do it alone,” Williams said. “We’re just looking at a thin slice of the ecosystem. We want to protect what’s valuable to everyone, not just tribal members who want to fish.”