The amount of carbon being absorbed by our oceans threatens the delicate food chain, affecting all of us.
DAWN approaches during a final drift in his canoe, the last of the day and the mothership will be full. The young boy notices a heavy fog setting in at Swiftsure Bank as the bow of his canoe disappears from sight. Yet he drops his line and chibood (halibut hook) just as he has done many times before.
Soon the canoe is full and the fog remains heavy. The other canoes and mothership are out of sight and out of hearing. It’s peacefully quiet. Many hours pass as the canoe drifts along the paths of currents and tides, until finally a vessel passes by and gives tow to the young boy and his catch. He pulls up his last line.
This story was told many times to me by my father, Phil Greene. Fast forward in time: I’m a young boy on those same waters my father fished at my age. I’m green about the gills. How did my father endure the same experience from only a canoe? Through time and many nauseous episodes over the rail, I became part of the ocean environment upon which my people depend.
The ocean provides all things to Native coastal communities, especially the Makah people. Glacial-fed rivers are limited in our territory, thus returning salmon are not our staple. Instead, marine mammals and halibut make up the bulk of our traditional diet, wealth and economy. Today, we harvest more than 20 species of fish from our marine waters. It’s the largest treaty harvest in the nation, yet we are accessing less of our reserved resources than we did at the time of the Treaty of Neah Bay (in 1855).
Our spiritual connection to the ocean defines our culture. The beautiful song, dance and artwork that is produced by our people would not be possible without this connection. If that connection is broken and the ocean becomes too unhealthy to sustain our communities, then our culture will fade and die. For this reason, we are taught to love, respect and care for the waters that provide us with a rich and diverse quality of life. The health of our ocean is impacted by the health of our watersheds that flow into it, and the migratory species of salmon and other fish depend on both environments for its survival.
Wednesday is World Oceans Day. What is the state of our ocean?
The lives and cultures of the great Pacific Northwest, including our fragile Native American societies, are under immense pressure from the changing ocean chemistry and water quality. The amount of carbon being absorbed by our oceans threatens the delicate food chain, affecting all of us.
The health of our watersheds is also of great concern. Storm runoff is the biggest threat to Puget Sound and coastal estuaries. We need sustainable land-use practices that will protect our watersheds from this pollution.
The recent disastrous coho salmon returns could be a result of these changes in the ocean environment, with temperatures as much as 3 degrees Celsius warmer over large areas of the northern Pacific Ocean. The small returns that have occurred are also threatened by our actions within these watersheds.
Increased shipping traffic in Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca brings additional risks. Understanding the size, frequency and content of every vessel transiting our shared waterways in coordination with appropriate response and protection measures are essential to defend this ecosystem from accidental catastrophe.
Science and policy must come together to tackle these complicated issues. No longer can we isolate the agencies that exercise authority on the ocean.”
Science and policy must come together to tackle these complicated issues. No longer can we isolate the agencies that exercise authority on the ocean. We have to work across borders and jurisdictions to preserve our way of life for future generations.
A number of forums are working to meet this challenge. The West Coast Ocean Partnershipis working to bring the region from California to Washington together. Additionally, several representatives from Washington state sit on the National Ocean Council’s governance coordinating committee. This high-level participation from our region is essential to informing the federal government of our current challenges related to our changing climate.
The great people of the Pacific Northwest have always filled leadership roles on resource management and environmental issues. The diverse structures of our economy, culture and demographics contribute to innovative and inclusive thought, bringing forth meaningful solutions that secure these resources for future generations.
My oldest son derives his livelihood from the ocean, and one day when my 1½-year-old grandson is ready, I’ll take him to the same waters his ancestors fished for millennia and share with him the story of a young boy hand-lining halibut from a small cedar canoe.