Skagway Traditional Council begins to monitor ocean acidification with regional tribes

Reuben Cash adds mercuric chloride to a water sample before sending it to the SEATOR lab in Sitka. (Claire Stremple/KHNS)

Skagway’s Traditional Council is the most recent member of a statewide tribal network that measures ocean acidification. Samples from Nahku Bay in the Upper Lynn Canal will be part of a regional data set that helps scientists make a plan for adaption.

“The water has definitely been warmer than the air, but that doesn’t change the fact that its cold,” he said.

“But I also put on an extra pair of long johns.”

He is the Environmental Coordinator for Skagway Traditional Council. He’s taking samples of ocean water. It’s just starting to snow, but data collection knows no off-season.

He fills a 5-gallon bucket and hauls it up the beach. Then he takes off his gloves and starts unloading his supplies from a hard case. A mesh net, nitrile gloves, three empty beer bottles—sanitized, a baggie of bottle caps, and a small box with a skull and crossbones on it. It’s mercuric chloride.

Ocean acidification is a process when CO2 from the atmosphere reacts with ocean water to decrease the pH, which makes it more acidic. That reaction happens constantly—even when the samples are taken out of the ocean—which is why Cash needs a chemical that stops the reaction while he gets the samples to lab.

“They had to send this stuff to me through Seaplanes and so Seaplanes called me up one day and said, ‘We got a box of poison here for Reuben….’” he said with a smirk.

Cash special ordered a box of poison because he needs to stop time. He adds several drops of mercuric chloride to the samples, so lab technicians will get a snapshot of what the water was like today.

“That freezes all the chemistry that’s going on in the water, and then this can get sent to the Sitka lab,” he said.

The data can help scientists understand ocean acidification’s impact on subsistence fisheries and marine ecosystems.

Cash and the Skagway Traditional Council are partners with the Southeast Alaska Tribal Ocean Resources network or SEATOR. It’s a group of tribal organizations that monitor ocean health.

“Some of the work that the tribes are doing here is really kind of pioneering a network,” said Davin Holen, a coordinator for the group. He works with University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Alaska Sea Grant program. He says the challenge in Alaska is that there’s a huge coastline and minimal resources. That’s why everyone is working together.

“This need was seen by our coastal tribes and you know, as ocean chemistry that’s really impacting subsistence resources,” said Holen.

He said tribes that have been harvesting shellfish and crabs for generations see a change. So they started collecting data in 2016. The goal is to understand what’s happening in the water, so they can come up with adaptation strategies.

Back at Nahku Bay, Cash marks the date and exact time in a log book. He seals the sample bottles and loads them into a cardboard case.

He’ll be back again next month. As he takes the samples up the beach, the water in Nahku Bay is already changing.

Claire Stremple, KHNS, 18 November 2019. Article.

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