Meeting the challenge of climate change: Makah tribal leader seeks solutions to an ocean out of balance

“We’re a natural resource tribe–that’s our wealth. We are the ocean, and the ocean is us.”Chad Bowechop, Makah Tribal Councilman

For thousands of years, the ocean has provided the Makah people with spiritual and physical sustenance in their ancestral home on the Olympic Coast. The 1855 Treaty of Neah Bay reserves the tribe’s rights to hunt, fish, gather, whale, and seal within their treaty-protected area. However, climate change and ocean acidification now threaten to throw the Makah’s traditional waters out of balance, impacting cultural and spiritual links to the marine environment that were forged over the millennia.

The burning of fossil fuels and changes in land use are causing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere to rise, roughly a quarter of which is absorbed by our global ocean. As a result, ocean chemistry is changing through a process called ocean acidification. Along the Olympic Coast in Washington state, marine heatwaves, hypoxia (low oxygen conditions), and ocean acidification are increasing in frequency and severity, posing a direct threat to critical marine resources.

Chad Bowechop, currently serving on the Makah Tribal Council and former manager of the Makah Office of Marine Affairs, lives with this reality every day. In the last decade alone, the Makah Tribe has requested and received federal disaster relief assistance in response to warmer or unusual marine conditions that have impacted both coho and sockeye returns in the Makah’s treaty-protected fishing area.

Salmon are migrating away from their traditional routes back to their natal streams due to warming waters, or dying because their principal prey—tiny mollusks—are suffering from inhibited shell growth, a result of ocean acidification. Additionally, recent scientific research indicates that acidification can weaken some salmon species’ sense of smell, a vital mechanism for sensing prey and avoiding predators.

However, ocean acidification is not the only force at play: warmer river and ocean temperatures and changes in seasonal precipitation threaten salmon populations at different stages of their life cycle. As ocean acidification and climate change continue to disrupt salmon feeding patterns and habitats, the Makah are deprived of a reliable, crucial food source as well as a critical cultural connection.

Salmon runs in the Makah’s ancestral waters off of Olympic Coast are of cultural, spiritual, and nutritional importance, but changing ocean conditions are threatening their normal annual returns. Photo: Nick Zachar/NOAA

Sovereign Government

As a tribal leader and head of his family, Bowechop is most deeply concerned with ocean acidification’s effect on cultural continuity. Ocean acidification is not simply a physical phenomenon to be studied or measured; it poses a profound risk to his community’s spiritual well-being, cultural practices, and identity. The stakes are high: for Bowechop, his family, and the Makah Tribe, addressing the changing ocean conditions is a matter of survival.

The Makah Tribe has launched a number of initiatives and policy efforts in the last several years that aim to understand ocean acidification’s impacts, generate creative solutions, and center the tribe’s sovereignty, resilience, and community priorities. The tribe has also developed an internal strategic planning process and a tribe-specific Makah Ocean Policy, in addition to engaging heavily in federal and state ocean policy efforts.

Sentinel Site

Olympic Coast’s distinctive physical, biological, cultural, and governance attributes and vulnerability to acidification and other carbon-related stressors make its ecosystem an exceptional natural laboratory for studying ocean change and understanding its local impacts. As such, Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary was designated an ocean acidification “sentinel site,” where climate change monitoring and ocean acidification research takes place to enhance understanding of the region’s natural, social, and historical resources and how they are changing. The Coastal Treaty Tribes, together with the state of Washington, agreed to support this designation for the entire Washington coast.

The Makah are also developing their own ocean acidification action plan, which identifies and addresses the pervasive and profound impacts of these changing ocean conditions in order to best meet the specific cultural, spiritual, and physical needs of their community. The Makah Tribe, through their Fisheries Department, also engages directly in conducting research and monitoring related to acidification. Bowechop also represents the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission on the International Alliance to Combat Ocean Acidification.

In addition to these tribal efforts, the scientific community is beginning to target these fundamental challenges. Melissa Poe, an environmental social scientist at Washington Sea Grant, currently leads a project with Jan Newton, a senior principal oceanographer at the University of Washington, aimed at understanding the multi-faceted impacts of ocean acidification on community well-being. The project, titled “Olympic Coast as a Sentinel: An Integrated Social-Ecological Regional Vulnerability Assessment to Ocean Acidification,” brings together the communities of the four Coastal Treaty Tribes, academic researchers, and staff from Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary and Olympic National Park.

Through community interviews, socioeconomic analyses, and archival research, Poe and her team hope to underscore the human dimensions of ocean acidification. Poe’s work, however, is not limited to studying the detrimental effects of acidification. She also aims to identify culturally-relevant areas for resilience and adaptive capacity.


Chang, M., Kennard, H., Nelson, L., Wrubel, K., Gagnon, S., Monette, R., & Ledford, J. (2020). Makah Traditional Knowledge and Cultural Resource Assessment: A preliminary framework to utilize traditional knowledge in climate change planning. Parks Stewardship Forum, 36(1).

NOAA, National Marine Sanctuaries, 24 February 2022. Press release.

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