The horizon at sunrise or sunset looking out over a body of water; the scene is dark with grey-blue clouds above a fiery glowing fog in the distance; a small piece of land covered in silhouetted evergreens juts out from the left (and more can be seen in the distance).

Declining Marine Health Threatens Traditional Subsistence Fishing for Tribes

by Frances Lee


Melissa Watkinson recalls a time in the past when she could go crabbing at the end of the dock in the Puget Sound and catch a great deal of crab. She can’t do that anymore. These days, she has to go on a boat into deeper waters to catch any. 

“My nieces won’t know what it’s like to be able to throw a pot at the end of a dock and catch some crab,” Watkinson said. 

“Climate change and other changes in the ocean are having an impact on our ability to access some of these traditional foods for our family,” she continued. 

Watkinson is a queer Indigenous woman, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation and descendant of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. She grew up in the Puget Sound, where she has family enrolled with the Upper Skagit Tribe. She used to live in Seattle but decided to move out to Bremerton with her partner because there were more places to harvest healthy shellfish on the Kitsap Peninsula. 

For some people who live in what is known as Washington State, going crabbing on the coast or in the Puget Sound is considered either a recreational activity for families or a commercial enterprise for local seafood businesses. But for tribes, shellfish harvesting is an essential component of their cultures and traditions — one that is increasingly under threat due to climate change and pollution.

“We say ‘when the tide is out the table is set,’” said Haliehana Stepetin, an avid fisherwoman and subsistence practitioner. But more and more, when the tide is out, the shellfish are poisonous and unsafe to eat. 

Subsistence Is a Traditional Way of Life

Whether it’s combing the low tide for sea urchins, mussels, clams, or oysters, for Indigenous peoples, subsistence harvesting is about much more than finding the next meal. 

“[Subsistence] is living with the seasons and accessing and harvesting the foods that we have always harvested based on the time of year that they’re available,” said Stepetin. 

Haliehana Stepetin is Unangax̂, born on Akutan in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. She lived in Seattle while completing her masters and is now based in Anchorage while pursuing her PhD in Native American Studies at UC Davis. 

“Being able to practice subsistence is not only nourishing for my body … it also feeds my spirit,” Stepetin said. She cited how capitalism has violently severed the relationship between people and the food they put in their bodies, especially when food sources aren’t local and come from corporate farms.

Using the example of a plastic-wrapped chicken breast on a styrofoam tray in the meat department of a grocery store, she asked, “Did it live a good life? Was it stewarded? Did it know that it was important beyond consumption?”

Alongside subsistence harvest, ceremonial harvest provides food for tribal members for important family gatherings such as celebrations, weddings, graduations, and other cultural and tribal events. Collecting tidal foods, in particular, is significant because they are easily accessible to elders and young children. 

“When I go to fish, I always stop and I pray. I touch the water and I feel it. I say this prayer of gratitude … so that fish can still come up these rivers,” Stepetin said. 

For Stepetin and her tribe, continuing to practice subsistence allows them to be accountable to sea creatures and the land, only taking what they need so those creatures can continue to grow and thrive alongside humans. 

“It’s upholding those relationships of kinship and stewardship for our other-than-human relatives,” she said. “Because without them, we don’t survive.”

Expanding Definitions of Environmental Justice

The concepts of environmentalism and even environmental justice are largely shaped by academic and government entities that have historically excluded Indigenous perspectives. For example, the recent Washington Environmental Health Disparities Map compares communities across the state by assigning them scores among 19 indicators. According to the map, indicators of health include proximity to toxic release from facilities and hazardous waste treatment, ozone concentration, prevalence of disease, and more. The focus is on identifying and mitigating known toxins in the environment and in the body. While this work is urgent to address mainly communities of color who are exposed to the most environmental hazards, it’s an incomplete view of the pathway to environmental justice.

For Indigenous communities, health is not only determined by the absence of toxins in the body and in the environment. Health also includes the ability to maintain and continue practicing ancestral traditions. Thus, the increasing lack of access to subsistence fishing and shellfish harvesting due to climate change is an environmental justice issue. 

This is just one of many Indigenous health indicators that tribes say should be taken into account when considering environmental justice impacts. Jamie Donatuto and Larry Campbell, with the Swinomish Indian Nation, articulated a set of health indicators for Coast Salish tribes. These include resilience, natural resources security, education, cultural use, community connection, and self-determination. When undertaking environmental justice work, especially when it will impact the entire state, policymakers and researchers must literally begin by asking community members how they define health for themselves.

Fighting to Keep Subsistence Rights

Climate change is only the latest threat to tribal rights to harvesting fish and shellfish. Tribes have been fishing and harvesting shellfish in the region for thousands of years and since European colonization and have had to fight through broken treaties and environmental abuses to maintain their traditional practices.

Today, tribes hold the legal right to fish for salmon and harvest shellfish, as laid out in a series of treaties in the 1850s signed between officials of sovereign tribal nations and the federal government: the Medicine Creek Treaty (1854), the Treaty of Point No Point and Treaty of Point Elliott (1855), and the Treaty of Olympia and Treaty of Neah Bay (1856). 

But settlers and subsequent governments have repeatedly denied and obstructed those treaty rights. As more settlers moved in, impacts from logging and agriculture began to damage watersheds, and non-Native commercial fisheries took more salmon, reducing the wild population. 

In the early 20th century, as more settlers came, they purchased tidelands, effectively pushing tribes out of their traditional shellfish harvest areas. In the 1960s, tribal members were arrested for exercising their treaty rights to fish, and they engaged in a series of highly publicized civil disobedience protests to protect their sovereignty. Federal Judge George Boldt in 1974 upheld existing tribal treaty rights to fish in accustomed places, and in 1994, federal court Judge Edward Rafeedie ruled that tribes also were entitled to half the naturally occurring shellfish in the Puget Sound.

Beach Closures Are a Growing Reality

With tribes needing to be continually vigilant to protect their treaty rights to fish and harvest, marine biotoxins in the shellfish are yet another barrier to continuing their traditional food practices. Biotoxins are caused by microscopic algae, a type of phytoplankton. There are three types that are present in Washington: Paralytic Shellfish Poison (PSP) and Diarrhetic Shellfish Poison (DSP) affect bivalves, such as clams, mussels, oysters, geoduck, and scallops, while Amnesic Shellfish Poison (ASP) is mainly found in razor clams in coastal regions. Anyone who eats contaminated shellfish containing any of these three biotoxins is at risk of illness, and ingesting PSP can be fatal. 

The Washington State Department of Health (DOH) Shellfish Program is responsible for monitoring and testing shellfish across the state and working with tribes and local officials to enact beach closures when biotoxin levels reach a certain threshold. Shellfish are considered safe to eat when they test below the regulatory limits of 20 ppm (parts per million) for ASP, 16 μg (micrograms) for DSP, and 80 μg (micrograms) for PSP. 

According to analyses of the DOH closure logs, biotoxins affect more than 90% of Washington bodies of water, with PSP being the most widespread. Tracie Barry, marine biotoxin specialist for DOH, said the frequency and duration of beach closures due to marine biotoxins has steadily increased over time and continues to do so. 

In 2009, the highest recorded ASP biotoxin level was 8 ppm, taken from a sample of razor clams on the Quinault Reservation Site B. However, in 2019, the highest recorded ASP level was 33 ppm, more than four times the high in 2009. It was taken from a Manila clam sample in South End/Blyn Sequim Bay, which is Jamestown S’Klallam Tribal tideland. 

In 2009, the longest all-species closure due to PSP was 209 days in Whatcom County, the home of the Lummi, Nooksack, Samish, and Semiahmoo Tribal Nations. “All species” includes  clams (including geoduck), oysters, mussels, and other invertebrates. In 2019, the longest all-species closure due to PSP lasted nearly a year at 360 days in Eastsound, San Juan County. Also in 2019, Sequim Bay experienced a dual-toxin closure — PSP and DSP — which had not happened before.

Tribal members face serious risk of illness or death if they unknowingly consume contaminated shellfish. To reduce this risk, tribal fisheries and wildlife departments track their beaches on the DOH weekly biotoxin results list. Liz Tobin, the shellfish biologist for the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, explained that tribes can also request extra or more frequent testing to safely prepare for harvest events. DOH works with tribal natural resources staff to make sure the samplings occur on a frequent basis, with either DOH staff or tribal biologists collecting samples to be tested at the DOH laboratory. 

Still, with closures occurring more often and lasting longer, tribes are experiencing decreased access to their traditional harvest areas and are not able to harvest when needed for subsistence, ceremonial, and economic use.

“We just don’t have access to our shellfish,” said Patsy Wilson, a commercial fisherwoman from the Lummi Tribe. “We love to eat clams and oysters and crabs. When we want to go out and get some to eat for ourselves or to even put away for the winter, we can’t. I’ve seen less and less salmon. I see that every year it’s gotten worse and it’s not getting any better.” Many tribal members simply consume less of their traditional foods rather than purchasing seafood, as it is expensive. And the emotional impacts are heavy.

“It makes me feel pretty sad,” Wilson continued, “because I want my kids, my grandkids, and their kids to be able to do what we were able to do growing up and what was taught to us — going to harvest food because it’s right there … If this continues to be the trend, everything is going to be so polluted, and we won’t be able to harvest anymore.”

Between limited funding for DOH and accelerating climate change, there is great uncertainty about tribes’ future access to subsistence fishing and harvest. Despite all this, tribes continue to exist and persist. 

“It’s easy for non-Indigenous people to focus on the harm that’s happening. But [our] communities are coming together to show and strengthen the resilience that they have during crises,” Melissa Watkinson said. “Indigenous communities in particular have had to adapt and be resilient to so many challenges, especially in the last few centuries.”

With the compounded crises of today that include the COVID-19 pandemic, wildfires, and police brutality, the health of traditional shellfishing locations is a pressing issue that needs to be elevated in environmental justice policy and public awareness. 


Frances Lee is a writer and comms strategist based in Bremerton, WA (Suquamish and Duwamish territories). They were one of four fellows for the Seattle Globalist’s 2019–20 Environmental Justice Investigative Journalism Fellowship and are currently a 2020–21 Hugo House Fellow.

Featured image is attributed to Kris Krug under a Creative Commons 2.0 Non-Commercial/ Non-Derivatives license.

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