Meeting the Challenge of Climate Change:
A Makah Tribal Leader Seeks Solutions to an Ocean Out of Balance
By Kendall Matsumoto
“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.
Nearly all Makah households rely on fishing, shellfish, and hunting resources for a portion of their diet. Makah treaty fisheries include, but are not limited to, halibut, salmon, groundfish, flatfish, whiting, Dungeness crab, and others. Moreover, these valuable fisheries support over half of the local economy and the nutritional and financial security of most of the community.
For place-based peoples like the Makah, with cultural practices that rely on healthy ecosystems and thriving ocean resources, the changes they are witnessing are particularly concerning.
“On our watch, our cultural and spiritual values are being impacted to the point that we might lose them,” Bowechop worries. “That is highly unsettling to us; I simply can’t deal with that. It’s my responsibility to make sure my children and my extended family can maintain and exercise our cultural practices.”
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.
In 1855, the Makah signed the Treaty of Neah Bay, which established a trust responsibility between the United States government and the Makah Tribe. The treaty is the formal mechanism by which the U.S. Government recognizes the tribe’s inherent sovereignty. It also explicitly reserves the tribe’s rights to hunt, fish, gather, whale, and seal, among other rights and specific resources. The Makah Tribe’s ocean policy outlines the geographic and topical scope for how and when they should be consulted about federal or state activities (rule-making, regulations, permitting, funding, etc.) that could affect the tribe and its treaty-protected resources.
Bowechop says that often consultation can feel like a “check the box” exercise that doesn’t effectively integrate tribal concerns into decision-making. From the Makah’s perspective, consultation should occur as early as possible and final decisions about the management of their waters should meaningfully and fully incorporate the tribe’s input. “It’s about building the capacity . . . to exercise our sovereign influence over our marine space,” Bowechop says.
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 four sovereign tribal nations of the Olympic Coast—the Hoh Tribe, Makah Tribe, Quileute Tribe, and Quinault Indian Nation—have stood sentinel over these waters for thousands of years and co-manage marine resources with state and federal managers as resource trustees. Their continued well-being depends upon access to healthy and sustainable marine resources that the U.S. government is obligated by treaty to protect. The four tribal nations, including the Makah Tribe, are on the steering committee for the sentinel site.
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.
Central to Poe’s work is the joint development and sharing of information. In partnership with the Hoh Tribe, Makah Tribe, Quileute Tribe, and Quinault Indian Nation, Poe says her team is deeply committed to a research process rooted in community collaboration. The greatest priority of her work is that research outcomes are relevant first and foremost to the communities most impacted. In order to ensure that the project remains community-driven, Poe describes every step—from interview, to analysis, to interpretation—of her ethnographic research as “shoulder to shoulder” with tribal liaisons.
For example, in a recent series of participatory research steps, including interviews and a community workshop involving more than 40 people, Janine Ledford and Rebekah Monette of the Makah Cultural and Research Center along with Poe and her team worked with Makah tribal members to identify and lay the groundwork for community-inspired solutions. As a result of this collaboration, a priority tribal food sovereignty project is already taking hold—one that uses culturally-relevant means to expand the Makah Tribe’s adaptive capacity in the face of both environmental changes and the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It's still early in the program,” Poe says, “but already it's been an important opportunity for community harvesters to build an inventory of tools, and apply their traditional knowledge in gathering clams, hunting and processing elk, and working together across tribal departments to bring traditional food to elders and community members who can use it.”
This collaboration marks a move toward “indigenizing” research methods: that is, a methodology that is designed in partnership with the community, is culturally-rooted, and centers the needs of the community rather than the needs of outside researchers. Additional mechanisms—such as a joint advisory committee, legally-binding data sharing and ownership agreements, and strict tribal approval processes—help ensure that this research project remains firmly grounded in the priorities, concerns, and cultural and ethical context of tribal communities.
“Applied science is most successful when our efforts are rooted in local communities, amplify their priorities, and are built on a foundation of trust through lasting partnerships and reciprocity,” says Poe.
In the face of ocean acidification’s worrisome impacts, community-based knowledge is already leading to creative solutions and real reasons for hope. In fact, nearby tribes in the Pacific Northwest region are successfully integrating traditional knowledge into climate resilience and adaptation initiatives. For instance, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community of western Washington has incorporated Indigenous health indicators into their climate change assessment process, which allows them to understand how climate-caused shellfish depletion is negatively impacting community health. Furthermore, Swinomish and First Nations of Canada are now reintroducing clam gardens, a traditional maricultural practice, which will ensure access to traditional food and harvest practices. In addition to these encouraging examples, the Makah is developing its own community-based climate resilience action plan that incorporates traditional knowledge. The plan aims to support the learning and sharing of traditional food practices and harvest methods, increased access to produce and traditional plants, and community social events that facilitate intergenerational interaction.
Promising interventions are lighting a path forward for the Makah. Researchers, community partners, and tribal leaders are coming together to address the threats of a changing ocean. Both Poe and Bowechop emphasize one simple truth: the solutions must be grounded in collaboration and culture.
“How we know climate change is affecting us is through that cultural and spiritual lens,” Bowechop says. “If you’re going to address these issues through the physical science aspect of the issue, you're only building your formula or your equation halfway, without recognizing the social science.”
Combatting ocean acidification is therefore not merely a scientific exercise, nor is it environmental conservation simply for the sake of conservation. For the Makah, meeting the challenges of climate change is a cultural, spiritual, and ancestral mandate. At its core, protecting the health of Makah lands and waters is a battle for their very identity.
Kendall Matsumoto is a student at Stanford University and a Virtual Student Federal Service intern for NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries
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). http://dx.doi.org/10.5070/P536146381