FIDALGO ISLAND, WA — Hope is a rare term to be applied to the environment these days, but looking off into the horizon, the people who know this land best see a beautiful future in store for coastal communities both here and beyond.
Alana Quintasket and Joe Williams are members of the Swinomish tribe, whose traditions are deeply rooted in coastal life.
Digging for clams and other shellfish is a big part of their identity, as it has been for centuries, but what’s happening on their lands in western Washington is a reflection of what’s happening up, down and across coastlines nationwide.
"Our biologists, our shellfish team have been kind of documenting throughout the Puget Sound. They're noticing a definite decline in that population," said Williams.
The ocean absorbs 30% of the CO2 in the atmosphere. According to the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, the excess carbon in the atmosphere has not only led to warmer seas but it changes the ocean’s PH balance, making the water more acidic.
Coastal areas in the country have seen shellfish population drops as large as 85%. Nationally, if nothing changes it's predicted that by the end of the century, shellfish populations nationwide will continue to drop by almost half.
"We're under apocalyptic circumstances, where it is a climate crisis and lives are at stake. As indigenous people and indigenous beings of the land, it's our responsibility to do what we can to restore the practices that have been left for us," said Quintasket.
In the face of a crisis, the Swinomish have a plan to restore the shellfish population: build the very clam gardens their ancestors did centuries ago.
In a few weeks, the Swinomish will be building a clam garden, a tough of rocks meant to be the ideal environment for clam and shellfish growth, on a section of coastline. This ancient practice can increase shellfish growth by 400%.
"It's really expanding the area where clams can grow," said Courtney Grenier, a marine ecologist with the Swinomish Tribal Community.
She says while the numbers don’t lie, scientists are still trying to figure out why the clam gardens are so successful.
"It doesn’t have to be confirmed by Western science to acknowledge there has been this technology that has been used and can still be implemented in a way that’s still in harmony with nature," she said.
The Swinomish are not only looking at this as an opportunity to combat climate change, but by making this a community project, they hope to physically reconnect generations after recent history and past tragedies have taken so much.
"Not only are we trying to get through this pandemic to make it an endemic, but we're also thinking of the fear for the climate, and for us to have something to be excited about is just something good for our people," said Quintasket.
As the project is set into motion, the Swinomish hope other coastal communities are listening and watching to see what native practices are already out there that we can use in our collective fight for our environment.
"There are plenty of teachings to help us get through this, this climate change, we just have to pay attention and be at one with our nature," said Williams.