As a RAY Marine Conservation Diversity Fellow, I help coordinate and grow the International Alliance to Combat Ocean Acidification (OA Alliance), a coalition of leaders developing on-the-ground solutions for challenges facing our ocean. Most days, I’m on the phone at my desk in Washington, DC with people from all around the world discussing how to protect coastal communities from the impacts of ocean acidification. Today, however, I’m back in my rainy hometown of Olympia, Washington to meet an OA Alliance member in person and learn about why this work matters.
Combating ocean acidification starts at home, with dedicated individuals rolling up their sleeves to take action. The Nisqually Tribe of Western Washington is an engaged member of the OA Alliance, focused on climate resiliency, action, education and outreach at a local and national level. Maggie Sanders, their OA Alliance representative shares with me how ocean acidification impacts their treaty trust resources, culture and community.
“The ocean is important to the community because water is life. It’s a part of our culture and a part of our life, since time immemorial,” Maggie tells me. Tribes have a long history of living off the natural resources of this land. However, with the arrival of Europeans and the creation of the United States, traditional tribal life was drastically altered. Treaties between the United States and tribes were used to remove them from their land and relocate them to reservations.
Five treaties were negotiated in Western Washington between 1854 and 1855. Tribes agreed to move as long as their right to fish, hunt and gather in their traditional places was upheld. Early on, when the treaties were first implemented, fish and other seafood were plentiful and rights were easily maintained. However, as more people moved to Washington, environmental degradation increased and non-native commercial fisheries became more prevalent, resulting in depleted fish stocks. Tribes were wrongfully blamed for the disappearance of fish and the state began arresting them for fishing off-reservation despite their right to do so being outlined in the treaties. These arrests were unlawful because treaties hold a constitutional weight that surpasses state law.
In the face of low fish stocks, non-native commercial fishing continued to increase and fewer and fewer fish were returning to Washington rivers, making it impossible for tribes to observe their treaty rights. In an effort to raise awareness of their unjust treatment, tribal fisherman organized “fish-ins,” like “sit-ins,” and other forms of civil disobedience during a time known as “The Fish Wars.” Their protests resulted in brutal arrests.
The Supreme Court case, commonly referred to as the Boldt Decision, was a turning point in the tribes’ fight for recognition. It established tribes as co-managers of salmon with the state, created conservation standards that restricted the state’s ability to regulate treaty fishing, divided the harvest equally between the state and tribes and confirmed the state and federal government’s responsibility to protect salmon habitat so that treaty rights could be observed.
Even though tribal leaders made great strides in getting tribal treaty rights recognized, those resources are still under threat today from challenges like ocean acidification. The OA Alliance strives to bring attention to these impacts and support the great work that’s being done to mitigate it. “I feel that indigenous voice needs to be more on the national and regional levels and sometimes indigenous voice is left out in those contexts. And so, I feel that being a part of an international alliance allows the indigenous people that extra voice,” Maggie says.
When I ask Maggie why she advocated joining the OA Alliance, she says, “I felt that it was an extremely important issue in regards to treaty trust resources and an extremely awesome opportunity to collaborate with outside agencies and entities working towards the same goal. I felt that it impacts the world and also all tribes, including Nisqually. When I was thinking about this, I was thinking about how I’m from Makah, but the salmon, they go up the Nisqually and out to the ocean and back to the Nisqually. So we’re all interconnected.”
Maggie is currently organizing a community-based workshop for local tribes that will focus on the impacts of ocean acidification to shellfish, the environment and the community. I ask her how her work on ocean acidification at a local level connects to her collaboration on an international level.
“…the ocean is a huge body of water and it takes a lot more than just one community to become involved. I feel that we all need to collaborate and partner together because the ocean reaches every point of contact. It’s a part of our responsibility as earth stewards to protect the ocean. And if other partners are willing to collaborate and the funding is there and the resources are there, it’s time to come together and work together on the international and national.”
Like Maggie said, “water is life,” and it connects us all. We are all in this fight together, which is why collaborative action at a local, state, tribal, national and international level is essential to protecting coastal communities globally. The OA Alliance is not only a way to share the stories of community leaders around the world, but also to celebrate the great work that has been done and the progress we are making for future generations to come.