Paul Williams grew up on the shoreline. As a child, he would spend hours poking around in tidepools and digging for clams, fascinated by everything the ocean had to offer his inquisitive mind.
“I think that early exposure to the ocean was very impactful,” he tells me, a slight smile on his face. This childhood immersion in the marine ecosystem from a young age eventually led him to pursue his studies at the Aquatic and Fisheries Science department at the University of Washington.
“The buildings weren’t as nice in my day,” he gestures around the room we’re in, nestled in his alma mater’s expansive campus, “but it was here that I started off studying salmon. Then, one of my professors talked about how shellfish are easier to deal with than fish. They don’t swim away. You don’t have to feed them. And they taste really good!” Williams later changed his focus, and after completing his studies, was hired by the Suquamish Tribe to start their shellfish management program
Over the past 25 years, the scope of the Suquamish shellfish program expanded to management of a half dozen species and their habitats, as well as exstensive clam aquaculture. Williams is now shellfish management policy advisor, and his focus has changed from day to day management to studying how the ocean is changing and if harvest management needs to change to ensure harvest continues to be sustainable. But, in recent years, he has also taken on another role: representative of the Suquamish tribe to the International Alliance to Combat Ocean Acidification (OA Alliance).
“When I first started as a shellfish manager, I thought, ‘Oh, making sure shellfish are here for the long term will be no problem. Shellfish aren’t like salmon; they don’t have to compete with people for upland areas for habitat,’” says Williams. “Then about ten years ago, I read that we’ve altered the fundamental chemistry of the ocean, which was affecting the growth of shellfish. It was a very scary realization.”
Williams is also concerned about how climate change will impact human populations. “There are going to be winners and losers,” Williams tells me. “The people who are going to be impacted are people who aren’t in power. If you have money and access to education, you’re going to be in the best position to prepare for whatever happens in the future. But a lot of people don’t have that access–so it’s really important that we focus on equity. There’s is a key difference now that gives me hope – for the first time ever, information is free – that’s half the battle.”
In particular, the effects of ocean acidification will greatly exacerbate challenges for tribes exercising their shellfish harvesting rights. “If you can’t harvest, you can’t eat,” says Williams. “What good is the right to harvest if there is nothing to harvest?”
That’s when he started to focus on environmental education with a focus on equity, as a solution.
One example is “Since Time Immemorial: Tribal Sovereignty in Washington State,” a law passed in 2015 requiring that tribal sovereignty curriculum be taught in all schools. The goal was to give context to the political, economic and cultural forces that have shaped tribal history and the loss of their sovereign homelands. It highlights the importance of knowing the history of the land upon which you stand, understanding how settler colonialism has impacted indigenous communities and acknowledging our complicity in upholding a system of oppression woven throughout our history.
Understanding our current situation relies on our acknowledgement of our past. The environmental legacy of the United States is inextricable from the social justice movement and a history mired in enduring inequality. Learning the history of indigenous communities is necessary to constructing a firm foundation of environmental literacy. Only with this background can we come to understand the salient issues like the role traditional ecological knowledge of shellfish harvesting plays within indigenous communities.
Focusing on education is the first step in becoming environmentalists that recognize the importance of intersectionality in forming comprehensive solutions.
Although this is no small feat, Williams believes the next generation is up for the challenge.
“Children are going to be in charge of the future,” Williams says optimistically, “I think youth can have a tremendous impact. They can wake people up, and get them active. They will rise up.”