Under the cool, grey skies of the early morning on Sept. 19, volunteers and Ketchikan Indian Community staff bent to the task of digging, counting and measuring clams at the Saxman Seaport beach to complete a shellfish biomass survey.
KIC Indigenous Food Sovereignty Coordinator Keenan Sanderson outlined the parameters of the project.
“This scientific study will help us determine the rough population abundance, distribution, age structure, and size/health of three shellfish species at this beach,” he said. “We are partnered with Sitka Tribe to map this data out to get good visuals on what the populations are doing.”
As he spoke, he paused to enter species, size and weight data in a log book that volunteer Matthew Guevara called out after measuring and weighing each butter clam, littleneck clam and cockle from buckets and baskets.
Groups of diggers worked across the beach to excavate clams from plots measured by a square PVC-pipe “quadrat” marked with small yellow flags. When they’d excavated every clam they could find in each plot, they brought their clams to Guevera and Sanderson for measuring and logging.
Sanderson said most of the clams found so far that morning had been butter clams.
They had earlier marked out 44 plots with the flags, starting by finding the upper clam boundary, which is the farthest location upland on the beach where the shellfish can be found. They placed the first flag there, then flags were placed 50 feet apart in lines toward the water. More flags then were placed 100 feet apart running parallel to the beach, with the flag numbers placed in a random order.
Three KIC staff from the cultural resources department were working Saturday morning: Sanderson, Environmental Specialist Jesse Endert and AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer Walter Robles. Volunteers working were Romel Del Mundo, Nolan Nagy, Heather Evoy and her son Judah Haven Marr.
Sanderson said that the Southeast Alaska Tribal Ocean Research program of the Sitka Tribe of Alaska partners with KIC to complete the semi-weekly surveys.
He explained, “we collect the data and then they put it into a GIS model to help us create heat maps of the beach to figure out what the population densities are, what the distribution is and to figure out what the individual size and health are.”
This was the second such survey, he added.
Endert further explained that the baseline data also will be used to compare to numbers in the case of future environmental disturbances such as the introduction to the area of sea otters, or an oil spill.
Sanderson said that as they collect biomass data, they also are collecting a sub-sample of shellfish to get an average age for butter clams at the Saxman Seaport location, as those are the most sustainable shellfish at that beach. Endert said that the data also will help them to assess just how sustainable the shellfish are there.
Another study that the KIC staff completes, but on a weekly basis, is paralytic shellfish poisoning testing, which they assess at the Saxman Seaport beach, and more recently, at a Settlers Cove State Recreation Site beach. Each week, the testing location is alternated, Endert said.
Results from those tests are posted on the department’s Facebook page, which can be found by searching for “Ketchikan Indian Community, Cultural Resources Dept.”
The group also tests 12 area beaches for fecal coliform levels, Endert said.
Volunteer Evoy, who now lives in Juneau but is temporarily working and living in Ketchikan, was digging a plot with Endert and Evoy’s school-age son Judah. The used their hands as well as digging tools to tease clams out of the rocky, water-filled hole they were working.
Evoy said, of her and her son’s motivation for helping with the project, that “I’m just taking this opportunity to help out as a tribal member and get him some hands-on science.”
Evoy said she works for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council. According to information at seacc.org, that organization works to “protect the Tongass National Forest, Inside Passage, and our unique Southeast Alaska way of life.”
She further explained her reason for showing up early on a damp weekend morning to dig clams with the KIC staff.
“That’s what was my call to action, is having a son and realizing that I might be able to safely harvest shellfish with him, because that’s one of my fondest memories,” she said.
She explained that she had lived in Metlakatla as a youth and “grew up harvesting clams and cockles at minus tides with my headlamp on, with my grandma.”
Endert, who said she previously worked for the Sitka Tribe of Alaska as an Americorps VISTA volunteer, said she hadn’t participated in a shellfish biomass study before.
“I did a lot of their outreach and education, so I’d go into the high schools and teach them about harmful algal blooms and also the shellfish program with the biotoxins,” she said.
Originally from Michigan and a VISTA volunteer working in Nashville, Endert said she “was very lucky” to be working in Alaska.
“I love Alaska,” she said, adding that she feels like the weather is similar to that in Michigan, but also “the community feeling as well. Everyone just cares a lot about everyone here and in smaller towns in Michigan. It’s very similar.”
Endert explained that funding for the programs carried out by their department is supplied by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Indian Environmental General Assistance Program Act.
Endert also pointed out that “beach monitoring — that’s become a big thing this summer, in particular, because the cruise ships aren’t here.”
Volunteer Romel Del Mundo, a Ketchikan High School sophomore, said he was volunteering as a representative from the Kayhi National Ocean Sciences Bowl team. For now, he said, he is the sole member, and Sanderson is the head coach.
“We just need more people to join,” he said of the team, adding that he joined because “it’s cool just learning all about the ocean and all the animals and what’s in it. I mean, we still could find new things in there. We only know like, a little bit.”
As he worked with Robles to tease clams out of the watery hole they’d dug, he said the reason he showed up to volunteer that morning was that he was “wanting to know more about all this.
“Just getting more practice, and knowing little things, like tiny details. I didn’t know the difference between butter clams and littlenecks and cockles and now I know, and I know how to put them back,“ Del Mundo said.
He held up a clam and demonstrated how a clam must be returned siphon-up to prevent it from suffocating when placed back into the holes.
Robles, who described his position as an environmental analyst, said he’s from Iowa, but has been working for KIC as a VISTA volunteer since February.
“The neatest part is that as I’m working for the organization, I’m not just learning about the group, I’m also learning about the culture they’re representing,” he said.
He said of Ketchikan, “It’s a really nice place, I mean, it’s been a bit of a bummer not being about to experience Ketchikan in its full glory, and not being able to have people visit,” but said he’s made the best of his time here.
Volunteer Nagy, working on his own in a nearby plot said he joined the work team for the experience. He explained that he is very interested in climate change. He also is taking a Natural History of Alaska class at the University of Alaska Ketchikan Campus, and said that class has piqued his interest in learning more by becoming involved.
Sanderson said that his department always is seeking volunteers to help with the shellfish biomass, PSP and fecal coliform surveys. Sanderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for information on how to help.