WSG News Blog

Blue Futures: WSG funds collaborative research projects with the Makah Tribe

From the Summer 2023 Sea Star

By incorporating people, culture and Indigenous knowledge systems, these three projects model the use of interdisciplinary approaches to inform marine resource management

By Olivia Horwedel, WSG Science Communications Fellow

Deep blue ocean waters push against rocky shorelines and coastal forests. Eagles soar overhead. In the distance, whales surface, taking a moment to breathe as they navigate through the ocean’s waters. This incredibly unique landscape, situated at the Northwest tip of Washington state, is the home of the Makah Tribe.

This rich environment has sustained Makah communities since time immemorial, providing an abundance of marine resources that support cultural practices, ecosystems, and feeding the community. In recent years, however, human-caused forces such as habitat degradation, overfishing and a warming climate increasingly threaten these precious resources. Research is needed in order to better understand how to protect these valuable ecosystems that sustain culturally important species, as well as communities.

Washington Sea Grant (WSG) recently funded three research projects to address the ecological and cultural needs of the Makah Tribe. WSG is pleased to work alongside the Tribe in an effort to understand the current plights that these marine ecosystems are enduring, while also utilizing collaborative methods and diverse approaches to research that highlight the intersections between ecology and Indigenous Knowledge Systems. Ecological research is often focused on natural sciences, lacking the incorporation of people and culture or the dynamic relationships that communities share with their natural surroundings. The value of research that incorporates these intricate connections — and utilizes other knowledge systems outside of Western science to create meaningful management strategies that ensure ecological conservation and cultural preservation — is becoming increasingly recognized. These three projects model this interdisciplinary approach.

Two of the projects are being led by Adrianne Akmajian, who is the marine ecologist for the Makah Tribe. The third project is led by Jonathan Scordino, the Makah Tribe’s marine mammal biologist.

Harmful Algal Blooms and Makah Fisheries

Akmajian’s research addresses relationships within coastal ecosystems, focusing on culturally significant species to the Makah Tribe. Her first WSG project explores how toxins from harmful algal blooms make their way through the food web and how these toxins accumulate in nearshore and offshore environments. An important aspect of Makah culture is the ability to consume fish and shellfish, however, harmful algal blooms can cause harm to both marine species and humans that consume them. Akmajian and her team collected several samples from whale scat to test for domoic acid and saxitoxin concentrations, both of which are harmful toxins that are byproducts from an algal bloom. Gray whales are a culturally important species to the Makah Nation, and can be found on the Tribe’s usual and accustomed fishing grounds. The nearshore whales may be helpful indicators of toxins in the food web as they are in environments adjacent to the shellfish that people rely on.

While this study is still ongoing, the team’s most recent findings indicate that the levels of domoic acid found in the whale scat were well below the regulatory limit for human consumption of shellfish, however several scats had high saxitoxin levels near or above the human regulatory limit. Overall, the domoic acid found in the scat was low enough to not cause any health risks for whales and similarly domoic acid did not appear at harmful levels in nearby  shellfish. However, the high saxitoxin concentrations in whale scat mirrored the nearby shellfish populations and time periods where shellfish harvest was closed due to toxins.

Akmajian finds that the benefits of this study are twofold: “Tracking toxins through fisheries as well as in marine mammals provides useful information on ecosystem health as well as human health.” Based on this and previous studies, toxins are not currently high enough to warrant regular testing in fish. However, there are years with really big blooms; these years, testing and monitoring toxins in fish should occur to protect the health of people who eat that fish, including tribal members. When addressing the impacts of toxins on whales, testing should be more frequent, given that they feed close to shore. More nearshore saxitoxin blooms could impact marine mammals, and these studies could assist in monitoring for health impacts and whale strandings

Competing for salmon

Akmajian is also interested in how interactions between different species can shape management plans to protect endangered and culturally important species, such as Chinook salmon and Southern Resident killer whales. To study this, WSG funded a collaborative project between the Makah Tribe and Western Washington University to research the predation of seals and sea lions on salmon along the northern coast of Washington. The samples were collected in the winter and spring: this is when salmon and orcas are found in the area, and also overlaps with the season for Tribal salmon fisheries.

Akmajian and her team collected scat from harbor seals and Steller sea lions, analyzing the fish contents in their scat for species and size to better understand how their diet compares with the Southern Resident killer whales. Southern Resident killer whales are an endangered species that primarily feeds on Chinook salmon, which are also endangered. If there is a large amount of overlap between the seal, sea lion and killer whale diet, it could suggest there is competition between these animals. This study helps illuminate the overlap in diets, and provides a better understanding of  the threats Southern Resident killer whales face.

One aspect of this project that is particularly unique is the comparison of diets between male and female pinnipeds. “Many previous studies have shown that male and female harbor seals have differences in their diet, so we were really interested to see how the diets between male and female Steller sea lions might impact salmon populations,” Akmajian says. Modeling is still underway, but their analyses currently contradict the previous studies, showing no significant differences in the diets between male and female sea lions. Based on the results thus far, there does not seem to be as much direct competition between the Steller sea lions and killer whales, because these animals eat different sizes of salmon.

This research has helped inform how best to protect iconic species within Washington state, which provide cultural benefits to Native communities in the region. “Salmon has always been an important subsistence and commercial fishery for the Makah Tribe,” Akmajian says. “This study has helped illuminate what competition there might be in these fisheries, as well as the competition for salmon between pinnipeds and the endangered Southern Resident killer whales.”

The importance of Two-Eyed Seeing

While Akmajian’s research is underway, Jonathan Scordino and a team of researchers including Liz Allyn of the Makah Tribe, Robert Jones of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, and Tim Essington of the University of Washington, have received WSG funding for a project that evaluates pinniped predation on salmon through the incorporation of Indigenous Knowledge Systems.

By adopting a Two-Eyed Seeing approach, Scordino is able to bridge Indigenous and Western knowledge sources to evaluate the benefits and risks of Tribal pinniped hunting as a salmon recovery management strategy. Two-Eyed Seeing, or Etuaptmumk, is a concept created by Mi’kmaq elder Albert Marshall. This approach intentionally and respectfully weaves together one eye that sees the benefits of Western methods with the other eye that sees the benefits of Indigenous Knowledge sources. Using both eyes together benefits all. “Our team chose to use a Two-Eyed Seeing approach to ensure that our research was holistic and incorporated all sources of knowledge for our complicated ecosystem modeling study,” Scordino says.

Research is a critical step in creating management strategies that conserve beloved environments. Ecological research that takes an intersectional approach is imperative to creating management strategies that conserve the environment, while also ensuring that community needs are addressed throughout the process. Bybringing together various knowledge systems, collaborators and cultures, people can unite forces and learn from one another as well as the ecosystems around us. The incorporation of Indigenous Knowledge is necessary in ecological research and conservation management strategies, especially when Native Nations are often the most impacted by environmental injustices and the loss of culturally significant species. Indigenous-centered, ecological research benefits not only the beautiful marine ecosystems of Washington, but also the people that rely on them.


Washington Sea Grant, based at the University of Washington, helps people and marine life thrive through research, technical expertise and education supporting the responsible use and conservation of coastal ecosystems. The National Sea Grant College Program is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce.

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