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News / Northwest

Swinomish Tribe continues building wall to boost shellfish

By Isabella Breda, The Seattle Times
Published: June 10, 2023, 5:50am
3 Photos
Caroline Ammons of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community tills the bed of the Swinomish Clam Garden on June 5 during the Salish Summit at Kukutali Preserve. The gathering hosted communities of the Cross-Pacific Indigenous Aquaculture Collaborative Network and held a work party to expand the clam garden. Ammons smiled while tilling the garden, as her ancestors did.
Caroline Ammons of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community tills the bed of the Swinomish Clam Garden on June 5 during the Salish Summit at Kukutali Preserve. The gathering hosted communities of the Cross-Pacific Indigenous Aquaculture Collaborative Network and held a work party to expand the clam garden. Ammons smiled while tilling the garden, as her ancestors did. (Photos by Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News) Photo Gallery

KIKET ISLAND, Swinomish — Wet sand flew as Leonard Peter rolled rocks from his cart onto the shore, where Alana Quintasket guided them into place by hand.

The southern shore of this islet in Skagit Bay was teeming with life last week as Indigenous leaders, biologists and community members from across the Pacific Ocean assembled 10 tons of stones, tacking dozens of feet onto a porous 200-foot-long, knee-high wall that Swinomish Indian Tribal Community members began building last year.

The wall is a form of ancient aquaculture. Over the years sand should filter through its holes and extend the shallow, gently sloping habitat favorable to native littleneck clams.

It’s thought to be one of the first clam gardens built in the Lower 48 in the last two centuries. It can help slow the harmful effects of climate change and protect intertidal ecosystems and access to seafood.

For Swinomish, it’s also a means of reclaiming land and the ability to care for it, and restoring the practice of cultivating habitat.

This week, they invited neighbors and relatives from the Hawaiian Islands, Canadian First Nations and the shores of the Salish Sea to the 2023 Salish Summit to help them continue the work.

It was the third gathering of the Indigenous Aquaculture Collaborative, a group of Pacific-region research organizations and Indigenous communities sharing traditional ecological knowledge.

“It’s just bringing the people back together and doing what we’re supposed to be doing,” said Quintasket, vice chair of the Swinomish tribal community. “This is what it’s all about. This is our culture. This is our way of life. This is working for future generations.”

An ancient practice

There’s evidence of Coast Salish peoples’ clam gardens in the San Juan Islands and many remnants have been restored in British Columbia, said Swinomish member Joe Williams. Swinomish leaders and scientists were first introduced to clam gardens in Canada’s Gulf Islands in 2019.

August Sylvester, 78, an elder from Penelakut Island, spent decades building and restoring clam gardens on the shores there, where First Nations have partnered with Parks Canada to restore and preserve the traditional cultivation method. Sylvester said he wanted to keep an eye on things as Swinomish got their work started on their smaantux’in, or rock wall.

“This is our food. This is our garden,” he said on Monday. “You see that little baby there? Some day, she’s going to remember walking down the beach and helping. And maybe someday she’ll come down and move a rock.”

Carbon dating revealed the practice dates back at least 3,500 years in the region.

Williams said, as he walked along the beach at Kiket, he can almost feel the presence of his ancestors at sites like this.

“Our families have tended these beaches and turned over the soil, the substrate, for thousands of years,” he said.

The Kukutali Preserve, encompassing Kiket, was historically cared for by Swinomish people. But it remained inaccessible for a century until Swinomish regained stewardship of the land just over a decade ago.

“We’ve used this area for thousands and thousands of years,” said JoJo Jefferson, historic preservation officer for Swinomish. “It’s a breath of fresh air. We’re getting pieces of our land back that were taken from us. … This is security. This is home.”

Oral history and archaeological studies suggest Indigenous people have long cultivated intertidal habitat through tilling sediment, selective harvesting and adding shells.

On some beaches, they constructed rock walls at the low tide line, reducing the slope of the beach to make it more favorable for clams. As sea levels changed, people would move the wall to new tidal heights.

As Julie Barber, senior shellfish biologist for Swinomish, passed stone after stone down the line toward the shore, she rattled off benefits of these gardens: reducing ocean acidification, increasing biodiversity and clam productivity.

A 2014 study found that the biomass of native clams — basically the clams per square foot — growing within ancient clam gardens in British Columbia was about double, and in some cases quadruple, those outside the gardens. And those gardens hadn’t been tended since colonization.

But the gardens aren’t just for clams.

The Swinomish garden should attract sea cucumbers, sea urchins and starfish. Grass and kelp may grow, providing habitat for fish and other invertebrates, said Courtney Greiner, a Swinomish marine ecologist.

It can also help the community adapt to a changing climate. In 2009, Swinomish produced a climate impact assessment that said the rising ocean acidity as a result of greenhouse gas emissions was inhibiting shellfishes’ ability to grow shells. But the higher concentration of shell hash — little broken pieces of shells — within the clam gardens can help counteract it.

The gathering last week was “about restoring traditional culture in aquaculture systems to maybe address some of our common challenges that we deal with as Island peoples, as Indigenous peoples around climate change,” said Hi’ilei Kawelo, executive director of Paepae o He‘eia, a group that cares for a traditional Hawaiian fishpond on the island of Oahu.

In 2020, Kua’aina Ulu ‘Auamo invited Swinomish and other Indigenous aquaculture practitioners from all over the Pacific to visit various loko i’a, traditional Hawaiian fishponds, on the island of Oahu.

After the final stone was placed and the returning tide began to fill the crevices in the wall, loko i’a stewards shared mele — songs or chants — with Swinomish leaders who organized the project. One by one, they placed their pohaku, or rocks, in remaining spaces at the end of the wall.

“It’s a simple gift, an offering of sorts from our places to this place,” Kawelo said. “It also signifies contributing our mana, or our energy, our spiritual energy to the place.”

A feast among friends

Across the water, at Lone Tree Point, sweet smoke poured into the air as Francis Martin, Fred Cayou, Jae Jefferson and others pulled burlap sacks from a pit teeming with mussels and clams.

Martin had been on the shore for more than three hours helping with the traditional clam bake. The group had dug a 2-foot-deep hole, lined it with rocks and burned wood for more than two hours. Once the rocks and coals were hot, they removed the bigger logs and poured the shellfish over the top, covering them with the burlap sacks to lock the steam in.

After an hour, the mussels were popping open. Jefferson grabbed dozens of the hot shellfish with her bare hands, shoveling them into massive catering trays for the crowd of locals and visitors who helped bring the clam garden to life.

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Swinomish Sen. J.J. Wilbur thanked the crowd for their work, and elders who have passed on, like his aunt, Lorraine Loomis, a Swinomish fisheries leader and Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission chair, for their vision for the garden.

“I have such a strong feeling of gratitude and pride,” said Marcia Julius, Swinomish assistant tribal historic preservation officer, as tears welled in her eyes. “I’m really grateful for our elders that are no longer here that planted the seed. We try to set things up for the next seven generations, and if every single one of our generations work toward that, it’s going to go on forever, we’re not going to lose it.”