A Washington Tribe Confronts Climate Change, Sea Level Rise

Nov 18, 2015

Shane Underwood (left) and his son, David, stand at the Quinault Indian Nation’s seafood plant in Taholah, Washington. The loss of the largest glacier that feeds the Quinault River and rising seas are threatening the tribe’s way of life.
Credit Ashley Ahearn / Earthfix

A Quinault tribal fisherman brings up his nets near the mouth of the river. Tribal families have worked the same fishing grounds along this river for generations.
Credit Ashley Ahearn / Earthfix

As sea levels rise and the global climate changes, international leaders gathering in Paris this month face increasing pressure to tackle the issue of “climate refugees”.

Some island nations are already looking to move their people to higher ground, even purchasing land elsewhere in preparation.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, one coastal tribe faces a similar choice.

Shane Underwood takes me out onto the pier behind the fish plant. He points across the river to where tribal members in small aluminum skiffs pull their nets out of the water.

SHANE UNDERWOOD: “That fishing ground over there. That ground belongs to my dad. My brother fishes that ground and he has a family of 10 people in his household that he has to support. His sole source of income is fishing.”

 Shane’s 23-yr old son David comes out to join us. He’s wearing a Notorious BIG t-shirt and a baseball cap. He’s been fishing since he was 7, and he’s worried.

DAVID UNDERWOOD: “Climate change could take all our salmon away.”

I asked David about the plans to relocate his tribe because of sea level rise. He said it’s hard to explain to non-native people what it’s like to live in the same place for thousands of years.

DAVID UNDERWOOD: “It just wouldn’t be the same to live anywhere else. We’d pretty much be lost. I don’t ever want to have to leave this place but if the ocean keeps rising we’re going to have to. So. I hope and pray that something’s done about climate change. I really do.”

David Underwood’s best hope is Paris - where international leaders gather later this month. Fawn Sharp, the president of the Quinault, will be attending those climate talks.

She says it’s hard to stay optimistic when year after year, leaders have failed to reach a global accord, but she’s going to Paris with an open mind.

FAWN SHARP: “You come together to contend with the seemingly impossible but you’re part of the solution and it’s that collective will to make a difference to solve this crisis and that’s the only way it’s going to happen.”

Sharp says she’ll be pushing developed nations to help not just her people, but other indigenous peoples around the world who are on the front lines of climate change.