Tribal connection inspires efforts to save salmon

Stephanie Blair standing on the muddy bank of the Puyallup River.
Stephanie Blair, doctoral candidate and a member of the Inupiaq and Ojibwe tribal communities, stands near the Puyallup River. Blair's Native American heritage inspires her involvement and research on salmon survival.

Studying toxic runoff to help save iconic salmon species, Washington State University scholar Stephanie Blair draws on science as well as the knowledge and connections of her Native American community.

A doctoral student in WSU’s School of the Environment, Blair researches the toxicology underlying urban runoff mortality syndrome—a condition that kills coho salmon when they return to urban creeks to spawn. Based at the WSU Puyallup Research and Extension Center, Blair and colleagues are racing to understand the syndrome and develop green infrastructure that can protect fish from toxic chemicals.

Saving salmon is a familial matter for Blair. On her mother Tara’s side, she is Inupiaq, of the Nome Eskimo Community of Alaska. On her father Pete’s side, she is Ojibwe, of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians in Michigan. Her daughter Sienna is a descendant of the Skokomish Indian Tribe, one of many Northwest tribal communities in which salmon are central to life and culture.

“We’re taught to think seven generations ahead, about people we won’t see in our lifetime,” Blair said. “Having experienced what happened to my family when salmon are gone, I want my daughter to be able to continue the traditions of her family.”

An interest in science led to a bachelor’s degree in natural sciences, and Blair’s capstone project sparked an interest in toxicology. At the time, Blair was living with a family in the Skokomish tribal community. Salmon fishing supported the family, and she witnessed the importance of the five regional salmon species to tribal livelihood. She also saw the impact from diminished runs: lost family income and threatened cultural heritage.

Blair decided to put her interests in chemistry, toxicology, and water quality to work protecting salmon. She pursued a master’s degree in environmental studies at the Evergreen State College, then learned about the work being done by WSU Assistant Professor Jen McIntyre, whose lab leads groundbreaking research on salmon mortality in urban streams.

“I thought, ‘That’s where I need to go, that’s what I need to do,'” Blair said. 

At Puyallup, Blair explores the chemistry underlying the deadly syndrome, and is specifically focused on the blood-brain barrier: a protective shield around the blood vessels in the brain.

“It keeps chemicals in the blood from getting into our delicate central nervous system,” she said. “When it breaks down, it very quickly leads to death.” 

Blair discovered that the toxic chemical, 6PPD-quinone, disrupts the barrier in juvenile coho. Her 2021 paper on the topic was named Editor’s Choice in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences. 

“Stephanie’s research is so important,” McIntyre said. “She’s currently the only researcher in the world trying to determine the mode of action of a newly identified, highly lethal aquatic pollutant responsible for acute die-offs of coho returning to spawn in urban areas.” 

Blair’s discoveries could help create sustainable infrastructure that prevent the toxin from entering urban streams, saving an important part of the ecosystem.

“How amazing would it be if we could restore coho in places where they’ve been extirpated?” she said.

Outside the lab, Blair shares her research with urban native youth, helping inspire their interest in STEM and their involvement in projects addressing the salmon crisis that connect them with their tribal heritage. Working with non-profits, including Sustainability Ambassadors and Running Strong for American Indian Youth, she helps develop school curriculum that draws on native experiences and perspectives, such as storytellers and master carvers.

“Knowledge comes from everyone,” she said. “Indigenous voices are the ones most impacted by the loss of salmon in our ecosystem.” 

November is Native American Heritage Month. Blair urges others to take time during the month to consider the legacy of colonialism.

“Unless we understand where we’ve come from, we won’t know where we’re headed,” she said. “Everywhere we stand is Indian Country, and tribes are still here. 

“As First Peoples, we come from this land in our creation stories, and we honor our relationships and responsibilities to the land, water, plants and animals, who are our original instructors. We have never forgotten those teachings, and they are needed now more than ever, as we learn how to steer our global society toward an age of sustainability, equity and justice.”

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