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Bringing Spotter Buoys to Indigenous Communities on the Front Lines of Climate Change

Sebastien Boulay (Sofar Ocean), Melissa Iwamoto (PacIOOS), Sheyna Wisdom (AOOS), Jan Newton (NANOOS), Carol Janzen (AOOS), Roxanne Carini (NANOOS)

Indigenous coastal communities have relied on the ocean for millennia and still do to this day. Climate change, however, is making the ocean unpredictable, and poses a new and urgent challenge. Rising temperatures and sea levels threaten coastal communities and when fishers or whalers ask, “Is today a safe day to take my boat out?”, they simply do not have the wave data necessary to complement their Indigenous knowledge and make an informed decision. In the village of Taholah, for example, which is a part of the Quinault Indian Nation in Washington, residents suffer increasingly frequent flooding due to breaches of a protective sea wall during storm events. 

In order to provide Indigenous communities with wave data, increased mindshare and funding is paramount, and Sofar Ocean and its strategic partners have heeded this call to action. As part of a community-led ocean observing project funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) Convergence Accelerator program, Sofar is partnering with three regional systems of the U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System — PacIOOS in Hawaiʻi and the U.S. Pacific Islands, NANOOS in the northwest U.S., and AOOS in Alaska — as well as Indigenous partners from the Pacific Islands, Washington coast, and Alaska, to launch Backyard Buoys.

The goal of Backyard Buoys is to empower Indigenous and other coastal communities to collect and use ocean data to support maritime activities, food security, and coastal hazard protection. Central to this effort is a large number of Sofar's affordable Spotter wave buoys which, once deployed, will provide accessible and actionable ocean data that bridges to Indigenous knowledge via a web-based application. Throughout the project, a sustainable and community-led stewardship program will oversee management of the buoys.

“Wave data for our region would not only enhance the ability of fishers to decide if conditions are within their boats’ safety parameters but also help the Quileute tribal community to better understand conditions that affect coastal erosion processes,” said Jennifer Hagen, Marine Biologist and Marine Policy Advisor for the Quileute Tribe.

“This project has the ability to bridge local indigenous knowledge with scientific data collection, making the information needed for ocean safety decisions more accessible to our local community,” said Fuiava Bert Fuiava, Samoan Village Chief.

On February 16, 2022, members of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission (AEWC) and the Alaska Ocean Observing System (AOOS) met to discuss deployment and maintenance strategy for the region’s new Sofar Spotter wave buoys.

The accessibility of Sofar’s Spotters are a critical component of the Backyard Buoys project. Most wave buoys are too expensive to buy and maintain, and can only be operated by large national programs with support from specialists. Spotters are low-cost, user-friendly, and human-scale — they can easily be carried by one person — and put wave data in the hands of communities to enhance safety, improve livelihoods, and help inform climate resilience decisions.

During phase one of this project, Backyard Buoys partners have been working collaboratively with Indigenous communities to co-develop the program and help understand what their specific ocean data needs are. Indigenous communities are not only sharing their feedback on the technology, but also are offering input on marine conditions from centuries of local observations. In the coming months, phase two will begin, which will see Spotter buoys put into the hands of Indigenous partners and into the ocean to start measuring conditions. 

The orange, yellow, and light blue regions above represent the geographic focus of the Backyard Buoys project. In these vast areas, only around 25 buoys are operated by federal or academic partners.

Climate change is happening now and the Indigenous communities on the front lines cannot afford to wait. Using simple devices that are maintained and managed by local partners, ocean data access and, in turn, equity, safety, and local economies, can be improved. The Backyard Buoys team is proud to be helping Indigenous communities unlock these key ocean insights and protect and preserve their way of life.

The Backyard Buoys team. Principal Investigators (clockwise): Sebastien Boulay, Sofar Ocean; Melissa Iwamoto, PacIOOS; Sheyna Wisdom, AOOS; Jan Newton, NANOOS. Special thanks to partners Carol Janzen (AOOS) and Roxanne Carini (NANOOS).

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