The paint has barely dried at the new Salish Sea Research Center near Bellingham, but the $2.2 million facility is already in use. Student scientists dip into a freezer full of recently collected shellfish, a Zodiac boat and a collection of waders are drying in the back mud room, and several projects to study acidity in the water and the health of the aquatic organisms are already underway.

The Northwest Indian College was established in 1973 to train technicians who would work in Indian-run fish and shellfish hatcheries throughout the region. More recently it has expanded to include two- and four-year college degrees. And today it is the only accredited tribal college in the Pacific Northwest, serving Indian students from around the country.

The one-story research center right in the middle of the NWIC campus, just a mile from Lummi and Bellingham bays, is an American Recovery and Reinvestment Act project and was started with a $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation. It’s already a valuable tool, says Susan Blake, water agent for WSU’s Whatcom County Extension. With farming, fishing, rivers, and ocean, water is a key and complicated issue in the region, which extends north well into Canada. Lately there are concerns about two Chinook species that are very low in population, she says.

As the WSU component of the research center project, Blake serves as liaison to organizations and governments in the county that are doing related work. She also connects the research findings from the students and scientists at the center with the broader community of residents, farmers, and fisheries.

During a recent visit to the new research center, the college’s first four-year degree graduate, Jessica Urbanec, explained some of the research and its reasons. About a decade ago, Lummi fishermen noticed problems with the number and health of their catches. So with NWIC help, they started collecting data in Bellingham Bay on a variety of issues including dissolved oxygen, which affects where organisms and fish can live.

While the center’s focus is the environment and natural resources, it’s also more personal, says Urbanec. “We get so much food from our intertidal area,” says Urbanec. “This is about our diet and our health.” Seafood from the area waters provide many of the Lummi members their livelihoods as well as their daily calories. At a meal, says Urbanec, the Lummis wouldn’t go back for seconds on broccoli, “But we’d go back for seconds on fish.”

This new center puts the students to work assessing their samples of water and shellfish. They can check nutrient levels, study harmful algal blooms, and run DNA sequences for plankton. In the process, the students learn lab techniques, participate in and run research projects, and expand their understanding of marine systems. Training at the center can lead to jobs in the field, provide preparation for graduate school, and create a new generation of trained scientists and ecologists.

The center is at the heart of a dynamic ecological region that straddles international boundaries and includes both dense urban areas and wild uninhabited spaces. The Salish Sea makes up the second largest tidal estuary in North America and contains the largest Pacific salmon run in the United States, says Jeff Campbell, the project lead and NWIC fisheries instructor. “This research facility was conspicuous by its absence,” he says. “But now it can put the technology into the hands of people being educated there. And they can go back to their tribes and work on these issues.”