The deep connection between seal and walrus populations and the Native Alaskan communities of the Bering Strait region is one that spans thousands of years. These species provide food and warmth for these communities, and also are integrated into their various cultures and sense of self.
“[Seals and walruses] are our vital and important source of diet that we live on. Our Creator gave us these animals so that we use them as a source of food, we have been eating these since time immemorial, the knowledge of hunting has been passed on generation to generation,” Morris Toolie, an elder advisor from the village of Savoonga near St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea, said.
Yet these deep connections are under an increasing array of threats. Talk of expanding ship traffic, trawling, and noticeable changes in ice and snow conditions, has raised concern among the region’s Native Alaskans and others. Many people wonder how these threats will affect their lives and what they can do to be part of any new management strategies undertaken by local officials.
With support from the National Science Foundation, the Oak Foundation, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, researchers with Kawerak, Inc., in Nome, Alaska, and nine regional Native Alaskan communities are documenting traditional knowledge about seals and walruses, so this wealth of information can be included in policy and management decision-making.
A map of the Bering Strait region. The nine Native Alaskan communities participating in study are shown on the map. Credit: Lily Ray, Kawerak Social Science
“[Kawerak’s] Social Science program director, Julie Raymond-Yakobian, worked with communities to develop this project to document subsistence use areas, record hunter knowledge and concerns, and try to make these things heard in policy,” explained Lily Ray, the lead investigator.
Lily Ray (standing center in white) documents traditional knowledge on ice seal and walrus subsistence use areas during a mapping focus group in Stebbins, Alaska. Credit: Edwina Krier
Kawerak, Inc. is a tribal organization whose goals are to promote and provide programs and services to improve the lives and preserve the cultural heritage of the Native people within the region. Ultimately, Kawerak’s goal with this project is to give Native communities a voice in marine mammal policy and let their concerns be heard. As Kenneth Kingeekuk, a project participant from St. Lawrence Island, explained:
“The more I read about the way U.S. and other countries are planning to use this northern routing, it’s as if we don’t exist there. They’re just talking about how easy it is going to be for them to go from one country to [another] country using this polar sea lane. And that is good for a lot of countries out there. But we need to get the respect here on the island, [acknowledgement] that there are people here on the island that live off the Bering Sea and Bering Strait. And that’s the respect we [want to] see from the world … otherwise people here will starve.”
The most recent data from harvest surveys show that Bering Strait region households harvest an average of more than 2,600 pounds of marine mammals per year. This number points to the significant role marine life plays in this part of the country.
Subsistence hunters pose next to a recently caught bearded seal. Marine mammals are not only a culturally preferred food in the region, but are an integral part of many Native Alaskan cultures. Credit: Tahbone Collection
“Eating marine mammals is an important part of food security, but more than that, marine mammals are a culturally preferred food for many. Not to mention they are a very important part of many people’s identities. To be able to go out and provide for themselves, their families and their communities; to be able to teach their children to hunt or to hunt with older members of their family is an important cultural activity,” Ray said.
Beyond providing sustenance, marine mammals also supply materials needed in everyday life. For instance, walrus is an important resource for many communities. After the meat is harvested and stored away, parts like the skin, bones, stomach and gut are used to make everything from boats to drums. Nothing goes to waste.
For subsistence cultures, the marine mammal provides more than meat. Every part of the animal is important. Here someone is preparing the skin of a bearded seal. Credit: Kawerak Subsistence Collection
Local Native Alaskan communities have been voicing concern about a number of issues over the past several years with the most worry centering on proposed expansion of shipping lanes and increased ship traffic through the area, possible only due to recent declines in sea ice. Residents worry that potential increases in noise will disturb the populations of walrus and seals, driving them away from where hunters normally find them. The U.S. Coast Guard is currently conducting a study on shipping routes through the area, and the Kawerak project has already provided comments.
Although commercial-bottom trawling is prohibited in the Northern Bering Sea until further research has been conducted, a recent research trawl has left local communities concerned about the potential expansion of commercial bottom trawling into the area. If bottom trawling is permitted, Native communities and others wonder how this will affect the food supply the walruses and ice seals need to survive. Additionally, walruses are now under consideration for Endangered Species Act (ESA) listing because of changes to ice and snow conditions in their habitat. This raises the question of what ESA listing would mean for subsistence hunting.
“What we are trying to do is work with communities to see what changes they have observed, how they have observed these changes to affect marine mammals, and what they think of the [possible] management policy changes,” Ray said.
A Human Approach to Data Collection
When Ray joined the project with NSF funding, she picked up where her Kawerak colleagues left off—taking the community-designed project into the data collection stage.
Project lead and social scientist Lily Ray with research assistant Edwina Krier doing fieldwork in Diomede. Credit: Eva Menadelook
“I went to all nine communities and met with their tribal governing bodies and held community meetings where I talked about the project and asked people what their concerns were and what kind of traditional knowledge they wanted us to document,” Ray said. She used the outcomes of those conversations to clarify the project’s objectives and design interview methods and questions to reach several project goals, including:
- Mapping seasonal ice seal and walrus subsistence use areas.
- Documenting traditional knowledge of these species’ habitat needs (e.g. during pupping and calving periods) and how the animals are reacting to environmental disturbances.
- Establishing data for community-based management of these species by documenting traditional ecological knowledge.
- Documenting traditional knowledge about hunter safety that can be used by younger generations.
Through interviews and focus groups with elders and expert seal and walrus hunters, Ray has been able to document lifetimes of traditional ecological knowledge about the habits and distributions of seals and walruses. The recordings are transcribed, analyzed with special software and written up by topic. Mapping data are recorded on paper maps and mapping forms. These maps are then digitized in ArcGIS, a suite of software used to create data-based maps, and entered into a database. Ray and her team then return to the communities to review the results and to start a conversation about policy suggestions with the people who are so closely tied to these animals.
Bringing Traditional Knowledge to Management, Science and Policy
Ray and the community participants are midway through the project. So far they have completed interviews with seven of the nine participating communities. And there are still many phases of report writing and review ahead.
But what the Kawerak team has learned so far could add a unique layer of information to Western approaches to species management and conservation. For example, hunters and elders have detailed observations of the effects of noise and pollution on marine mammals. Additionally, hunters are helping to describe the role of the respectful hunter in management.
The outcomes from the project will be presented to each community in topical result books with maps, stories and other information. Results will also be written up as journal articles that combine information by topic across communities. Maps will be included in Oceana’s Arctic Atlas of Important Ecological Areas, which is currently under development.
“There really is such a tremendous wealth of observation and perspective. Communities have a lot of valuable information to contribute and they have a vested interest—they depend on marine mammal hunting for their physical and cultural survival,” Ray said. “I hope that by documenting this knowledge and these concerns, they can be included in science and policy.”—Alicia Clarke