The Bering Sea Sub-Network

The Bering Sea Sub-Network (BSSN) is a project led by the Aleut International Association, using the knowledge of residents of both Russian and Alaskan islands in the Bering Sea to study the effects of climate change on their environment. The project uses community –based monitoring to describe phenomena such as predominant winds, ice formation, and unusual flora and fauna, which affect subsistence hunting and fishing in the local villages. BSSN ensured that the participating communities were involved at every level of planning and development of the network and the project. A community member in Gambell said why he liked the project: “I like this project because you are not researching us – you are doing research with us”.

The overall goal is to advance knowledge of the environmental changes that are of significance to understanding pan-arctic processes thereby enabling scientists, arctic communities and governments to predict, plan and respond to these changes. This may also help to enhance community resilience under conditions of rapid environmental and social change, leading to adaptability and resilience.

(Alessa et al 2007). All villages, except Tymlat, have seen a substantial interest from the research community in the recent years, suggesting a growing concern over the changes occurring in the environment which may pose risks to areas of cultural significance and rich biodiversity (Grebmeier, 2006).

The communities involved in the Pilot Project included coastal villages representing six indigenous cultures: three in the Russian Federation (Kanchalan — Chukchi, Tymlat — Koryak, and Nikolskoye – Western Aleut/ Unangas) and three in the United States (Gambell – St. Laurence Island Yupik, Togiak — Central Yup’ik, and Sand Point— Eastern Aleut/Unangan) formed the network.

The methods of gathering and disseminating information were designed to respond to the needs of the informants, who were harvesters and who had lived in the areas for over 30 years, as well as to be replicable for other, similar projects in other parts of the circumpolar North.

Interviews were conducted in Russian, English, and also indigenous languages. Reporting includes direct quotations from the participants. One participant observed: “This project is very interesting, but also very difficult because you cannot expect people to provide answers immediately. You have to be patient and establish trust. Now people in the village like the project, and they want to know how to deal with our government to help preserve our traditional ways of life. Most respondents have similar values to share: live in agreement with your environment; do not take more than you need from the land. Despite the difficult economy in Russia, especially in our region, people still want to live in the traditional ways.”

Over 600 interviews were conducted. Most of the interviews in Togiak and many in Gambell, Alaska, were conducted in Central Yup’ik and St. Laurence Island Yupik. This presented both challenges and opportunities. Antonia Penayah, from Gambell, draws attention to the importance of accurate translation. She says, “Another factor we have to deal with is translations, in my language it is easy to get lost, some words have a dual meaning, and some do not have any English meaning.” Olia Sutton who is a strong supporter of using indigenous languages, gives another excellent reason why it is essential: “I like to interview in my Yup’ik language because then it comes from my heart.”

Observed changes in environmental conditions from the Pilot phase showed correlations with western science (Alessa et al 2008), demonstrating how local knowledge can be calibrated with western science and act as an early warning system for environmental change. Potential risks include a reduction in summer sea ice that might threaten several ice-dependent species, including seals and walrus, as well as the humans that depend upon them. Opportunities include better access to marine resources, potential opening of the Arctic for year-round shipping, and shifts in populations of species that could present new economic opportunities. (ACIA, 2004, AMSA 2009). A Gambell resident, for example, pointed out that “There is less ice each year and it is getting thinner. It comes very late, and goes really early in the spring. Weather conditions have changed too. We used to have northerly winds. Now, in that season, we get more southerly wind. The wind is stronger and changes all the time. I’ve never seen this before in my life.” Russian communities stand out as more likely to report catching at least one fish/animal with visible disease (see Figure 12). The most significant observations point to a high rate of disease in red salmon and pacific cod in Nikolskoye, whitefish and chum salmon in Kanchalan, and pink salmon in Tymlat. Reasons for this need further investigation, but participants frequently cited pollutants associated with mining and military activity as the cause.

The socio-economic importance of subsistence was evident in all the communities. “Jobs are very scarce in Gambell, and so we mostly hunt for marine mammals, with a little bit of fishing. When most city people go grocery shopping they get a week’s worth of food, but when we are subsistence hunting we’re trying to get food for a whole year”, says one participant. Many harvest for traditional purposes and sharing. The family’s need for food was a primary driver for the travel. This reconfirmed the fact that coastal communities depend on the Bering Sea’s biological resources for providing food to their families.

Arctic communities need to develop the means to communicate their knowledge and concerns to scientists, policy makers, and the public. BSSN provides such an opportunity. BSSN is not a circumpolar project, but the diversity of participants, the range of the collected data, and a multidisciplinary approach make this model replicable and potentially useful in other regions.

In the next five years, BSSN will be expanded to include other communities. The established network may become a springboard for many other research activities in the region, and may provide a model for other regional networks. Developing collaborative relationships with other projects is vital to the future sustainability of BSSN. These partnerships will also increase opportunities for local communities to meet their research needs.

Mary Stapleton

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