In the northern Bering Sea, sea ice used to be present with us for eight months a year. Today, we may only see three or four months with ice. We are used to generally assessing our ice thickness in feet, but now we are often looking at inches, even in the middle of winter. The anchored ridges of ice near our communities that we rely on to safely stabilize our shorefast ice are harder and harder to find, increasing the likelihood that storms or rising tides will break up and remove our ice throughout winter. This places at risk any stored fishing or hunting gear, including crab pots, that may be left on the ice for convenience and fuel-savings. At St. Lawrence Island, shorefast ice has been largely absent for the last five years. This lack of ice greatly hinders our ability to successfully hunt bowhead whales, which provide tons of meat and blubber for sharing throughout the island, as well as with other communities across the Bering Sea region and the whole state of Alaska. Walrus and seals are also no longer as reliably close to the island as they follow the drifting ice across greater distances. In particular, disruptions to our walrus hunting, which is a mainstay for the St. Lawrence Island Yupik, have a tremendous impact on our remote communities. The tomcod, which spawn under the island’s shorefast ice, are also moving to new locations. Further south, at St. Paul Island, we have not experienced sea ice in winter since 2013. The loss of sea ice has been the biggest change across our region, and with its loss there is nothing to keep our waters cold.
Norman Menadelook, Sr. from Teller, Alaska discusses changes in sea ice conditions near his community (right).
MARINE MAMMALS. The media and scientific coverage of massive seal die-offs in Alaskan waters is confirmed by what we too observe. At Wales, we counted 20 dead young ugruks from this past spring that had presumably not had enough food. Similarly, on St. Lawrence Island, we observed 50 dead spotted seals and young ugruks along a 15-20 mile stretch of beach. In recent years, near Chevak, various species of seals with bald patches have been found floating dead on our rivers. While the messages we receive from biologists point to starvation, as opposed to disease, these observations are nonetheless alarming and cause worry regarding the security and safety of our food sources. With sea ice diminishing, our walruses, ugruks, whales, and polar bears are in danger. Our whole marine ecosystem is in danger, threatening our traditional way of life.
Back (left to right): Richard Slats, Matthew Druckenmiller, Mellisa Heflin, Andy Miller, Jacob Merculief, Bob Bahnke, Clyde Oxereok, & Raychelle Daniel. Front (left to right): Mwita Chacha, Eli Kintisch, Delbert Pongowiyi, Jerry Ivanoff, Norman Menadelook Sr., Carol Oliver. Absent: Helen Bell (Photo by Mwita Chacha, 2019)