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Voices from the Front Lines of a Changing Bering Sea An Indigenous Perspective for the 2019 Arctic Report Card

Authors: Richard Slats (Chevak), Carol Oliver (Golovin), Andrew Miller (Nome), Robert Bahnke (Nome), Helen Bell (Nome), Delbert Pungowiyi (Savoonga), Jacob Merculief (St. Paul Island), Norman Menadelook Sr. (Teller), Jerry Ivanoff (Unalakleet), and Clyde Oxereok (Wales)

This report appears as a direct contribution to NOAA's Arctic Report Card 2019.

Introduction

The Bering Sea is home to over 70 Indigenous communities of the Iñupiat, Central Yup’ik, Cup’ik, St. Lawrence Island Yupik, Unangan, and Chukchi Peoples. We are peoples of the world’s richest sea. We study the ocean and weather as a way of life, as a means for survival. The Bering Sea is undergoing changes that have never been observed in our lifetimes, but were foreseen by our elders decades ago. Global climate change is one of many forces beyond our control that are threatening the entire Bering Sea food chain, of which we are a part. Record-breaking temperatures, reductions in sea ice, and lack of snow are impacting our marine mammals, fish, seabirds, and ecosystem as a whole. The evidence exists along our coastlines, in our waters, and is revealed through the hardships we face in bringing harvests home to our families and communities.

Our resilience as Indigenous Peoples comes from our close proximity to the food resources that we depend on. In a warming Arctic, access to our subsistence foods is shrinking and becoming more hazardous to hunt and fish. At the same time, thawing permafrost and more frequent and higher storm surges increasingly threaten our homes, schools, airports, and utilities. Our environment has changed, but we remain vigilant. By adapting as we always have, we continue to hunt, fish, and harvest from the ocean and land. But, we fear for our young people; we worry that they will grow without the same foods and places that we have known throughout our lives. Maintaining what we inherited from our elders and thinking about our future generations, we offer this report as a glimpse into what we are observing and experiencing at the locations of our eight communities in the Bering Sea region of Alaska (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Alaska communities in the Bering Sea region. Communities denoted in red are those represented at the workshop in Nome, Alaska on September 26-27, 2019.

Our Changing World

SEA ICE. We look for the return of the sea ice every fall season. Across our region, the ice provides access to seals, whales, walrus, fish, crabs, and other marine life for our subsistence harvests. Decades ago, we first saw the disappearance of the large floes of multiyear ice. This was the “mother ice” that would provide the big nails for securing our shorefast ice along the coast. Today, it is both the timing and overall thickness of the ice that has changed. Our sea ice arrives much later nowadays, with the largest shift occurring in the last five years. With a delayed and prolonged fall freeze-up, we are stranded for a growing part of the year when we can no longer use boats in the freezing waters, but also cannot yet safely travel across ice with snowmachines. Our traditional ice-based travel routes between communities (e.g., between Wales, Teller, and Brevig Mission) are no longer possible or are greatly limited in duration. At Diomede, a remote island community in the Bering Strait, the coastal sea ice has not been thick enough for an ice runway for the last 10 years or so, leaving the community to depend on less reliable helicopter access as their main means of resupply, mail delivery, and travel on and off the island throughout winter (e.g., to access health care and other social services). The warmer temperatures and delayed freeze-up also impact our river access. At Chevak, as in other coastal communities, the window of time for traveling our rivers and sloughs to set fish nets and traps is coming later, if it comes at all.

Without the snow and without the ice, I’m having to travel farther for my ugruk, for my seals, and also for my caribou. (Jerry Ivanoff - Unalakleet, AK)

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).

Figure 2. Sea ice in the Bering Sea during mostly cloud-free days in early April 2013, 2018, and 2019 (left to right) observed using Aqua/MODIS satellite imagery. At this time of year, 2013 had approximately 4.5 times as much ice coverage as in 2018 and 2019 (see Figure 3 below). (Imagery obtained from NASA Worldview).
Figure 3. Annual sea ice coverage (extent) in the Bering Sea. The last two years are shown as the black (2017-2018) and red (2018-2019) lines, and a recent heavy ice year (2012-2013) is shown as the blue line. The light gray area shows the full range of ice coverage during the baseline period of 1981-2010, and the dark gray line is the median ice coverage for this same period.

WINDS AND WEATHER. One of the biggest dangers we face is that we are no longer able to reliably predict the weather, which is less stable now than in the past. In today’s world, we may see four weather patterns in a single day, typically with rapid shifts in wind direction. This limits our ability to spend time on the land or on the ocean (e.g., waiting for whales to come within chasing distance of our boats). It affects our planning and ability to collect and prepare our foods. For example, at Wales, due to more southerly winds in recent years, we see a change in when our clams show up; we used to harvest them in fall but now we do so in summer.

We are also experiencing changes in our precipitation—primarily less snow in winter, more frequent winter rain events, and wetter summers. The winter snow is needed to fill our creeks for safe crossings, to keep our ptarmigan nearby through providing shelter as they burrow and eat willows throughout the cold months, and to provide for bountiful salmon berry harvests in summer. Winter rains coat our runways in ice and prevent the planes from landing in our communities, the vast majority of which are not connected to road systems. At Nome, as we travel back and forth to our fish camps in summer, wetter weather with more unpredictable and heavy rains leaves us fewer days to dry our fish. As a result, we are increasingly using roofs (or hootches) over our fish drying racks. This past year’s unusually warm air and water temperatures may also be linked to greater weeds seen in our lagoons. At Safety Lagoon near Nome, weeds rising through the water were clogging boat engines as we traveled to our cabins in summer.

I can remember as a kid growing up, it started snowing in October and it didn't melt all the way until April or May, maybe sometimes June... Lately we don't get any real cold snow until January, maybe February.... Two or three years ago, we didn't get much snow, and it got cold really fast, and when it got cold really fast, it killed a lot of the moss on the island. (Jacob Merculief - St. Paul, AK)

STORMS AND EROSION. Warning signs are found all around us of the challenges we face with our eroding shorelines and thawing permafrost. We are seeing coastal landslides, large sinkholes (Figure 4), and methane bubbling up through our ponds in summer. Thawing permafrost combined with more frequent and higher storm surges, made possible by the diminishing sea ice, is threatening our roads, runways, schools, homes, fish camps, and utilities that carry our water and sewage. This strikes at the heart of our safety, health, and economic well-being. In Golovin, where many community members fish commercially, our only fish processing plant is falling into the ocean. We know that these types of losses are often only a matter of time, but there is also a lot that we still have time to protect. We are encouraging our young people to build on higher ground.

Golovin as a coastal community is being affected very quickly by the storm surges, by erosion. In the 90's, we had to move our airport up on the hill because, even today it is flooding, and the old airport is being covered with water right now... Within the last few years, we've been encouraging our people to build on higher ground; to be out of the flood plain. (Carol Oliver - Golovin, AK)
Figure 4. Sink hole in the permafrost along the Norton Sound coastline, south of Unalakleet, Alaska. Jerry Ivanoff from Unalakleet observed this as one of three large sinkholes that appeared along this stretch of coastline during summer 2019. Jerry Ivanoff’s 22-foot boat can be seen offshore, at left, for scale. (Photo by Mwita Chacha on 24 September 2019)

Observing our Animals

MULTIPLE CAUSES FOR CONCERN. The ocean is our garden. As our well-being relies on the health of this garden, we observe the cumulative impacts on our food resources. The stresses of climate change are a major concern, yet we cannot necessarily separate those from the detrimental impacts that contamination and pollution also have had on our ocean, land, and air, and thereby on the animals and plants that sustain us. We acknowledge the risks that we continue to face as a legacy of the buried military materials around our communities (e.g., fuel drums that are rotting in the tundra), the past use of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) on our lands, the bio-accumulation of mercury in our marine mammals, and the distant nuclear disasters of Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011). As we find black blisters on harvested tomcod, observe abnormal odors from the guts of harvested seals, unusual hair-loss on our ugruks (bearded seals, Figure 5), or animals acting strangely with an extraordinary willingness to approach people, we are reminded that both local and global sources of contamination remain a very long-lived threat that has come to reside in Arctic ecosystems. Our ocean also brings garbage from all over the world. We find plastics as we dissect dead fish and birds found on our beaches. We increasingly must guard against plastic bags being sucked into boat engines. Styrofoam and lost fishing equipment are continually deposited up and down our coastlines.

Figure 5. An ugruk, also known as a bearded seal, resting on sea ice. Ugruks are a critical food source for many Bering Sea communities. (Photo by Gary Bembridge, 2015)

FISH. The fisheries of the Bering Sea are vital to our food security and economic well-being. We harvest fish from our rivers, from the sea ice, and in the open ocean. As the temperatures of ocean waters rise and winter sea ice diminishes, the health of our fisheries is of growing concern. At Teller and Nome, we have seen die-offs of our blue cod and tomcod, likely due to lack of food. During this past summer’s record-breaking heat wave, large numbers of salmon were washing up dead along the Ninglikfak River near Chevak, the Kuskokwim River, and other waters across our region. We also see changes in fish migration timing and patterns (see Bering Sea Changes and Bering Sea Fisheries essays). With a later fall freeze-up and an earlier spring thaw, the salmon runs are changing, requiring us to adjust when we fish. Some salmon are traveling further north altogether to spawn in colder waters.

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.

BIRDS.  Our seabird populations are also under threat due to a lack of food associated with the rising temperatures of our waters. We have regularly observed die-offs during at least the last five summers. Around Wales, we have found our beaches littered with dead eider ducks, murres, and auklets. St. Lawrence Island experienced a massive auklet die-off this past summer. The adults laid their eggs but abandoned their chicks soon after they hatched. It was the adults’ survival strategy in the absence of food. Still, we found dead adult auklets across our beaches, which necropsies confirmed had empty stomachs. Similarly, at Chevak this past summer, we observed common murres that were unable to fly because they were too hungry. Our little birds are also indicators of change, and we see these less and less. The lack of song birds around Nome and Wales has brought uncommon silence when we are out on the land.

The biggest change I see recently is the lack of seabirds, the migratory birds during the summer, and even the songbirds during the summer...If we go out into the country, we’re not seeing a lot of the shorebirds, like the snipes and the phalaropes and the songbirds even, that used to be prevalent in our country during midsummer. (Clyde Oxereok - Wales, AK)

Looking to the Future

We are sharing today things similar to what our elders shared in the past. We have seen change coming. Now, we know it is here. When we were young, we learned to read the clouds to understand the weather. We laid on the ground for hours with our grandparents, looking upwards. It is difficult to pass on this knowledge when the subject of our study is changing so quickly. The world from our childhood is no longer here. Our young children today are seeing so much change, but it is difficult for them to understand the pace. We are losing so much of our culture and connections to the resources from our ocean and lands. Store-bought groceries and meat, which are flown in by airplane at great cost, are continually replacing our local, fresh and nutritious subsistence foods. Our food security is even more at risk as our young people increasingly face high rates of unemployment with few job opportunities, and are less likely to own a boat for hunting and fishing.

With the unprecedented retreat of sea ice, expected increases in marine traffic and expanding fisheries are only more likely to further stress our Bering Sea ecosystem. We already are experiencing an increase in the number of large cargo ships entering our waters, as well as the growing prospects of harmful mining along our rivers. What steps will we take to care for our environment, to conserve, and to spark real action to address climate change? Our children need to be prepared to respond to these questions. It is therefore vital that our young people participate in this process of documenting and sharing our observations of change and adaptation across our region.

Workshop Participants

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)

Acknowledgments

This essay is a direct result of a workshop in Nome, Alaska, during 26-27 September 2019, when ten elders from eight communities met for two days of sharing and discussion. Many of us have never had a chance to share our voices to such a report. We are grateful for this opportunity to contribute to the NOAA Arctic Report Card. We also acknowledge that our eight communities are few compared to the total number in our region. While the peoples of the Bering Sea are experiencing many of the same challenges related to climate and environmental change, each community exists within its unique location and has its own experiences.

We thank the Study of Environmental Arctic Change (SEARCH) and the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) that funded and supported the workshop. We are very grateful to the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) Northwest Campus in Nome, Alaska, for hosting the workshop; we specifically thank Barb QasuGlana Amarok and Mariah Morgan for their assistance. Lastly, this report would not have been possible without the support of the tribal councils of Chevak, Golovin, Savoonga, St. Paul Island, Teller, Unalakleet and Wales, and the coordination provided by the Bering Sea Elders Group and Pew Charitable Trusts.

The above video showcases the participation and perspectives of Jerry Ivanoff (Unalakleet, Alaska) and others during their preparation of this report.

Additional Resources

Additional Photo Credits:

  • The community of Wales, Alaska during spring (Photo by Matthew Druckenmiller)
  • A black-legged kittiwake flying near the shore at Savoonga, St. Lawrence Island (Photo by Lisa Sheffield Guy; Courtesy of ARCUS)
  • Walrus hauled out on sea ice in the Bering Sea (Photo by USFWS/Brad Benter, April 2006; Courtesy of ARCUS)
  • Boats on the beach at Gambell, St. Lawrence Island, Alaska (Photo by Patty Jones, 2006; Courtesy of ARCUS)
  • Looking across sea ice toward the Diomede Islands in the Bering Strait from Wales, Alaska (Photo by Matthew Druckenmiller)
Study of Environmental Arctic Change (SEARCH) activities are supported by a collaborative grant from the National Science Foundation Division of Polar Programs, Arctic Sciences Section. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.