Observations of Bering Sea Peoples
(Revised from 1999, © 1999)
By Larry (Kuuyux) Merculieff
All is not well in the Bering Sea. Like a top losing speed, the Bering Sea ecosystem is spinning off balance and no one knows where it is headed.
In the mid-1970s, coastal residents of the Bering Sea first noted unusual physical characteristics, behavior, and activities of the wildlife species on which they depend. The breast bones of adult birds were protruding as chest muscles collapsed; huge numbers of nesting seabird chicks were falling off cliffs and dying, apparently too weak to maintain their hold on ledges; Steller sea lions were chasing and eating Northern fur seal pups with greater frequency than ever in living memory; the subtle but distinct taste of murre eggs was changing, indicating the birds’ diet was different; the normally thick pelt of the Northern fur seal was thinning. Many pelts were opaque when fleshed and held up to a light source, something never before observed. Inupiats, Yupiks, and Aleuts reported that king and common eider ducks were falling out of the sky in large numbers and dying.
There are widespread reports of how walrus were thinner than normal. Athabascan people, for the first time, reported the sighting of five beluga whales at Fort Yukon in the middle of Alaska. Aleuts reported that northern fur seal meat tasted fishier and was more pinkish in color – leading elders to speculate that the seals may have shifted to a diet predominantly make up of salmon. Native peoples reported large concentrations of sea lions at False Pass and further north where they were not normally seen in large numbers. Hunters in the Pribilof Islands noted that sea lions are now traveling in larger pods than was ever noted in the last two generations of Aleuts.
Aleuts speculate that fur seals and sea lions may be shifting their diet of pollock, squid, sandlance, and capelin to salmon. From Nome to the Aleutian Chain salmon have crashed in populations. Yupik peoples have noted unusually large numbers of beaver dams higher up the rivers blocking fish migrations, declining numbers of loons and concentrations of worms in king salmon. Sea otter populations in the Aleutians are declining, perhaps due to shift in Orca diet from sea lions and seals, to sea otters.
These observations were the first signs of what is now known to be an ecosystem-wide phenomena of precipitous and sustained decline among a wide variety of marine mammal, seabird, and fish populations living and/or breeding in the Bering Sea. Near-shore foragers, continental shelf foragers, surface feeders and underwater feeders were all declining. Coastal people were first to bring attention to the fact that Bering Sea animals were not getting the food necessary to maintain their health and population vitality.
Higher Trophic Species In Serious Decline in the Bering Sea
Ten years after the first Alaska native observations of wildlife food stress problems in the Bering Sea, the statistics started coming in. Northern fur seals were declared Depleted in 1987 under the Marine Mammal Protection Act when scientists determined herds were 50% below optimum, sustainable population levels. Presently, the fur seals are declining at an alarming rate as the numbers of females plummets. Steller sea lions were declared Threatened in 1990 under the Endangered Species Act and, subsequently, in 1997, listed as Endangered. Research shows that harbor seal populations in certain locations in the Bering Sea have declined as much as 75% over a 20-year period.
In the early 1990s, ornithologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Russian Academy of Sciences noted a 50-to-85 percent population decline (over the past 20 years) of red and black legged kittiwakes, common murres nesting in their largest Bering Sea colonies on the Pribilof Islands. The IUCN Red List added the red-legged kittiwake as an endangered population. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has documented dramatic declines in all species of eider ducks, including the King, Common, Steller, and Spectacled eiders. Believed to be declining: the red-faced commorant, least auklets, horned and tufted puffins, storm petrels and arctic loons, although little data exists.
In the meantime, the U.S. Steller Sea Lion Recovery Team has noted that herring, sandlance, and capelin, three important prey species, are now noticeably missing in much of the Bering Sea. Bering Sea salmon numbers plummeted so severely in 1997 and 1998, that many coastal communities put out a plea for funds and food supplies to get them through the winter. In response, the Red Cross established an initiative to help these communities. Spotted seals are said to be declining but little data exists on these populations. In all, there may be more than 20 higher trophic species in a state of severe and sustained decline in the Bering Sea.
The majority of the higher trophic species in precipitous and sustained decline strike at the heart of Bering Sea coastal communities that have depended on these species for millennium. In fact, these wildlife declines are a critical threat to the cultural, spiritual, nutritional, and economic viability of coastal peoples. The magnitude of the changes in the Bering Sea and in the wildlife population declines is akin to deforestation of the tropical rainforests in South America. The effect of these declines and changes is very similar to the consequences suffered by South American indigenous peoples from deforestation.
Alaska Native Involvement in Stewardship of the Bering Sea
Native peoples of the Bering Sea have a keen sense of urgency of the situation. Living on the rim of the Bering Sea, they are the first to feel the effects of what may be an ecosystem crisis in progress. However, despite their connection to and their dependence on the Bering Sea, indigenous coastal peoples still have a very limited role in research, in the setting of research priorities, responsible use management policies, and in the regulation, enforcement, and policy decision-making processes that continue to directly affect their way of life.
Historically, and to date, the involvement of indigenous people in research and policy setting has been ad hoc, and in the form of advisor roles rather than active participants or partners. Although the current trend is to seek the involvement of indigenous peoples, little thought or effort has been given as to how coastal leaders and elders can deal with the new inundation of requests for information and (usually) unpaid participation that come from universities, individual researchers, environmental organizations, federal and state fish and wildlife agencies and institutions. Coastal communities need to develop the ability and capacity to reasonably respond to such requests.
Native coastal peoples are skeptical of the ability of western science to single-handedly identify the causative factors for the widespread wildlife declines, and to then find the solutions. There is a strong sense that traditional knowledge and wisdom, together with ecosystem based and single species research, offer a more effective and efficient process for uncovering the causes and responding accordingly.
One Perspective On What Is Happening In the Bering Sea
The Bering Sea is experiencing rapid and fundamental change. Scientists from the various disciplines studying the wildlife population declines for the past 20 years still do not know the causes for these declines, although there are speculations. Most agree that many of the declining wildlife species are food stressed. The causes of the food stress are not definitively known, in large part because research disciplines are primarily single species oriented and no widely accepted ecosystem approaches have been developed.
In addition, the environmental and human caused variables in the Bering Sea are changing each year. The potential number of variables may be so astronomical it is impractical to construct reliable wildlife population computer models. It may be decades before reliable models are constructed if ever, assuming institutional challenges are met (see subsequent section on Institutional Challenges to Scientific Research in the Bering Sea).
Despite the state of knowledge and information on the Bering Sea, there are certain significant events that likely contributed to the situation in the Bering Sea today. The Committee on the Bering Sea Ecosystem, under the auspices of the National Research Council Polar Research Board, attempted to document these significant events in the so called Cascade Hypothesis. Prior to completion and distribution of the Committee’s report “The Bering Sea Ecosystem” in 1995, the Alaska native representatives on the Committee presented information on the potential causes for wildlife declines.
Some, but not all of them, were ultimately included in the Cascade Hypothesis list and placed in the final report. The list below is a combination of the Committee’s findings and Alaska native observations and conclusions. The activities and events, together or separately, contribute to the fish and wildlife population declines in the Bering Sea.
- High seas whaling into the 1960s by foreign nationals and American fleets depleted a large part of many Bering Sea whale populations, disrupting the natural food chain. No one understands how the food chains were affected by the removal of whales from the ecosystem, but no doubt the niche whales occupied in the food chain and ecosystem was filled by some other fish and/or wildlife populations.
- Before they were outlawed within the U.S. 200-mile exclusive economic zone, high seas driftnets killed large numbers of North Pacific seabirds. By some estimates, as many as 600,000 seabirds were killed each year by these nets. By this estimate, six million seabirds were lost in the North Pacific in one decade of high seas driftnet fishing. Although there are no reliable estimates, thousands of Northern fur seals and sea lions were caught in these nets each year and killed. The National Marine Fisheries Service estimates 40,000 Northern fur seals died each year during the peak years of high seas driftnet fishing in the North Pacific.
- In the 1950s until 1976, hundreds of millions of fish caught each year in the Bering Sea were thrown overboard dead or dying because they had no economic value or were of lower economic value than other fish. In the late 1970s through the 1990s, the U.S. factory trawler fleets threw away an average of 600 million pounds of fish, crab and other bottom-dwelling life as bycatch or discards every year. Bycatch is the term used for species of fish that are not allowed to be taken by the law and thus have to be thrown away. Discards refers to species of fish that are allowed to be taken, but are either too small or of the wrong sex and therefore not authorized to be taken by regulation.
No one knows how much fish and other bottom-dwelling species are thrown away by factory trawlers fishing on the Russian side of the Bering Sea each year, although it is speculated that it exceeds the average annual wanton waste of sea life on the U.S. side, particularly in the last decade. Using the official government estimates of discards and bycatch in the past ten years alone on the U.S. side of the Bering Sea, 6 billion pounds of fish and other sea life died and were thrown overboard.
How this translates in terms of numbers of individual fish, numbers of particular specie, age of any particular specie, their importance to any particular food chain, affect on the ability of the specie to reproduce, or relationship to other species not directly in their food chain is unknown. Logically, this wanton waste of sea life on such a large scale, over such a wide area, over such a long period of time, contributed significantly to the declines of wildlife populations in the Bering Sea.
- Russia, desperate for currency for economic survival, has opened the western Bering Sea to foreign fishing fleets targeting pollock. These fleets are basically unregulated and may, in fact, take pollock and many other fish species far above official quotas. Some of the world’s largest factory trawlers are fishing in Russian waters.
Recently, a Russian scientist who worked in the Bering Sea for 20 years stated the pollock fishery on their side of the Bering Sea “will be finished in two or three years.” The world’s largest bottom fishery (focused on pollock) is in the Bering Sea. Pollock is the most abundant fish in the Sea, comprising 80% of the estimated fish bio-mass. It is a keystone specie whose fate affects the entire Bering Sea ecosystem.
It is known that northern fur seals, Steller sea lions and many seabirds in the pollock food web migrate to the Russian side of the Bering Sea each year; all are declining in numbers on that side. And it is known that some pollock stocks migrate to and from the Russian side. Undoubtedly, what happens to the fish stocks on the Russian side of the Bering Sea does significantly affects food webs and ecosystem health on the U.S. side. However, research and management on both sides of the Bering Sea are conducted largely independent of each other.
- As many as 6,000 crab pots from the U.S. crab fleets were lost each year in the 1970’s and 1980’s in the Bering Sea. This translates into 60,000 crab pots lost in a 10-year period; pots which “ghost fish” for a period of time until their netting decomposes. No one knows how many crab and other bottom dwelling creatures die in these pots every year, but it has to be significant. When the pots lost on the Russian side of the Bering Sea are added in, the Bering Sea floor must be littered with tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of metal framed crab pots lost over the past 30 years. No one knows what effect this litter is having on the sea floor habitat and the decomposition of the metal frames of the crab pots is having on the ecosystem. It would be reasonable to assume lost crab pots are not good for the health of the Bering Sea ecosystem.
- Steller sea lion meat was once considered good hanging bait in crab pots and thousands of sea lions may have been killed by this commercial fishery, but no one knows for sure. Alaska natives have reported incidences from Kodiak to Atka in which large numbers of sea lions were shot by people in commercial fishing boats. One Alaska native reported being on board a crab vessel in the 1980s on which at least 20 sea lions were shot. Another reported finding 30 dead sea lions shot by a passing commercial fishing boat in a bay on Kodiak Island in the early 1990s.
- Over the past 30 years during its peak, as many as 60 pollock factory trawlers were fishing in the U.S. side of the Bering Sea each year. These trawlers come to the Bering Sea twice each year and cover hundreds of thousands of hectares of sea bottom with their trawls. Combined with the trawlers on the Russian side, much of the sea bottom has been severely disrupted and degraded over the years and it continues.
Prior to the advent of the 200-mile exclusive fishing zones in the 1970s, several countries were involved in bottom trawling in the Bering Sea. Local Bering Sea residents recall seeing trawler and Mothership lights from horizon to horizon in the 1950s and 1960s. What kinds of sea bottom dwellers (benthic organisms) have been affected by this, or the number of species (and individuals in these species) affected is unknown. The degree and severity of damage done to the sea bottom and how this may affect sea life is unknown. Logically sea bottom disruption cannot have a positive effect and is likely contributing to the decline of surface dwelling wildlife today.
- The sea surface temperature has changed 1.5 degrees in the past 15-to-20 years. Scientists refer to this as a “regime shift.” Reflecting changes in weather system patterns in the Bering Sea, particularly the “Aleutian Low.” These changes may be part of natural cycles combined with global warming trends created by human activities. Sea temperature changes affect reproductivity of wildlife and thus their populations. Such changes also result in major shifts in migration patterns and/or survivability of temperature sensitive wildlife. For example, most Bering Sea crab have a three-degree “survival window”. Anything above or below this three degree window results in massive migration to warmer or colder waters, or massive die-off of crab. No doubt the sea temperature changes contribute to the decline trend of many wildlife.
- Certain cliff nesting seabirds in key locations in the Bering Sea have declined in the past 20 years by as much as 50-80 percent. Alaska natives and scientists agree that cliff nesting seabirds congregate in large numbers on the cliffs in part for defense against predators like foxes, fulmars and seagulls. These predators eat eggs and chicks. The dramatically thinning numbers of cliff nesting seabirds weakens their defenses, making it easier for predators to get to eggs and chicks. This situation is contributing to the decline trends of seabird populations.
- Alaska natives observe how bird guano contributes to the food chain. Scientists know bird guano introduces phosphates and nitrates into the food chain, but do not know or understand its significance. Given that millions of seabirds are no longer in the ecosystem, because of their population declines, a significant element (bird guano) has been removed from the ecosystem. This loss no doubt contributes to the problems in the Bering Sea, but to what degree or how, no one knows.
- Alaska Natives know that seabird colonies find their food in systematic ways. Small groups of seabirds scout for food and bring information about food locations back to the colonies each day. Given this, it is logical to assume that significantly fewer seabirds means significantly fewer scouts and thus, significantly less success in finding food, particularly at a time when the fish stocks are depleted or are migrating to different locations due to sea temperature changes. This situation no doubt is contributing to the decline trends of seabird populations. The same situation may exist for marine mammals that are experiencing dramatic population declines.
- Alaska natives have noted major changes in behavior of sea lions in the past 20 years. Sea lions are now seen on a regular basis swimming in larger number concentrations than was noted prior to the 1980s, even though their numbers have plummeted by 85 percent since the late 1960s. One community reported sighting an estimated 300 sea lions congregated in an island passage in early May. Hunters from the Pribilofs reported seeing sea lions swimming in pods of 30 to as many as 60 individuals compared to the average of 5-to-15 in the prior 30 years. Yupik Eskimos have reported large numbers of sea lions further north than ever noted in living memory. Scientists agree that the average size of a sea lion of a certain age is decreasing and that the mortality of sea lions is occurring mostly among the juvenile sea lions during the late fall, winter, early spring months. Decreased average size indicates food stress.
It also appears that traditional sources of food for sea lions, like herring, sandlance, capelin and squid have all but disappeared from the Bering Sea. Little is known about these fish species. Native elders say that the “old ones” among the animals are saddened that they can no longer teach their young ones how to find food. It is possible that the sea lions have had to change their foraging strategies to find food and that the food sources are now so diminished in number and locations that the sea lions are congregating in the few remaining locations where food can be found. And/or, the younger sea lions are “tagging along” with the oldest, most experienced sea lions, at a time of diminishing food sources in order to increase their chances of finding food. It is logical to assume that animals will shift their diets to available food sources that can be taken with the least amount of energy. It is possible that the sea lions shifted their diet to salmon in recent years, contributing to salmon declines in Bristol Bay and places further north.
- Aleuts have noted major changes in the taste and color of northern fur seal. Elders in the Pribilofs have indicated that the seal meat is more pinkish in color than normal and the meat tastes more “fishy.” Northern fur seals have a diet similar to sea lions. It is possible that fur seals also have shifted their diet to eat more salmon than they have in the past.
- There is no question in the minds of Alaska Natives that certain marine mammal and sea bird populations are experiencing food stress. No one knows what affect food stress has on the health of these animals. It is likely that increased food stress results in weakened animals; that weakened animals have weakened immune systems, making them more susceptible to disease and pollutants in the Bering Sea. Weakened animals also means less ability to withstand naturally occurring severe weather conditions. Logically, the chances of survival of any animal exposed to extreme or severe weather conditions is much better if they are strong and healthy. Such conditions would contribute to the decline trend of marine mammals and seabirds.
- Marine mammals and possibly seabirds are less successful in finding food because their “sampling” range in searching for food has diminished because of the decline of the number of “samplers”. Aleut elders had intimated that the birds and seals have “scouts” that look for food then communicate what they find to the rest of the colony on their return from a foraging trip. In a test in 1993, Dr. Alexander Golovkin decided to test this “hypothesis” by analyzing copepods in the pouches of least auklets from two colonies a quarter mile apart from each other on St. Paul Island—Tolstoi and Zapadni bird cliffs. It was known by the Russian team led by Dr. Michael Flint, that there were two distinct types of copepods in the Bering Sea…one group was located 200 miles offshore near the continental shelf; the other group was located a quarter mile offshore of St. Paul. Dr. Golovkin found that each bird colony was in fact foraging in two distinct locations….one 200 miles offshore and the other a quarter mile offshore. This was strong evidence that somehow the birds were signaling the location of their food sources to the rest of the colony they came from. Radio tagging of fur seals seems to indicate this possibility also. If true, the decline trend of seabirds and mammals is exacerbated by the fact that they do not have as many sentinels “scanning” the Bering Sea for food, and are thus less successful at foraging because their prey are shifting in response to sea temperature changes, and there may be ecosystem overfishing compounding the problem. If true, as older females (the most successful foragers) age out during this period and decline in numbers, the more potentially severe the decline trend.
- Sea ice movements have changed in the Bering Sea, due to the changes in the Aleutian Lows and possibly due to global climate change. Alaska Natives document thinner sea ice. The drift patterns have changed dramatically. Sea ice does not go as far (or as fast) south as in the winter months, and the retreat of the ice edge in the spring is quicker than ever noted in living memory. The sea ice edge is a major contributor to the productivity of the Bering Sea and it is a traditional location for major wildlife foraging. Algal blooms (microscopic plants) provide nutrients for microscopic animals, which in turn are food for fish and so on up the food chain.
Any changes in the drift of sea ice will affect the food chain and productive capability in the Bering Sea. Less frequent drift of sea ice into the Sea’s southern zones means less food at certain times of the year in those locations and possibly longer foraging journeys further north for animals that feed along the ice edge. If the animals are already in a weakened state due to food stress, the longer journeys further north will weaken them further and thus contribute to increasing death rates. In addition, Alaska Natives note polar bears have problems foraging on the thinner ice. This situation results in fewer young because the breeding adults are not as successful in getting food.
- It was recently reported that Orcas are preying on sea otters in the Aleutian Chain, to the point that sea otter populations are declining rapidly. Orcas are not known to prey heavily on sea otters. No doubt this situation is caused by fewer sea lions and fur seals to eat, so the Orcas are switching their diets. Fewer sea otters means more sea urchins. More sea urchins means less kelp. Less kelp means less hiding and breeding places for small fish. Fewer small fish means less food for eagles and harbor seals. Less food for eagles and harbor seals will result in declines in these species. Since harbor seals are already in severe decline, even less food will make their situation worse.
- Sea lions, northern fur seals, and certain species of seabirds eat predominantly pollock and pollock roe in certain times of the year. Pollock roe is the most valued part of the fish in the commercial fisheries, contributing to as much as 40 percent of the revenue of factory trawler operations. On the U.S. side, a season is set aside specifically for trawlers to catch roe filled pollock. No research has been conducted on the value of pollock roe to wildlife in the Bering Sea. No doubt some species congregate where roe filled pollock are, specifically to capture roe in their diets. Scientists do not know what affect the roe fishery has on wildlife that feed on roe filled pollock, but it is likely that this fishery is contributing to the wildlife decline trends.
- The Atka Mackeral fishery is another major fishery in the Bering Sea. Scientists have noted that sea lions are declining dramatically where this fishery exists. There is limited research on what other species are tied into the Atka mackeral food web; however, large removals of Atka mackeral probably is contributing to the decline of some wildlife.
- No one has looked at the implication of the loss of bird guano as a driver of primary productivity in the Bering Sea even though possibly millions of seabirds have disappeared from the Bering Sea. Native peoples understand that everything is connected. Loss of potentially hundreds of tons of bird guano due to seabird declines will affect productivity around islands and in/near polynas.
- Overfishing has contributed to the decline of wildlife in the Bering Sea. Overfishing can occur even when a fish stock is large, stable and healthy. For example, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council has allowed concentrations of large fishing efforts in small locations, in relatively small windows of time. Sixty percent of the pollock fishing effort in the past five years has occurred in the southeastern part of the Bering Sea. The National Marine Fisheries Service is attempting to change this management practice. No one knows what affect large removals of fish stocks, in localized areas in concentrated periods of time, has on the health of wildlife species.
In 1992, the pollock fishing areas called the “Donut Hole” and the “Bogoslov Nursing Zone” were shut down to commercial fishing due to depletion of the pollock stocks in these two zones. In that same year, the pollock fishery in Southeast Alaska was shut down. No studies have ever been done on whether or not these overfished pollock stocks affected declining wildlife in other areas of the Bering Sea. Given the interconnectedness of the Bering Sea, it is likely that these “localized depletions” of pollock contributed to the food stress of declining wildlife in other areas of the Bering Sea. Even given these catastrophic depletions of pollock stocks in 1992, U.S. fishery managers were still saying that Bering Sea pollock stocks were large and stable. Since the 1992 pollock fishery was closed in the Bogoslav, Donut Hole, and Southeast Alaska zones, 60 U.S. factory trawlers fished in the only place left to fish-70 to 100 miles northwest of the Pribilofs. That year, the fishery was open in June, the very same month many of the declining wildlife in the Pribilofs were breeding. Whether or not the failure of 5,000 pairs of Pribilof kittiwakes to produce young in the following two years was tied to this event, no one can say for certain, but it is highly likely.
As another example, fishery managers create quotas based on the principles of “maximum sustainable yield” and “allowable biological catch” estimates. The theory of this management system is to allow stable levels of commercial removals of fish under “conservative” management principles. However, there is no quota set as a “reserve” for the animals connected to the fish that is commercially taken. It is possible, and even probable, that there may be enough fish to meet the commercial catch goals each year, but there may be inadequate fish available for the wildlife in any given year. Alaska Natives understand that wildlife shift their diets each year depending on availability of food. In some years, one specie of fish (like pollock) may be more important than in other years, but this is not factored into the fishery management system. In these two examples, overfishing can occur because there can be insufficient fish as food for the wildlife, even though stocks of any particular specie of fish throughout the Bering Sea may have been healthy and stable.
- The Bering Sea is acknowledged to be the third most semi-enclosed water body system in the world. Only the Mediterranean Sea and the South China Sea are known to be more enclosed. The Bering Sea waters rotate in a counter-clockwise gyre, distributing nutrients and transporting fish and their spawn throughout the Bering Sea. This fact has some interesting implications. For example, any non-biodegradable contaminants thrown into the Bering Sea will cycle in the waters for many years. This means that wildlife may have long-term exposure to contaminants, and there are many sources of contamination.
It is known that the U.S. and Russian military have dumped war material into the Bering Sea beginning in WWII. Both countries may have dumped thousands of pounds of mustard gas in the Sea. Russia has used the Sea for burial of atomic waste. Radioactive fallout from Russia’s above ground nuclear tests have been transported over the Bering Sea. Research in the 1960s found nuclear contamination in the teeth of Steller sea lions. Plastics have been dumped into the Sea from both countries for decades. All fishing vessels and all coastal communities have been discharging sewage in the Bering Sea since the introduction of flush toilets. The U.S. Bering Sea crab fleet alone, numbering some 230 vessels, discharge garbage and sewage on a daily basis over two months each year. All vessels discharge diesel into the Bering Sea each time they flush their bilges. Mining operations in the 1950s through the 1970s along river tributaries discharging into the Bering Sea have flushed unknown quantities of chemicals into the Sea over the years. Industrial air pollution from Asia and Russia are discharged over the Bering Sea and this air pollution has been going on for decades. Some of the chemical and radioactive toxins are no doubt bio-accumulating in the tissues of wildlife. By themselves, a single kind of contaminant may not do much harm (depending on the volumes being discharged over time), but taken all together, the plastics, war material, nuclear discharges, sewage, diesel, garbage and air pollution in the Bering Sea contribute to weakening of wildlife immune systems, wildlife health, and concentrations of toxins in animal tissue eaten by the people of the Bering Sea.
El Nino events may be contributing to wildlife declines.
When warm currents flow into the Bering Sea, it pushes down the top of the water column, making it more difficult for surface feeders, like kittiwakes, to get at their food. It is possible that El Nino events, today are stronger in their force than ever in the past several hundred years due to global warming, but no one knows for sure.
Normally, wildlife can survive major El Nino events because their population levels are large. However, when their population levels are already severely depressed, as they are in the Bering Sea, the animals cannot withstand such events as well. In 1998, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported that there were a 1,000 dead birds (mostly surface feeders) per mile of beach from Nome to Atka after the last major El Nino event. Many of these birds were kittiwakes that are already down in population by 50-80 percent in the past 20 years.
It should be noted for the record, that Pribilof Aleuts predicted the third decline event of the fur seals, and that this decline may be far more precipitous than the previous two events. The first event was due to the culling of females by order of the federal government in the late 1950’s and 1960’s. The second decline event began about 1977 when Aleuts noted unusual behavior and conditions of murres, kittiwakes, seals, and sea lions. The third event has begun and involves the decline of female fur seals and a completely missing age-class of seals. Scientists and managers were relieved when the fur seal herd had stabilized in the 1980’s. Aleuts pointed out that the herd, and other declining marine mammals, would stabilize at a lower level as competitors for food disappeared from the food chain. Less competitors means more food. However, if the food sources continue their decline trend, eventually the “stabilized” decline would resume their downward spiral. It appears this has occurred.
Pribilof Aleuts testified in the hearings on listing of the Northern Fur Seal as Depleted, in the classification of the Steller Sea lion as Endangered, and presented in numerous forums about these decline trends, predicting that the situation will worsen. To this day, no researcher or government agency acknowledged or gave attribution to what the Pribilof Aleuts were saying throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s.
Combined with other events that are contributing to the seabird declines in the Bering Sea, it is possible that a single natural event, like the El Nino of 1998, could bring the species to the brink of extinction.
INSTITUTIONAL CHALLENGES TO RESEARCH IN THE BERING SEA
Western scientists and policy-makers must deal with a host of daunting challenges, if there is to be any coordinated multi-disciplinary and cross cultural ecosystem based approaches to the problems in the Bering Sea. The policy-makers and the general public rely on western science to restore the health of the Bering Sea ecosystem and to find out the causes for the wildlife declines.
Because of this, it is important to discuss the limitations of western science to avoid unrealistic expectations and make the best use of this science. Scientists alone could not hope to address these major challenges without more political, public, and financial support.
- Different disciplines have different research and data gathering methodologies, making it difficult, if not impossible, to correlate data and findings, or to coordinate research efforts. Correlating data is absolutely necessary if there is to be any understanding of the inter-relationships between animals, humans, and habitat. This process of cooperation and collaboration between the different disciplines (marine mammal, bird, and fish research) in order to see the inter-connections in the environment is just beginning. It may take a decade to create this more holistic system that’s a useful management tool, but only if there are funds and if the federal and state agencies and researchers are willing to do this.
- Funding and research targets are inconsistent as administrations and public priorities change, making it difficult if not impossible to pursue sorely needed long term research programs or to even synthesize existing data and findings.
- Different departments and research institutions must singularly pursue their own respective missions and funding priorities in order to remain on the “political radar”. These agencies have missions and activities they must meet as required by law or their agency directors and their bosses. These missions and activities rarely, if ever, involve interagency cooperation Such an environment is not conducive to coordinated research.
- Institutional support of independent researchers is non-existent, lessening the pool of different perspectives.
- Research and information exchange protocols between Russia and the U.S. are inadequate or non-existent for researching and managing migratory species or the same species in one ecosystem.
- Data gathering and research methodologies between Russia and the U.S. are different, making comparison of findings difficult if not impossible or very costly.
- Most research and management regimes are single species oriented, which in some cases, results in strong resistance to different approaches; and by the same token, there is a dearth of critical scientific and philosophical debate, or public understanding, of what any ecosystem approach means. Such a situation leaves scientists without support or direction they need to move forward substantively.
- Cartesian based science and peer group review systems are simply not equipped to validate traditional knowledge and wisdom. It would be unfair to expect this system, which is a quantitative world view based on time-series data gathering and computer models, to assess the veracity of information from indigenous systems which are qualitative and unwritten. De facto, this situation disenfranchises the primary stakeholders in the Bering Sea and substantially diminishes access to information which will prove to be invaluable to understanding what is going on with single species and the ecosystem.
- The sheer number of variables impinging on individual species may be untenable in terms of our current scientific capacity to deal with. Given this, we understand how daunting it seems, to deal with an entire complex and synergistic ecosystem in a constant state of flux.
- Scientists are put to an impossible test to prove definitively that any particular anthropogenic factor is an underlying cause for adverse fish and wildlife population trends before policy-makers and managers take action.
- In late fall, winter, early spring higher trophic specie research is virtually non-existent due to funding limitations and the sometimes extreme human discomfort and hazards posed by conducting research during these times. (I know I would not want to be on a small research vessel in the middle of the Bering Sea in January facing 80 knot winds and 40 foot seas!)
- Ecosystem monitoring systems for the Bering Sea are nonexistent and therefore changes in key ecosystem parameters which may dramatically affect wildlife population trends are not tied to management decision-making.
- Professional jealousies impede efforts to understand what is happening to different species and the systems or subsystems that sustain them.
- Research funding and programs are frequently reactive rather than preventative or proactive.
- Native peoples and scientists alike, must deal with a historic distrust of each others intentions and motives (sometimes justifiable sometimes not), making substantive cross-cultural cooperation extremely difficult at best, and no program exists to deal with these challenges from either side.
- Scientists and managers are mandated or institutionally required to utilize the “best available science” to make decisions. De facto, this is a major institutional barrier to use and application of traditional ways of knowing and meaningful involvement of Alaska Natives at a time when cooperation can be critical. Dependence on a singular way of knowing and seeing things may ultimately prove to be folly in terms of the health of the Bering Sea ecosystem and the well-being of the coastal and river cultures dependent on it.
This is a litany of real challenges and impediments to any change in status quo which we cannot expect the scientists and researchers alone to deal with. We must create the public, political, financial support to go along with the commitment of the scientific and native communities to work together.
What I put before you today is a proposal that accomplishes this: a proposal that combines The vested interests and abilities of Bering Sea communities, the scientific/management/policy-making communities, commercial fishers, and environmentalists. I have no illusions that this body can bring this proposal to fruition even if there was unanimity and a sincere commitment to do so. However, I am providing this to seek your support and to give you a heads up to what I am proposing that the Bering Sea communities strongly advocate for. I invite further ideas and constructive critiques of this vision for the Bering Sea.
I propose that Bering Sea communities be supported in building their own capacity to conduct their own research, exchange information and observations in a formalized and systematic process. By doing so, we will have the unprecedented opportunity to receive useful information throughout the year around an entire marine ecosystem. It can serve as an early warning system and systematic observations throughout a wide geographic range can aid scientists in constructing scientific hypotheses perhaps in a more timely fashion, and perhaps allow a quicker targeting of causative factors for adverse wildlife population trends. It creates a legitimate and meaningful role of stewardship by the people whose cultural viability depends on informed and decisive action.
I propose the establishment of a Bering Sea bulletin board and information clearinghouse accessible and useful to serious researchers, the lay public, and stakeholders.
I propose the establishment of international research centers equipped to conduct demonstration projects of innovative ecosystem and ecosystem monitoring approaches, and cooperative cross-cultural research programs. There should be two primary research centers-one located in the eastern Bering Sea and the other in the western Bering Sea. The centers would be tightly coordinated in terms of research targets, methodologies, and information exchanges. One specific mandate to these centers is to explore the feasibility and usefulness of mesoscale scientific research approaches in monitoring entire marine ecosystems. This concept has been pioneered in the Bering Sea by the Pribilof Aleuts and Dr. Mikhail Flint who is now the new director of the Shirshov Institute of Oceanology in the Russian Academy of Sciences. Dr. Flint oversees a thousand Russian marine scientists and he is committed to working in the Bering Sea.