Front Edge of Climate Change
The rich waters of the northern Bering Sea and Bering Strait form the foundation of culture, food security, and economy for Central Yup’ik, Cup’ik, St. Lawrence Island Yupik, and Inupiaq peoples. Indigenous peoples have relied on the abundant marine resources of this region for thousands of years.
The northern Bering Sea and Bering Strait region is vulnerable to ecological transformation and uncertainty due to warming ocean conditions. Satellite and local observations show that the timing, duration, and extent of seasonal sea ice are changing, generating a suite of ecological shifts:
- Biological communities on the seafloor have declined over the past few decades, changing the location and abundance of prey for marine mammals and birds.
- During a series of especially warm years, a wide range of fish species moved north.
- Late ice formation exposes villages to storm surges, resulting in dangerous coastal erosion that may force relocation.
- In some recent years, the retreating ice has drifted north so fast that walrus hunters have been completely unsuccessful.
- Local hunters report that sea ice has been thinner, making traveling on the ice more dangerous.
Gambell on St. Lawrence Island. Photo: Jon Nickles
What the future holds is an open question. Climate scientists forecast that winter sea ice will continue to form in the northern Bering Sea for the time being, but timing, duration and extent of the ice will be less predictable. A warming climate trajectory presents an uncertain future for the ecosystem and our villages will need to adapt to new challenges.
To prepare for the future, a stronger role for tribal governance in decision-making and a precautionary approach to fisheries management are important tools for addressing two ecological and cultural concerns shared by communities in the northern Bering Sea and Bering Strait region:
Concerns About Increasing Ship Traffic
Rapid loss of summer sea ice the Arctic Ocean is opening a new global shipping route through the region, heightening the risk of collisions or groundings and oil spills. Other concerns include noise disturbance to marine mammals, contaminated discharges, conflict with hunters and fishermen, and danger to small boats. Diomede, King Island, St. Lawrence Island, and Nunivak Island, as well as mainland villages along the shipping route, are vulnerable.
The narrow 53-mile Bering Strait is the only passage between the Arctic and Pacific oceans. Currents, sea ice and migrations of marine mammals and birds funnel through the Bering Strait, but it is a bottleneck to increasing ship traffic.
This spring there were container ships passing through the migrating route for walrus and interfering with our ‘Eskimo sonar’ – the way we stick an oar in the water and listen for the walrus. All you could hear is the engine. Ships were too close this spring.
~ Norman Menadelook – Teller
Concerns About Bottom Trawl Fishing
The ecosystem’s response to climate change will affect commercially valuable fish species and fisheries in uncertain ways. Maintaining management decisions that prevent the movement of bottom trawl fisheries into northern waters (where this fleet has not historically operated) is widely supported for the preservation of culture, food security, and ecosystem resilience.
The knowledge of the elders about how to live with the ocean and the land was given to us by our ancestors with instructions not to keep if for ourselves, but to pass it on to our children so that they may continue to prosper and continue our way of being.
~ From Bering Sea Elders Group – Resolution Expressing Our Mission Adopted Nov. 3, 2011