Walrus Hunts in Savoonga, Alaska

Blending science with local traditional knowledge

George Noongwook off the coast of AlaskaThe Bering Sea Integrated Ecosystem Research Project (BSIERP) includes a major component involving local traditional knowledge (LTK). This component represents a two-way exchange: the scientists learn from the long-term residents of the region of study and in turn these residents are informed of the scientific results that are emerging and in particular how their environment is liable to evolve in association with global climate change. It bears emphasizing that a number of Alaskan natives, from five different villages along the Bering Sea coast, are full participants in the program. They attend workshops and conferences and are engaged in the collection and analysis of data.

A telling example of the research being done in this arena involves analysis of walrus hunts out of Savoonga, a village on the shore of St. Lawrence. The analysis is being guided by Henry Huntington (a lead investigator for the LTK component of BSIERP) and George Noongwook (Savoonga elder and hunter and head of the Savoonga LTK effort), pictured above. Its objective is to determine how walrus harvests in the spring relate to the winds and ice conditions. The subsistence hunters of Savoonga have long considered that these conditions influence the success of their hunts, and under the auspices of BSIERP, the data has been put together to put these relationships in quantitative terms. Under Noongwook's direction, and with the assistance of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the number of walrus harvested per season was compiled for the years of 1991-2009. Data sets of environmental conditions were amassed by two UW PIs with BSIERP, with Nick Bond of JISAO determining the number of days per spring with favorable winds (according to local hunters) and Jinlun Zhang of APL characterizing ice concentrations on the north side of St. Lawrence Island. The interesting result Walruses in Alaskawas that neither wind nor ice was strongly related to the hunting success when considered in isolation, but when combined, showed indeed that springs with a greater proportion of "good" days yielded systematically higher harvests. The analysis indicated that there were two outlier years in which the environmental conditions seemed favorable, but there were relatively poor hunts. It is suspected that fog may have played an important role in these years, because of its impacts on navigation and ultimately limiting the number of hunting trips.

George Noongwook will be presenting the results outlined above at the 2nd Meeting of the Ecosystem Studies of Sub-Arctic Seas (ESSAS) being held in Seattle during 22-26 May 2011. The project summarized above illustrates how the LTK component of BSIERP is enabling us to better understand factors important to the ecosystem of the Bering Sea. This knowledge, along with the ongoing research on the probable biophysical changes in this environment, should yield improved projections of the marine ecosystem of the Bering Sea with climate change for not just native communities, but also commercial interests and policy managers.