3.3.2. Bering Sea Sub-Network

Bering Sea Sub Network: International Community-based Environmental Observation Alliance for Arctic Observing Network (BSSN) – Russian Federation, United States

BSSN, an IPY endorsed project (IPY Project #247), is a structured network of coastal communities in the Russian Federation and the United States that provides the means for the systematic collection of community based environmental observations, the efficient management of that data, and lays a foundation for future community-based research. The overall goal of BSSN is to increase understanding and knowledge of pan-Arctic processes, thereby enhancing the ability of scientists, Arctic residents, and governments to predict, plan, and respond to environmental changes and their subsequent socioeconomic effects.

Over 350 harvesters in six coastal indigenous villages have been interviewed in 2008-09 to gather observations on a number of subsistence and local commercial marine species, as well as on physical environment. BSSN is led by Ms. Victoria Gofman, Aleut International Association (AIA) based in Anchorage, Alaska, United States. BSSN secretariat is co-located with AIA and serves as center point for communication and data management. BSSN co-lead, Dr. Lilian Na’ia Alessa of the University of Alaska, Anchorage, was interviewed for this publication. The first analytical project reports is expected by the end of 2009.

Status and Contact Details

Principle Investigators

Ms. Victoria Gofman
Aleut International Association
Anchorage, Alaska, US

Dr. Lilian Na’ia Alessa
Associate Professor and Group Leader
The Resilience and Adaptive Management Group University of Alaska
Anchorage Anchorage, Alaska, US.

Project time: June 1, 2007 – August, 2013

Funding: Competitive grant; National Science Foundation ARC – 0634079, 6830216 with contributions from the United States State Department and the Conservation of Flora and Fauna working group of the Arctic Council.

Q1. What are the main goals and activities of the project?
The goal is to develop a framework to enable networks of human observers, in this case, residents in remote Arctic communities to systematically document physical and social changes occurring in their region. As a geographically distributed network of human “sensors”, it can provide data that are invaluable for the elaboration of adaptation strategies by governments, indigenous communities, and individuals. This may enhance community resilience under conditions of rapid environmental and social change. The main objective is to develop a network of the Bering Sea coastal villages for the systematic collection of local observations of the natural and physical environment, and the efficient organization and management of the collected data that would enhance abilities of local residents, scientists, and government to understand, predict, plan and respond to environmental changes.

Q2. Who are the participants?
The BSSN research team consists of the Aleut International Association, the University of Anchorage, the Alaska Native Science Commission (Anchorage, Alaska, U.S.), UNEP/GRID- Arendal (Norway), the Chukotka Business center and the Russian American center in Kamchatka (Russia), village research assistants, and hunters and fishermen in the participating villages.

Q3. Who initiated the project?
The Aleut International Association was the main initiator and a driving force.

Q4. What are the locations and how were they selected?
Six villages (three in the US, Alaska): Gambell, Togiak, and Sand Point, and three in Russia: Kanchalan, Tymlat, and Nikolskoye were selected by respective regional organizations after receiving an invitation to participate during the proposal preparation time. Letters of request with the project description were sent to the presidents of five regional consortia in Alaska (the Aleutian Pribilof Island Association, the Bristol Bay Native Association, Kawerak, Maniilag Association, and the Association of Village Council Presidents) and to the regional Indigenous organizations in Kamchatka and Chukotka. The final selection was confirmed at the workshop where regional representatives selection the locations based upon agreed criteria that included geographic location, community capacity to run the project, community interest, needs, and previous project experience, as well as potential project contributions to the community.

Q5. How difficult was it to find funding and how long did it take?
The concept was developed in 2003, approved as a CAFF project in 2004, and endorsed as an IPY project in 2006. The first attempt to fund it through a USAID Biodiversity program in 2005 was unsuccessful. In 2006, a proposal was submitted to NSF Arctic Observing Network, a program created during and for IPY. NSF funded a pilot. The second proposal for the continuation of the project for five years was approved in 2009.

At over USD 3.7 million for seven years, BSSN is probably the largest community based monitoring project in the Arctic in terms of financial investment and its outreach to the communities. The process of securing funding was methodical and required collaboration with scientists, local communities, and other relevant organizations. Maintaining a high profile and visibility in international forums through presentations and participation in the Arctic Council and at various science conferences helped establish BSSN as a reputable network for community based monitoring.

Q6. What are the relationships between the project researchers and the communities?
The project was designed with the villages as the heart of the project. While the travel cost in the region is extremely high, there were joint meetings and the project lead travelled to all villages but one (could not get to Bering Island due to bad weather). Cooperative relationships with village councils were established early on. The project lead made presentations to the Council Boards during the trips. Village coordinators/research assistants were hired with the help of local councils or village administrations. The BSSN project assistant based in Anchorage is responsible for maintaining ongoing communication with all villages. All project staff located in Anchorage is bilingual (English and Russian). Monthly teleconferences are held for BSSN staff and village research assistants.

Q7. What type of monitoring and what methods do you use?
BSSN gathers observations on subsistence and local commercial marine species, as well as observations on the physical state of the environment in places of harvest. The methods of research is a non-probability purposive survey. It is believed that a non-random selection method is best suited for this type of research because of the small size of the communities and close ties that exist between community members. Local community members are trained as interviewers and instructed to interview the most experienced harvesters. When permission is granted interviews are recorded on a digital audio recorder. The survey instrument (questionnaires) was developed with input from community representatives. The questionnaire contains a variety of questions: closed-ended, open-ended, and multiple choice. Over 600 surveys were received from BSSN villages in the pilot project in 2008-09 and are being processed.

Q8. How do you organize your data management?
Filled out questionnaires are sent to the BSSN Secretariat in Anchorage where they are organized in two data sets: the qualitative data and audio – in a popular program NVivo; the quantitative data – in statistical software database SPSS. The surveys from Russia are translated and entered into the databases in both English and Russian. A special protocol was developed for categorizing and coding qualitative information.

Q9. Volunteers versus paid staff and participants: how did you address this issue in your project?
BSSN does not rely on volunteers. As it works mostly in impoverished, disadvantaged communities, it’s important to provide paying jobs and to bring small tokens of appreciation to all participants in the form of small cash payments. All village research assistants are paid for their work. The size and type of the appreciation payment or gifts are determined by the communities themselves within the approved budget.

Q10. What problems have you encountered and how did you work them out?
Most of the problems were rooted in the inability to react fast because of communication problems, such as slow or broken Internet connections in the villages, and transportation logistics. However, eventually the problems were solved by using alternative means and thanks to the great perseverance and dedication of BSSN staff. The obstacles could be summarized as:

  1. Lack of infrastructure in the villages, such as difficulties with office space set up and abilities to use and maintain equipment;
  2. Irregularities in interviews due to insufficient training of the interviewers;
  3. Poor communication and difficult transportation logistics.

This is how the problems were addressed:

  1. Every village is different. The project had sufficient flexibility to change arrangements to accommodate the circumstances. For example, sub-award agreements with some villages had to be changed and hire new people in others.
  2. A BSSN project assistant travelled to the Alaskan villages in the middle of the project to provide much needed field training. There were intense communications with our Russian partners to address the quality of interviews. These efforts helped improve the quality of survey.
  3. While it was not possible to fix the Internet and telephone connections, having a dedicated staff in central locations in both countries helped maximize whatever means were available. For example, teleconferences for Russian project staff with Anchorage were run via a cell phone service based in Kamchatka, a rather unorthodox way.

Q11. What do you think is the main achievement of the project?
The main achievement is that local observations are recognized by the mainstream science as valid and important data. This is manifested by the support of one the main science funding agency in the US. Beyond that, the infrastructure and methods developed in the course of the project will strengthen connections between Russian and Alaskan indigenous communities. They could be utilized by other research projects initiated by communities, academia or government. By training and hiring local residents, the majority of whom are indigenous, an interest in science is generated, and it builds pride in being a bearer of local, traditional and indigenous knowledge. It is expected that the data will be of use to the broader scientific and local communities. It is also anticipated that the findings may yield new knowledge that could help address many important issues, such as adaptation to climate change and sustainable resource management, just to name a few.

Q12. What advice would you give to others who would like to develop a similar project?
A project of this scale requires substantial resources to develop. Building a relationship with an organization that has qualified personnel to spend sufficient time on the design and development is important. A diverse team of collaborators with different types of expertise, from University scientists to community leaders and government officials, is essential.

Q13. What future do you see for this project?
The BSSN team is enthusiastic about the opportunity to continue the research for five more years and being able to add more locations. The team will be looking for products and policies that would make a good use of the data gathered in the project and is looking forward to helping shape a new generation of scientists.

Highlights

Achievements

  • Developed standardized observation network yielding quantifiable data
  • Secured multi-year funding
  • Established infrastructure for continuous work in the network communities

Opportunities for improvement

  • Training of local research assistants
  • Face-to-face communication between community participants and researchers and among community participants