The Bering Sea Sub-Network: International Community-Based Environmental Observation Alliance for the Arctic Observing Network, known as BSSN, is a 2008-09 International Polar Year project implemented by the Aleut International Association in collaboration with the University of Alaska, United Nations Environment Programme – Global Resource Databank Arendal and the Alaska Native Science Commission under the auspices of the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna working group of the Arctic Council . BSSN is funded by the United States National Science Foundation under the Cooperative Agreement ARC – 0634079 and 0856774. The project began as a pilot in 2007 (Phase I) and received an award for a five-year continuation in 2009 (Phase II).
This report provides an overview of the BSSN concept, its history, and the pilot project results. It informs the broader community of scientists, governments, and Arctic residents about the project’s findings and shares the lessons learned.
1.2 Project History
The first concept of a community-based monitoring network developed by the Aleut International Association in 2003-2004 was in response to the findings of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA), 2004, an Arctic Council report highlighting environmental changes occurring as a result of climate change. A key ACIA recommendation for future Arctic research was the improvement of long-term monitoring, extending it to year-round data collection and expanding it spatially (Hassol 2004, p. 122).
ACIA was also one of the first significant scientific reports that included observations of local and indigenous peoples, as case studies, to support and enhance scientific findings and to understand the impacts of climate change on a more personal level (Huntington and Fox 2005). A striking convergence of community-based observations with scientific data helped validate local observations and elevated them from “anecdotal evidence”, a term commonly applied to identify such information in scientific research, to indispensable building blocks of a holistic understanding of the Arctic environment (Gofman 2009, 2010). However, case studies can only convey personal perspectives. They may provide the basis for discussion and scientific inquiry, but they do not provide aggregate statistics or general trends (Huntington and Fox 2005). The BSSN pilot was designed to test methods that could produce aggregated statistics and general trends.
This work led to an increased interest in local knowledge and community-based monitoring that was amplified even more during the International Polar Year 2007- 2008. The Aleut International Association recognized this tremendous opportunity and developed a concept that evolved into the Bering Sea Sub-Network: International Community-Based Environmental Observation Alliance, which IPY 2007-2008 Joint Committee endorsed, along with several other innovative projects in this field, and the U.S. National Science Foundations funded in 2007. The Arctic Council also welcomed BSSN, and it was included in the project portfolio of the Conservation of Flora and Fauna working group.
Coastal villages representing six indigenous cultures: three in the Russian Federation (Kanchalan — Chukchi, Tymlat — Koryak, and Nikolskoye – Western Aleut/ Unangas) and three in the United States (Gambell – St. Laurence Island Yupik, Togiak — Central Yup’ik, and Sand Point— Eastern Aleut/Unangan) formed the network.
All villages, except Tymlat, have seen a substantial interest from the research community in the recent years (See Appendix 2,), which suggests that scientists have a growing concern over the changes occuring in the environment thus posing risks to areas of cultural significance and rich biodiversity (Grebmeier, 2006). Improving the understanding of the processes occurring in this region is crucial to sustainable resource stewardship and the wellbeing of local communities (ARCUS 2008).
1.3 BSSN Purpose
The overall goal of the Bering Sea Sub Network (BSSN) is to advance knowledge of the environmental changes that are of significance to understanding pan-arctic processes thereby enabling scientists, arctic communities and governments to predict, plan and respond to these changes. This may also help to enhance community resilience under conditions of rapid environmental and social change (Alessa et al 2007). This project created a structured framework that provides the means for the systematic collection of information about the environmental and socioeconomic conditions based on the perceptions of local residents. The network also provides for the efficient management of data gathered from community-based observations. The pilot phase demonstrated that such an international network of indigenous communities can be organized and can produce usable data sets based on local observations.
1.4 Brief Outline of Project Activities
While the grant period began in 2007, the initial project activities took place in 2005 and 2006. Two international workshops were organized in Anchorage for representatives of several Bering Sea communities with the purpose of identifying potential project goals (2005), the scope of work and participating communities (2006). This pre-grant time work was particularly valuable because it provided a venue for communities to express their opinions on what should be monitored and where. In addition, early community involvement in the project led to stronger connections and mutual respect between researchers and the residents of the villages.
The first project year (June 2007 – May 2008) involved extensive travel to the participating villages and included meetings with individuals and communities involved in BSSN, efforts to establish and formalize international partnerships, and the development of the survey instrument that was designed utilizing sociological methods, drawing in particular on cognitive interviewing techniques. The BSSN team developed a uniform protocol for interviewing residents in all participating villages about their observations of environmental conditions and marine resources vital for subsistence. Local residents were hired to conduct interviews and were trained in the interviewing methods and techniques.
In the second project year (June 2008 – August 2009), the expanded BSSN team, which grew to nearly 20 researchers, coordinators, and assistants, was busy interviewing hunters and fishermen and processing the collected data. Despite extensive preparation activities, not all nuances of working in remote villages could have been predicted, and a fair amount of troubleshooting was required. In some villages, additional training of newly hired research assistants was arranged, in others – project management needed adjustments. These issues were successfully resolved thanks to extensive support from BSSN villages’ leaders and local partners.
1.5 Project Data
Over 600 interviews were conducted in six villages. Approximately 300 hunters and fishermen participated. This information was organized in two data sets using broadly available software: NVivo 8 for the qualitative data and SPSS 16 for the quantitative data. Both data bases are stored at the BSSN Secretariat co-located with the Aleut International Association office in Anchorage and are available at www.bssn.net for other users.
The BSSN research team and community representatives discussed data ownership issues at length. While it is possible to have a distributed database with individual community data stored at the villages, it was recognized that most of them do not have capacities to maintain such data bases. Until such capacities are developed, the BSSN communities agreed to keep all project data at a centralized place, the BSSN Secretariat, while preserving appropriate data ownership rights.
These pilot data are not statistically representative of the participating communities and should be approached with caution when attempting to draw conclusions or to interpret meaning, and while this may be considered a limitation of their use, these findings do point to some compelling trends that need to be investigated further in Phase II of this project and other research.
The BSSN research team recognizes the challenges of assuring reliability and credibility of the data based solely on human observations that are inherently subjective and biased (Shiffman et al 1997). This should not preclude from using the wealth of collective memory of humans in the Arctic that holds information about past environmental conditions that extends beyond the knowledge acquired by science in recent decades. By using a combination of survey methods, such as cognitive interviewing techniques, standard semi-structured questionaries, and increasing sample sizes, it is possible to successfully extrapolate objective information from what people can remember and recall. Local residents observing their environment on a regular basis are capable of detecting events indicating that the system is operating unusually (Dasgupta and Attoch-Okine 1997).
1.6 Summary of Selected Survey Results
Although the analyzed sample size is not sufficient to be called representative, it is larger than many similar social science studies in which only a few residents have been interviewed. The research in BSSN pilot yielded compelling findings. The BSSN community in this survey is represented by 246 people, the gender of participants is balanced with over 65 percent male and almost 35 percent female. The majority has lived in the area for more than 30 years (over 70%). Over 42 percent have also harvested in the same area for more than 30 years. Thus the majority of participants have accumulated several decades of observations of the local environment and harvests.
The survey section about the environment asks questions about observations of meteorological, geophysical, and oceanographic conditions. In respect to important subsistence species, the survey captures information on a number of them, such as bowhead whale (Balaena mysticeti), walrus (Odobenus rosmarus), seal (families Phocidae & Otariidae), emperor geese (Chen canagica), silver salmon (Oncorhynchus Kisutch), red salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka), pink salmon (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha), arctic char (Salvelinus alpinus), pacific cod (Gadus macrocephalus), halibut (Hippoglossus pleuronectidae), plaice (Pleuronectes quadrituberculatus), Atka mackerel, (Pleurogrammus monopterygius), smelt (Thaleichthys pacificus), broad whitefish (Coregonus nasus), arctic grayling (Thymallus arcticus), trout (family Salmoninae), and pike (Esox Lucius).
These species are essential for subsistence in many Bering Sea villages. Some are indicators of the status and trends of ecosystem change , e.g., harbor seal, fur seal, and bearded seal, (Hare and Mantua 2000; Livingstone et al 2005). Many of them, such as pink salmon, are also important commercial species. An increasing competition for such species, coupled with environmental changes, may have a negative impact on communities that depend on the marine biological resources for their well being and survival. The study participants showed a serious concern for the health of the sea and the fish, and they shared their observations in considerable detail. One person concludes, “The sea is sick, and the fish are sick, too”, stressing the interrelation between habitat and species.
The survey instrument consists of two questionnaires that contain close-ended, open-ended and multiplechoice questions and that allows ample room for additional comments. These comments add specific context for statistics that may improve understanding and visualization of the gathered data by researchers and potential user. The voices of local hunters and fishermen add a human dimension to the results of the survey.
1.7 Observed Trends
Socio-Economic Importance of Fishing and Hunting for the Well Being of Residents
The pattern of harvest use is very uniform in all communities (See Figure 1.) Traditional and personal uses, including sharing, are Figure 1. Socio-economic importance of fishing and hunting for well being of residents.Figure 1. Socio-economic importance of fishing and hunting for well being of residents.the primary use in all communities. This pattern reconfirms the fact that coastal communities depend on the Bering Sea’s bio resources for providing food to their families. The results clearly point to the importance of biological resources for coastal villages as a matter of food security.
Changes Observed in Environmental Conditions
The survey participants shared their observations about the status and changes in environmental, seasonal, and meteorological conditions (See Figure 2), the so called Figure 1. Socio-economic importance of fishing and hunting for well being of residents. “markers of climate change”. Based on the limited pilot data, no clear trends showing consistent change of any parameter could be identified, but there appeared to be a trend towards increasing variability in response. There was also a clear difference in the frequency of changes observed in the sea-ice dependent communities, such as Gambell, in comparison with non-ice dependent communities, such as Tymlat. The perceptions of local residents reflected in their comments provided during the interview support this statement. A Gambell resident, for example, points out that “There is less ice each year and it is getting thinner. It comes very late, and goes really early in the spring. Weather conditions have changed too. We used to have northerly winds. Now, in that season, we get more southerly wind. The wind is stronger and changes all the time. I’ve never seen this before in my life.”
Conditions of Harvested Species
A summary of the significant observations with respect to animal conditions and harvests shows that the Russian communities report high incidences of disease in fish (See Figure 3). The most significant observations point to a high rate of disease in red salmon and pacific cod in Nikolskoye, whitefish and chum salmon in Kanchalan, and pink salmon in Tymlat. The reported conditions are evidence of fish hit by sludge ice, and common occurrences of sores, ulcers, spots, worm infestations and unusually small fish with abnormal reproductive organs. The Alaskan participating communities highlight the changes in abundance of harvested species and sightings of rare or new species. In Gambell, hunters report observing the decline of seal and walrus harvests, as well as marine mammals being farther out. The appearance of white king salmon is also noted. In Sand Point, fishermen see more whales and even the mating of humpback whales. Togiak residents report fewer trout, smelt and ptarmigan.
The Bering Sea Sub Network is intended as a mechanism for gathering data. While documenting status and change is a crucial task in its own right, it is necessary that potential users apply the data in further research and resource management. BSSN is community-based, and it strives to serve the member-communities by providing them with additional tools to undertake much needed planning for adaptation to life in a changing social and natural environment.
As a network, BSSN encourages cultural connections between groups of people who have diverse cultures, but share similar concerns. It builds a sense of collective stewardship of the common region. “It does not matter if we’re Russian or American; we are part of a family that lives off the same resource, and we simply have to cooperate,” said Svetlana Petrosyan, BSSN Community Research Assistant (CRA) from Tymlat.
It would be challenging to find better words to express what BSSN means to the communities than what BSSN Community Research Assistants say about the project. Below are key points that BSSN CRAs made at the workshop concluding the pilot phase of BSSN in August of 2009 in Anchorage, Alaska, U.S.
Capturing Traditional Knowledge from Elders
Esther Fayer, CRA and BSSN Steering Committee Member from Togiak, talks about the elder whose photo was taken during the interview, “We just lost him this past spring. He went out hunting with his son, and his son’s snow machine made it across the river but the old man did not and went through the ice, he has not been found to this day. He was an elder, and he understood the ice, but things are changing, and he was lost. That was hard for me, but that is our everyday life.” Capturing traditional knowledge during the BSSN interview with that Elder now takes on a momentous meaning.
Her colleague in Togiak, Olia Sutton, continues, “Our elders were hesitant at first, they wondered why we were doing this [interviewing] and they held back. It is hard for elders to open up, but when they understood what we were trying to do and that we wanted to know about changes in the climate and environment, they would get interested, sometimes the interviews would go on for more than an hour. It is a two-way street for me: I learn from them and they learn from me. My grandma taught me, and the interviewee teaches me something new.” Svetlana Petrosyan, CRA, Tymlat, was surprised to learn so much during her interviews: “I find it amazing that I’ve learned some things I never knew before, like how to fish in the dark, you cannot see the line, but you can feel it!”
Using Indigenous Languages
Most of the interviews in Togiak and many in Gambell, Alaska, U.S., were conducted in their native tongues, Central Yup’ik and St. Laurence Island Yupik. This presents both challenges and opportunities. Antonia Penayah, CRA from Gambell, draws attention to the importance of accurate translation. She says, “Another factor we have to deal with is translations, in my language it is easy to get lost, some words have a dual meaning, and some do not have any English meaning.” Olia Sutton who is a strong supporter of using indigenous languages, gives another excellent reason why it is essential: “I like to interview in my Yup’ik language because then it comes from my heart.”
Identifying Problems that Require Rapid Response
Olga Gerasimova, Ph.D., a Russian biologist who led the study in Chukotka, notes that “Many people are noticing that the ice is breaking earlier and developing later, and people have noticed lower levels in the rivers and lakes along with more weeds or water plants in the river. Also, the water is more turbid and some fishermen are saying that the main channel is changing. All of that is leading to a change in the fish species observed: there are more pike and sometimes the chum salmon do not come at all. The most troubling development is that a lot of fish that go up the rivers to feed in the lakes cannot leave the lakes because the water level is too low. When the winter comes they die. Also there have been a lot if diseased fish observed, some people say this is because of the mining which is taking place up the river.” As a biologist, Olga would like to see local government taking immediate actions, such as taking water samples, to address these problems: “In a way, it was really hard to interview people because I wanted to take action right away and try to find solutions to these problems and even thought about taking samples of water and fish.”
Bringing People from Different Communities Together to Learn From Each Other
Iver Campbell, CRA and BSSN Steering Committee Member from Gambell, is especially grateful about the opportunities that the project provides for learning about what other communities observe: “I think this project is very important because it allows us to be in touch with other partner communities, even the ones in Russia.” Arlene Gundersen, BSSN Steering Committee Member from Sand Point, says: “For us, observations begin at home. People who go out hunting and fishing have the knowledge to understand the conditions at any given time, and so we learn about changes in the environment from the people who are out in it. I’ve learned like this from my father, like about passes where boats used to be able to go through, but cannot any more.” Getting people together to talk about these things is an excellent way to record the knowledge of the community and finding about things that are happening can lead to action.
Raising Awareness About the Value of Traditional Ways of Life
Revitalization of traditional ways of life is crucial for improving stewardship of the environment. Svetlana Petrosyan emphasizes this idea in her comments: “This project is very interesting, but also very difficult because you cannot expect people to provide answers immediately. You have to be patient and establish trust. Now people in the village like the project, and they want to know how to deal with our government to help preserve our traditional ways of life. Most respondents have similar values to share: live in agreement with your environment; do not take more than you need from the land. Despite the difficult economy in Russia, especially in our region, people still want to live in the traditional ways.”
Documenting the Importance of the Marine Biological Resources for Food Security of the Coastal Communities
Having access to sufficient subsistence resources is vital for all communities, but some depend on them to a greater degree than others. Iver Campbell reminds that “Jobs are very scarce in Gambell, and so we mostly hunt for marine mammals, with a little bit of fishing. When most city people go grocery shopping they get a week’s worth of food, but when we are subsistence hunting we’re trying to get food for a whole year.”
Witnessing Change: Providing Valuable Observations About the Environment
The need to document observations about the environment was one of the drivers for the development of BSSN. The gathered information shows a detailed account of what people are witnessing. Not all communities appear to be experiencing the same rate of change. Gambell is one place where rapid change is occurring. Iver Campbell describes what people observe there: “Now we’ve been noticing things like the winds changing, we used to have consistent winds from the North or Northeast, but now we get South winds all the time. In Gambell, even when our elders are not harvesters anymore they still play in a big role in hunting. They observe the weather and ice, so if there is a storm coming or the ice is changing they can call the hunters on the radio and tell them. We also have travelers who talk about the changes they see around the island. For instance, people have told me about new plants they’ve observed for the first time recently. There are so many things on our island that we can use to observe changes, like the way the birds fly to a different place before the weather changes. We are witnessing global changes now. Maybe we cannot stop it, but maybe we can slow it down, and interviewing people helps us to learn about these changes in the environment.”
Antonia Penayah is also concerned about the changes: “Talking to our hunters and elders has made me realize that we live on the edge every day and people want to talk about what they’ve seen so we’re finding out lots of information about hunting and weather changes. I do not know if we can stop these changes that are happening in the environment, but maybe what we’re doing can make a difference.”
It is likely that climate change will result in both risk and opportunity for Arctic residents. Potential risks include a reduction in summer sea ice that might threaten several ice-dependent species, including seals and walrus, not to mention the humans that depend upon them. Opportunities include better access to marine resources, potential opening of the Arctic for year-round shipping, and shifts in populations of species that could present new economic opportunities. (ACIA, 2004, AMSA 2009). This new paradigm requires arctic communities to have the means to communicate their knowledge and concerns to scientists, policy makers, and the public. BSSN provides such an opportunity, and this may increase a community’s ability to prepare and plan for the occurring and future changes, thus leading to better adaptability and resilience. BSSN is not a circumpolar project, but the sheer diversity of participants, the range of the collected data, and a multidisciplinary approach make this model replicable and potentially useful in other regions. While many other studies in the region used similar methods (See Appendix 2), the model designed for BSSN may present a better opportunity for creating a systematic observatory and generating new knowledge. This assumption will have to be proven in the upcoming project years.
In the next five years, BSSN will be expanded to include other communities. The established network may become a springboard for many other research activities in the region and may provide a framework for other regional networks. Developing collaborative relationships with other initiatives will be critical to the future sustainability of BSSN. By creating an organized communitybased monitoring network, BSSN will ultimately serve as a valuable partner in the international effort to expand integrated observations in the Arctic.