Indigenous peoples around the Bering Sea region have come together for a project that monitors environmental changes in the region. The Bering Sea Sub-Network (BSSN) provides a mechanism for remote indigenous villages to communicate their observations from their own perspective – a viewpoint that is based on their knowledge and a keen understanding of the local environment – in order to improve management of Bering Sea resources. In addition, BSSN improves our understanding of the social, cultural, and economic impacts of environmental changes on these communities. The project assesses large-scale environmental change and its impact.
The Bering Sea is one of the most productive seas in the world and is of economic importance to both the United States and Russia, but this vast marine ecosystem is experiencing widespread environmental changes – changes that alarm scientists and coastal residents alike. Declines in sea ice extent, the northward movement of southern species, alterations in the distribution and abundance of fish and marine mammals, modified weather patterns, and a myriad of changes to Arctic ecosystems present serious challenges for indigenous peoples.
The health, economic well-being, and ways of life of the indigenous and non-indigenous peoples around the Bering Sea are all inextricably linked to the sea itself and to the natural resources it provides. The socioeconomic development of coastal villages around the Bering Sea depends on maintaining ecologically sustainable conditions in the region.
In 2003, the Aleut International Association (AIA) began exploring the possibility of a network for community-based monitoring in the Arctic. The BSSN concept emerged as a response to the findings of the Arctic Climate Impacts Assessment (ACIA), a report released by the Arctic Council in 2004, which demonstrated a clear need for large-scale networks to record local observations of environmental change. 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 give a human face to some of the impacts of climate change (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 identifying 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 aggregate statistics and general trends.
The recognition of the validity of local observations that was coupled with the need for on-going monitoring created an excellent opportunity for a surge in interest in various forms of community-based monitoring. The opportunity was amplified by the International Polar Year (IPY) 2007-2008. The Aleut International Association was among the first applicants from the social and human studies field that responded to the call for IPY 2007-2008 projects in winter 2004 and had submitted its concept for an IPY 2007-2008 activity under the name “International Network of Arctic Indigenous Community- Based Environmental Monitoring & Information Stations” to the ICSU Planning Group. That concept was included in the ‘Initial Outline Science Plan’ for IPY 2007-2008 in April 2004 and was received with keen interest. Over the next two years, numerous discussions at workshops, meetings with stakeholders, and consultations with scientists helped refine the concept. That work led to the development of the full proposal, entitled the Bering Sea Sub-Network: International Community-Based Environmental Observation Alliance (BSSN, IPY #247) that became an endorsed IPY 2007-2008 project and was subsequently funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) under the Arctic Observing Network (AON) funding initiative.
BSSN became one of the projects in a small group of innovative IPY activities involving indigenous and local residents in Arctic research. It set sail in uncharted waters of community based monitoring along such projects as EALAT (IPY project # 399), MODIL-NAO (IPY project # 47), SIKU (IPY project # 47), and others (See Appendix 2). These projects are science initiatives, and as such, are required to follow clear milestones, guidelines, and established criteria for assessment. The challenge is that none of these are clearly defined for the field commonly called “community-base monitoring”. All projects contribute to local capacity building, resident training, and community empowerment in addressing adaptation to environmental and subsequent socio-economic changes, but the scientific contribution of such projects is more elusive and will require time to evolve.
BSSN has emerged as an observing network that connects people bound by a common geographic area who share similar traditions, values, and ideals. It is devised to gather and record observations regarding Bering Sea marine resources and environmental changes in and around the Bering Sea. It began from six coastal villages representing six indigenous cultures:
Three in the Russian Federation:
Three in the United States:
Several other Alaskan villages will be able to join the network during Phase II that runs from 2009 to 2014. See all current participating communities as of 2012.
The BSSN research team is comprised of more than 20 people, representing academia, non-profit organizations, and local communities. This collaboration made BSSN a reality.