5. Conclusion

The Bering Sea Sub-Network is community-based. At the very core of BSSN is the idea that the participating communities should be involved at every level of planning and development of the network and the BSSN project. A community member in Gambell eloquently summarized why he likes the project: “I like this project because you are not researching us – you are doing research with us”.

5.1 Benefits to Communities

  • By employing community members, especially younger people, the project provides modern opportunities to facilitate traditional knowledge transfer.
  • In communities where cash earning opportunities are scarce, BSSN provides additional income.
  • Community members are afforded an opportunity to learn new skills, such as interviewing techniques, advanced computer skills, GIS mapping that are transferable to other research or employment opportunities leading to the improved individual and collective adaptability.
  • Community leaders have a direct access to the project management and can influence how the project is conducted in their communities, as well as consult the research team on the best ways to handle community concerns.

The information garnered by this survey and presented in this report may be a useful tool in the hands of communities as they seek to improve resource management in order to preserve and continue their indigenous way of life. The project data may contribute to local decisions regarding resource management and may enhance communities’ understanding of what is happening in and around the whole of the Bering Sea. The BSSN team will work with communities on identifying the best venues for application of the survey results in everyday local decision making.

As a network, BSSN encourages cultural connections and communication between groups of people who have diverse cultures, but who share similar concerns. As a project, BSSN empowers communities in their resource management endeavors and contributes to their ability to plan for and adapt to environmental and social change.

These data may be useful in helping communities plan for the future, for example they may need to develop several ‘plans of action’ to be able to adapt to the occurring changes. A picture of the impacts of environmental changes on arctic communities is often painted with a broad brush stroke without understanding what is happening at a local level. BSSN data show a range of impacts experienced by local residents in different participating communities. Processes of arctic change are heterogeneous and this heterogeneity is more pronounced at local levels (Jenssen 2006).

It is crucially important that mitigation and adaptation plans don’t address the ‘wrong’ issues (i.e., those that communities do not observe or experience). The BSSN data are especially valuable in ensuring this. For example, pilot phase data from BSSN provide insight to the constraints on adaptation: individuals in Alaskan communities are far more mobile than those in Russian communities, through freedom and means (i.e., access to fuel, personal transportation) to move, leading to greater options to respond to change, particularly those affecting local scales. Residents of Kanchalan overwhelmingly were pointing to the changes in the river and some raised concerns about mining activities in the area. As local communities in Russia have fewer opportunities to influence decision making regarding large scale resource exploration, such as mining, than their Alaskan counterparts, their adaptation strategies should be different.

5.2 Benefits to Society

Broader societal benefits of BSSN are in its contribution to the scientific research in the Arctic. A significant contribution of the pilot phase is the development of a model for community-based observing network. While BSSN is not a circumpolar project, the sheer diversity of participants, the range of the collected data and a multidisciplinary approach make this model replicable and potentially applicable in other regions.

BSSN addresses scientific questions of the variations in environmental and socio-economic conditions that have a meaningful impact on everyday life in indigenous communities in the Arctic; the evolution of past and present consequences of change and potential strategies for communities’ capacity to adapt and interactions and feedback between biophysical and social systems.

Climate change and its effects are likely to pose a threat to the food security of subsistence cultures (Ford 2009). However, the most effective way to deal with these changes is not fully understood (Smit et al. 2008). Subsistence harvesters are likely to be observant of environmental changes directly affecting subsistence activity since their ability to secure food is dependent on understanding these conditions. By examining environmental conditions from the perspectives of local residents, it will be possible to better understand what changes most affect subsistence. This will help decision makers focus mitigation efforts in order to better ensure food security. Observed changes in environmental conditions from the pilot phase are numerous and varied (see Figure 7) and show some correlations with western science (Alessa et al 2008)). In this way local knowledge can be calibrated with western science and be used, fo example, as an early warning system for environmental change.

The socio-economic importance of subsistence is clear. Across all communities majorities use their harvest for traditional purposes and sharing (see Figure 10). The family’s need for food was a primary driver for the timing of the next trip for all communities but one (see Figure 11). This pattern reconfirms the fact that coastal communities depend on the Bering Sea’s bio resources for providing food to their families. These results clearly point to the importance of biological resources for coastal villages as a matter of food security.

Russian communities stand out as more likely to report catching at least one fish/animal with visible disease (see Figure 12). 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. Reasons for this need further investigation, but participants frequently cited pollutants associated with mining and military activity as the cause.

Climate change will continue to be a significant issue in the Arctic for the foreseeable future, with Bering Sea communities continuing to experience its effects for many decades to come. Climate change is making Arctic waters and resources more accessible. An increase in human activities in the Arctic, driven by the greater accessibility of resources and the emergence of more economical shipping routes, will present new challenges and, hopefully, more opportunities for the Bering Sea coastal communities. BSSN increases a community’s ability to convey their observations and concerns to scientists, policy makers, and the public. It may also help them better prepare and plan for the changes taking place.

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 model for other regional networks. Developing collaborative relationships with other projects is vital to the future sustainability of BSSN. These partnerships will also increase opportunities for local communities to meet their research needs.

Future leaders of Gambell, Alaska