Tribal Elders Contemplate Melting Arctic Sea Ice
In the last 50 years, sea-ice cover in the Bering Strait has decreased dramatically. Now indigenous tribes from the area are facing the repercussions of a ravenous fishing industry and a rapidly changing climate.
In “Arctic Voices” (Seven Stories Press, 2012), Subhankar Banerjee brings together first-person narratives from more than thirty prominent activists, writers and researchers who address issues of climate change, resource war and human rights within and around Arctic Alaska.
Cover Courtesy Seven Stories Press
Arctic Alaska has quickly become the most contested land in recent U.S. history. It’s home to vast natural resources and a precariously balanced—and highly threatened—ecosystem. In this excerpt from the collection Arctic Voices (Seven Stories Press, 2012), writer Nancy Lord gives an account of a gathering of Yup’ik Elders facing the troubles of thinning ice in the Bering Sea.
In a conference room in Bethel, Alaska, twenty-some Yup’ik Elders from surrounding Bering Sea villages bent their heads over three tables spread with maps. The maps were the result of earlier interviews with these Elders and many others, about their subsistence uses and the habitats important to the fish and animals—walrus, seals, ducks, and beluga whales—on which their families and cultures relied. The Elders, members of the Bering Sea Elders Advisory Group, were checking the maps to see if they agreed with the lines that were drawn, and they were marking more detailed information about the times animals were in particular places, the conditions in which they hunted in different places, and the numbers of animals they had seen in different years.
The Elders were from small-dot places like Kwigillingok, Quinhagak, Mekoryuk, Toksook Bay, and Kipnuk, and they talked together about changes they had seen. Most had long histories of hunting and fishing in the Bering Sea, going back to the time of kayaks and harpoons and knowing how to navigate by reading the ocean currents. They had been told how things were by their own Elders.
At the table with the seal map, the men talked about ice thickness and the danger of hunting on ice that’s too thin. In an area they marked for a lot of bearded seals, they noted that, in their experience over many years, the ice is usually thick enough by the end of November. “We stay home when it’s not safe,” a white-haired man said. Someone else said, “We used to tell the weather by the ice. Now we can’t.”
The table’s scribe asked, “How do you tell the weather now?”
“TV,” someone said, and they all laughed.
At another table, David Bill, chairman of the group, tapped his finger on a portion of the fish map. The Elders there were talking about their subsistence catches of salmon and whitefish—anadromous species that live in the Bering Sea and travel up the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers. A couple of important lines were drawn on all the maps. One cutting through the Bering Sea was the International Date Line, dividing US waters from those of Russia. The other, extending from the south end of Kuskokwim Bay in jagged steps around Nunivak Island and then west around St. Matthew Island before straightening north to intercept the date line, the Elders referred to as “the northern boundary.” Above the line, put into effect in 2007 as a precautionary interim measure, bottom trawlers shall not go. Even as the Bering Sea warms and fish and ice coverage both move northward, the trawlers—those boats that drag big nets weighted with chains and tires across the ocean floor—may not, for now, follow them.
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