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Melding science, tribal knowledge to prepare for future development

Alex DeMarban

With climate change expected to open the gates to Arctic resource development, the U.S. Coast Guard is looking to create new vessel routing measures through the Bering Strait as more freighters steam north into the Chukchi Sea.

Yet the scientific world has known little about the wildlife that plays a vital role in local diets, and thus, how to protect the animals from run-ins with ships and other activity.

That's changing, at least in one area, thanks in part to Alex Whiting and the Native Village of Kotzebue.

Whiting, who heads up the tribe's environmental program, is quick to credit tribal members and hunters who work in partnership with scientists to study the ecology of Kotzebue Sound.

"It's one big symbiotic gig," he said.

The Sound is a critical body of water for the Northwest Alaska city and nearby communities: Subsistence hunters harvest 70 percent of their food there, the tribe's research has found.

Whiting isn't one to seek the limelight. But when you do good work, recognition is hard to avoid.

Thanks to the Selawik National Wildlife Refuge, Whiting recently won the Alaska Forum on the Environment's Environmental Excellence award.

Whiting has established "creative partnerships among Alaska tribal organizations, academics, and government. He has pioneered marine research in Kotzebue Sound, filling critical gaps previously overlooked by scientists and resource managers," said the nomination paperwork, submitted by LeeAnne Ayres, refuge manager.

She continued:

"Other noteworthy accomplishments include an insightful paper published in the International Journal of Wilderness on the relationship between Kotzebue tribal members and the national parks in northwest Alaska; a cooperative study on the marine ecology of Kotzebue Sound incorporating traditional knowledge and science in a meaningful way; a hand-drawn and widely distributed poster of local marine life; and investigations on climate change and cyanobacteria blooms in the Kotzebue area."

One of his "stellar" achievements? His "groundbreaking" research into ringed and bearded seals in the Sound, she wrote.

Scientists knew little about their behavior, until Whiting and the tribe tracked them largely through winter and spring by satellite tags as they traveled, dove and hauled-out.

The seals roam widely. In fact, fellow scientists were surprised to learn that juvenile ringed seals traveled to the edge of the pack ice in the Bering Sea, he said. That trip was hundreds of miles south when the ice edge was "down in Deadliest Catch territory."

In under six months, one juvenile ringed seal traveled about 6,300 miles. The top adult traveler logged about 5,500 miles.

"They get into the currents and ride them and they know how to use that," Whiting said. "So what I found is that you have to rethink the size of the Chukchi and Bering seas. They seem super large, but from a seal's perspective, they're a lot more intimate."

Some of the tagged seals traveled to Russia to dwell on the shores of the Chukotka Peninsula where a shallow continental shelf means relatively easy access to underwater feeding grounds.

Much of the research into the seals, which has gone on for the last six years, has ended. But Whiting continues to study adult bearded seals. In 2009, for the first time, he was able to tag a few such adults and hopes to tag more this year.

One theme in Whiting's studies: Involving Native hunters and traditional knowledge. He does the administrative tasks, such as writing grants and reports, plus other logistical work to make the projects happen.

But they do the fieldwork.

"A lot of the credit for the success goes to the tribal members who have participated over the years," he said.

For the seal research, subsistence hunters identified where and how to place nets to catch seals for tagging. Also, tribal workers were permitted to tag seals without the presence of scientists, a first as far as Whiting knows.

The seal studies are a small part of Whiting's work. No state or federal agency monitors the sound in an effort to understand its ecology, despite the looming change brought by global warming. So the Kotzebue tribal government fills that void, he said.

Other environmental projects at the tribe include:

* Working with experts from Eastern Carolina University and the University of Alaska Fairbanks to produce a book on the Sound's ecology, including the human component. Alaska SeaGrant will publish the book, which balances traditional and scientific knowledge.

* Monitoring climate-change effects on cyanobacteria blooms in the Sound. The bacterial blooms present a problem, because they reduce oxygen fish need and also produce toxins that can hurt fish and other animals.

* Working with Todd O'Hara of UAF and graduate students to better understand the contaminants and nutrients found in fish and animals harvested in Kotzebue Sound.

* Working with seal expert Brendan Kelly, famous for his seal-sniffing dogs, to understand how climate change threatens seal pups by melting ice lairs and exposing them to hungry animals and cold.

And that's just a snapshot of the tribe's ecological studies, Whiting said.

"I'm trying to go beyond documenting traditional knowledge. I want to use it to understand and protect marine life Kotzebue Sound," he said. "You can't protect something if you don't know about it. You can't prescribe prescriptions for something you don't understand."

Kelly, deputy division for the National Science Foundation's Arctic science division, called Whiting "remarkable" and "extremely knowledgeable."

He's made a "huge contribution" to understanding the Sound, Kelly said. Also, other scientists envy Whiting's ability to create partnerships between subsistence hunters and scientists.

"It's something a lot of us quest for but it's not always easy to make happen," said Kelly. "It's one of the better fusions of scientific and traditional knowledge I'm aware of."

Whiting's research will play a greater role as climate change continues to melt sea ice and open the Arctic for longer periods.

For example, Whiting plans to present some of his findings to the Coast Guard, as they seek information from the public before they designate new shipping routes in the Bering Strait.

This story is posted with permission from Alaska Newspapers Inc., which publishes six weekly community newspapers, a statewide shopper, a statewide magazine and slate of special publications that supplement its products year-round.