The crack of a gun echoes through a snowy fiord on the edge of Prince William Sound. After nearly a full day of hunting, Jim Totemoff has bagged a harbor seal.
He maneuvers the floating animal through a pink cloud of blood into a rope harness, then hauls it from water to deck. Usually, Totemoff would skin and dress the seal right away, but this one he will bring in whole.
He cuts a 3-inch opening through the thick blubber at the abdomen, enough to allow gases to escape overnight. The seal's exposed white blubber feels like lip balm, smells like fresh-cut grass. Totemoff turns the boat toward home. In Cordova, he will share his prize in a centuries-old Alaska Native tradition.
But this seal will be shared in a new way.
A five- or six-pound shoulder of meat will go to the table of Cordova elders Fred and Rose Brizgaloff; they'll boil it with salt and eat it for dinner. The seal's stomach will go to a scientist at the University of British Columbia to identify what's inside.
The flippers and other flesh, a couple bags' worth, will go by plane to the hunter's mother and other relatives in Chenega.
The head, blubber and body tissue will travel on ice to scientists at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. They'll use some for a seal-tissue archive, and send other parts to scientists across the country.
Totemoff will keep the pelt, have it tanned and turned into a parka or vest. He also will save a small piece of skin from the back of the seal's neck for a scientist in La Jolla, Calif., to extract and analyze its DNA.
All this sharing is happening under the Harbor Seal Restoration Project, a three-year, statewide study meant to find out why harbor seal numbers are dropping. Some money came from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, but most funding -- for this and similar projects in Prince William Sound -- is from settlement funds distributed by the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council.
While hunters and scientists have collaborated in Alaska before, this project is different. Now Native hunters like Totemoff are learning to take tissue and organ samples from their kills to share with researchers, whose access to the animals was limited after the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act.
In return, hunters are gaining influence in how and when research is conducted and how results are reported. Alaska Natives are establishing their own network of organizations, called commissions, which encourage -- and sometimes even conduct -- research.
This level of local involvement is ''community-based'' science, and it can be controversial. Opponents believe results could be inaccurate or even tainted by political agendas; proponents believe it will lead to better data that also respects residents affected by the research.
Everyone agrees the approach heralds a new standard in science: no longer will Native ways of knowing and Native concerns be secondary to research goals. This, many participants say, is revolutionary.
MODEL FROM THE PAST
Kathy Frost, a marine mammal biologist, has been a scientist in Alaska for more than 20 years. All this talk of revolution sounds a bit sweeping to her. She says the seeds of collaboration have been here for decades.
''As far as I'm concerned,'' she said, ''the people who did it right have always worked with local people.''
In fact, Alaska history reveals an old example of Native and scientific cooperation that resulted in more accurate bowhead whale counts. It happened 20 years ago and still offers lessons and a model for successful collaboration.
Outside researchers had descended on Barrow to count bowheads. Low numbers prompted them to send out a warning. They feared the population had plummeted to 2,000.
To counter the decline, the International Whaling Commission abruptly banned the traditional hunt. Later the hunt was reinstated but with a quota of 18 whales, a fraction of the usual harvest.
As it turned out, the count was wrong. Native hunters knew bowheads often swam under ice and could thus elude efforts to count them.
But by the time the quota was introduced, locals felt betrayed. No one had bothered to talk to them about whale behavior; and they had no idea their hunt had been at stake. The community of scientists and Native hunters were quickly at a volatile stalemate.
Two men reached across the divide to help solve the impasse.
Tom Albert was a researcher at the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory in Barrow. Before that, he had been a rural veterinarian in Pennsylvania. He was used to talking to farmers, ''not discounting them, like many city folk do.''
In Barrow he found the same kind of people. ''It became clear they knew a whole lot about the ice and the animals they depended on ... I would have easily bet on Harry Brower Sr. in 1978 on being right (about the whale count), rather than some of my friends in the scientific community.''
Harry Brower Sr. was an experienced hunter who worked at the arctic research lab as a carpenter. Albert describes him as ''a very good observer of nature ... like a professor, explaining how the bowhead whale moves through the ice.''
Albert applied for a grant to count the whales again, this time with the help of local hunters. While other scientists began their research by dangling microphones in the water and flying planes overhead, Albert began by talking with Brower.
The hunter told how he had seen whales push against the ice, cracking the thinner areas with their blowholes to breathe; Albert explained what facts they should gather to produce a more accurate count.
Their joint effort worked. By 1984, Native hunters and scientists had a revised count of at least 4,400 whales; Native residents regained their hunt, learned to work with scientists and formed two landmark organizations: the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission and, after arctic research lab closed in 1980, the borough's own Department of Wildlife Management that now leads the bowhead counts.
The North Slope community also developed its own review board of national scientists who examine research proposals for the borough.
This early success gave North Slope residents a taste of the benefits of working hand-in-hand with science. ''Many local people feel better about science because they've seen a very clear-cut example as to how science can ... come to your rescue,'' Albert said.
But the model depended on an unusual confluence of factors. It took crisis, collaboration and cash.
The crisis, the small hunting quota, mobilized the community. Cash, available from borough oil revenues, helped create the wildlife management department. Finally, the collaboration between scientists and hunters made a necessary link across cultures.
''It happened here, at the edge of the world,'' said Albert, who remains with the wildlife management department. Brower died more than five years ago.
''Part of the reason they're at least getting somewhere (in Cordova) and not being blown off is because somebody's already plowed that road -- namely the people in the rural north -- and proven beyond any doubt that local knowledge has scientific validity.''
As much as any scientist, Cordova hunter Totemoff would like to know why the harbor seals are so hard to find. Like dozens of community members statewide, he has volunteered to gather tissue samples to determine if the seals' decline is a matter of disease, diet or something else.
LESSONS FROM THE SEAL
Scientists already have estimated that the statewide population of harbor seals is about 80,000, down from an estimated 275,000 in the early 1970s. Some 3,000 of the animals live in Prince William Sound.
This decline in harbor seals echoes a pattern scientists are seeing with some other marine mammals. They worry about a lost link in the food chain but don't know enough about eating habits to identify the culprit.
Annually, subsistence hunters statewide kill between 2,400 and 3,000 harbor seals. A growing number of oil-spill area hunters don't pursue seal at all. Some worry about contamination from the spill. Others have voluntarily reduced their take out of concern for the resource, said Alaska Department of Fish and Game subsistence specialist Jim Fall.
As recently as the 1960s and early 1970s, the state and federal government supported bounty programs to help thin a booming population that had become a nuisance to fishermen. Some Cordova hunters still remember the ''$3-a-snout bounty'' that ultimately killed tens of thousands of the seals statewide.
Totemoff's seal may hold clues to the current decline. The day after his hunt, its black-and-white spotted, 140-pound body hangs upside down in a Cordova warehouse. Teenagers from five Sound villages gather round for a closer look.
These students have been paired with hunters like Totemoff to gather organ and tissue samples for the statewide study.
''I can't open it,'' said one girl, her fingers curled around the seal's catlike teeth. ''It's kind of -- stiff.''
Another stroked the seal's drooping head. They noted scars on the animal's fur-covered body and decided the seal was female, using skills they had learned in a slide show with scientists. Before the students got any further, a woman in a spotted seal jacket stepped forward.
Monica Riedel is a Native skin sewer and heads the harbor seal commission. She helped bring together hunters, students and scientists for this study.
Her interest: to ensure young Native people learn traditional uses at the same time they learn scientific method. She led the group in prayer to thank hunter and seal. The room was hushed as five girls sang the ''quyana'' song. It wasn't the traditional seal hunt song, Riedel said, but it offered students a link back to a hunting tradition -- giving respect to the harvested animal.
For a few moments, the cannery was a sacred place.
Then students measured the seal and bloodied their gloves as they learned to slice out vital tissues and organs. Afterward they watched Totemoff skin and butcher the seal.
Later that afternoon, Riedel descended a rough hewn stairway leading to Fred and Rose Brizgaloff's home to deliver an ''arm'' of the seal. Then she sat on an overturned bucket inside their tiny kitchen, listening to Fred Brizgaloff tell stories. This, too, is part of the tradition she seeks to sustain.
HOW IS IT WORKING?
Even though the Exxon settlement supplied record amounts of money for efforts like the harbor seal project, until recently only a fraction was getting to rural communities like Cordova.
In 1994, 23 percent of subsistence restoration funds went to community and Alaska Native organizations. By last year, the amount was more like 79 percent.
At first, the trustee council refused community requests that centered on repairing subsistence traditions. The proposals failed to meet a core requirement: they didn't show how their projects would ''restore a natural resource.''
But Jim Fall and Craig Mishler, both subsistence specialists with Fish and Game, thought projects aimed at subsistence were reasonable.
Their research showed seal harvests were down in nearly every Alaska Native community in the spill area. If the last people to care about seals lost interest, Fall and Mishler reasoned, the fate of the seal was less secure. They could use Native interest to help save the resource.
Fish and Game staff helped community leaders write new grant proposals. As a result, the communities got funding for a ''spirit camp,'' a seal-hunting video and other projects that combine science and subsistence.
The idea for a seal commission surfaced in meetings Fall organized. Within months, Monica Riedel stepped forward. She now makes sure hunters are invited to meetings with scientists and get regular reports on research.
Totemoff could travel to the University of Alaska, Fairbanks and view the very skulls he has collected. Scientists have agreed to answer any questions he might have.
Some questions are proving difficult to answer. At a project meeting in Cordova, the first ones that hunters posed, scientists couldn't answer.
Concerned about oil spill contamination, a hunter asked about hydrocarbon and dioxin testing. Kate Wynne, a project scientist, said no new research had been done since the first year of the spill.
''It's too expensive,'' she said.
Later, Wynne expressed chagrin; failing to answer a critical question might make scientists look insincere. And a hunter leaving the meeting grumbled, ''I still think there's plenty they're not telling us.''
Scientists and Native groups don't always agree what ''community-based'' science means. There are extremes: Does it simply involve asking for a community's approval, as many scientists already are accustomed to doing? Or does it mean taking research orders from the community, even allowing them to ''own'' the research results, an uncomfortable concept for scientists used to writing their own studies.
Another sticking point is accuracy. When Mishler first suggested community members be trusted to take tissue samples, some scientists balked. ''They said hunters wouldn't know how to label samples -- they didn't have enough education.'' Others worried traditional knowledge would be accepted without scientific proof.
Another concern is tangling politics and science. ''I'm not saying there isn't something to learn,'' said Dick Bishop, executive director of the Alaska Outdoor Council. ''But when you get into (creating commissions), then what you're talking about is politics, not science.''
In fact, community leaders like Riedel often get involved because they do have an agenda. Riedel said anger over a restrictive federal law in the 1980s motivated her to step forward. She's also a proponent of co-management, an arrangement allowing Alaska Natives and government officials to share authority over natural resources.
Riedel calls her approach ''stewardship'' but says the intrusion of politics will not diminish the science.
Biologist Frost thinks the future needs compromise. She's part of a beluga whale committee on the North Slope that seats scientists and community members at the same table. She calls their efforts a ''joint stewardship.'' Part of their responsibility is to deliver information that some may see as bad news. Their ability to do this, she said, helps define them as believable experts, not another special interest group.
Patricia Cochran of Anchorage heads the Alaska Native Science Commission, a newly developing body aimed at linking the Native world with science. She says Native communities need clout to protect their own interests in scientific research. Ultimately, she thinks the commission may need to take a role in policing science.
However this new affiliation between science and local communities progresses, no one disputes the benefits of Native activism. Commissions like the one Riedel sits on are a crucial link between remote communities and scientists. As the North Slope example demonstrates, success often comes down to individuals who can make the connection between subsistence hunter and scientist, people like Riedel, who can bring science into the kitchen of elders like Fred and Rose Brizgaloff.
''Somewhere in the middle,'' Riedel said, ''You're going to need to have someone like me, who understands the science and who understands Fred and Rose.''