UTQIAGVIK - The U.S. Coast Guard in Alaska will once again have a tribal liaison. The position has been vacant for the last couple of years.
Speaking Tuesday during the three-day Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission’s meeting in Utqiagvik, Rear Adm. Matthew Bell said the job should be filled in August. The announcement garnered applause from the audience.
“For me as a person, our job to communicate is key to ensuring both sides are heard loud and clear,” Bell said.
On behalf of the Coast Guard, Bell discussed its role in the Arctic. Throughout his talk, the audience and whaling captains brought forward questions about communication and relationships between federal agencies and Arctic communities.
“In Gambell, we’ve experienced Coast Guard flyovers during subsistence hunts these past couple years. Especially this year, a hunt of a bowhead that was caught. We had flyovers,” said Edmond Apassingok of Gambell. "Who made that call? There needs to be communications between Coast Guard and Fish and Wildlife or somebody.
"The federal government is a huge bureaucracy. We have heard time and time again that there is communication between the respective entities but, in fact, there is not, now.”
He and other captains expressed concerns about having too many layers of oversight or management when it comes to subsistence hunts. These concerns were commonplace during the meeting and were rooted in personal experience or historical memory.
Many of the audience members are old enough to remember their hunts being curtailed or prevented by federal and state agencies. A few spoke of when they were younger, being afraid they’d be arrested or have their guns taken away when they’d hear planes flying overhead to monitor subsistence hunters in the field. Those experiences have helped shape how relationships have developed over the years.
Apassingok, for one, talked about the challenges his community has faced recently.
"In Gambell, on St. Lawrence Island, we have experienced empty drying racks, especially these past few years. Yes, climate change has something to do with it, but we don’t need another big gun watching over us like Coast Guard, like Fish and Wildlife,” he said. "They come with guns. It’s added burden to our survival here.”
Bell acknowledged Apassingok’s concerns and said communication and a solid relationship are key.
“The traditional knowledge that you have is priceless,” Bell said. "The unified traditional voice that you have, I think, is loud and clear.”
One speaker asked if it would be possible to have enforcement of traffic regulations for the protection of the whaling communities — perhaps even for entities that have not signed a conflict avoidance agreement laying out rules.
“Now, if we have the Coast Guard here saying they’re there to protect us and enforce their rules for traffic to protect our subsistence hunt, yet there’s still a shortfall of communications, maybe we should get a resolution for communications to assist,” the speaker said.
Throughout his presentation, Bell said he was committed to having his staff visit villages and hub communities in person.
“You sent me a memo and we got it. If I’ve not come to visit you or if I’ve not sent somebody from my staff to visit you, then call me out on that,” he said. “I think, as people, we need to communicate face-to-face because that’s where the true coordination, the true partnership, comes from.”
Just before the end of the presentation, North Slope Borough Mayor Harry Brower asked to speak. He said it’s important in conversations like these for federal agencies to consider that local residents and Inupiat communities “are part of the ecosystem that we utilize to sustain our culture.”
He said he was glad there would be a new tribal liaison to ease communication and said he hoped it would be a knowledgeable person.
“The individual that you select as a tribal liaison officer must have knowledge of these resources,” Brower said. "They must communicate to each of our respective commissioners in terms of the areas that they represent. There are similarities, but there are significant differences that need to be identified accordingly. Our needs are not always the same.”