Henry Huntington is Principal Investigator for one of two projects funded under the Humans component of the BEST-BSIERP Bering Sea Project.
All photos by Henry Huntington unless noted otherwise.
"As I go through my notes from the interviews, I notice that from the perspective of the elders we interviewed, the ecosystem around Savoonga currently appears to be thriving. Seabirds are abundant, walrus are healthy, and the hunting has been good so far this year. At the same time, sea ice is changing and new songbirds—species without Yup'ik names—are appearing on the island." --Henry Huntington
The convergence of a few opportunities led us to conduct our Local and Traditional Knowledge interview research in the St. Lawrence Island Yup'ik village of Savoonga several months ahead of schedule.
Much social science research in rural Alaska takes place in winter, when people are less likely to be busy and otherwise out on the land or sea. But when I spoke last December with Caleb Pungowiyi, a Yup'ik leader and researcher originally from Savoonga, we hatched a plan to go in July, when the seabirds would be present, in order to replicate some work he had done in the mid-1990s, counting seabirds on the island and interviewing elders. George Noongwook, who is in charge of the Savoonga part of the project, readily agreed.
Above: The Village of Savoonga. Right: BEST-BSIERP Program Manager Tom Van Pelt, Savoonga village elder George Noongwook, and Henry. (Caleb Huntington)
The plan grew from there. Tom Van Pelt from NPRB came to participate in the interviews and to assess murre and kittiwake population and breeding status on cliffs west of Savoonga, adding 2009 data to a series that David Irons and colleagues at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have been compiling for many years.
Chad Jay (at left, with George Noongwook) of the U.S. Geological Survey, and principal investigator of the walrus component of the Bering Sea Project, came to talk about walrus, accompanied by his U.S. Forest Service colleague Bruce Marcot, who is helping to model the Pacific walrus population.
And if we were going to go in early July, the prospect of joining in Savoonga’s Fourth of July celebrations was too good to miss.
In the course of ten days, we had five days worth of interviews and presentations, numerous visits to the teeming murre and auklet colonies near the village, other excursions with George, and many hot dogs, foot races, and Eskimo dances on the Fourth.
As I go through my notes from the interviews, I notice that from the perspective of the elders we interviewed, the ecosystem around Savoonga currently appears to be thriving. Seabirds are abundant, walrus are healthy, and the hunting has been good so far this year. At the same time, sea ice is changing and new songbirds—species without Yupik names—are appearing on the island.
Right: Elders Morris Toolie, Sr., Caleb Pungowiyi, and Chester Noongwook conferring over coffee and a map of St. Lawrence Island. (Tom Van Pelt)
In addition to the observations about the ecology of the area, the information from our group interviews also makes clear the importance of hunter access to animals. In the spring of 2008, the ice retreated quickly and Savoonga hunters had little chance to hunt walrus.
Even if the walrus are abundant and in good health, the hunters are out of luck if the walrus are out of reach. The physical conditions of the northern Bering Sea are just as important as the biological conditions. When we consider the potential impacts of environmental changes, this is an important point to keep in mind.
Right: Chester Noongwook, Henry Huntington, and George Noongwook discuss where conditions are changing on and around St. Lawrence Island. (Tom Van Pelt)
As for biology, the hunters pointed out that some seabird species experience occasional die-offs, though there seems to be little pattern or explanation to these events. Different species have die-offs in different years, so widespread ecological causes seem unlikely.
Bowhead whales appear to be migrating earlier in the spring. Spotted seals are less abundant at their haulouts, perhaps due to coastal erosion or ATV noise. There are many more swans and cranes than there used to be, whereas shorebirds are fewer.
What these and many more observations all mean, and how they will link into the integrated Bering Sea Project, is a good question, and one we will continue to explore with our Bering Sea project colleagues.
Right: Caleb Pungowiyi demonstrates auklet netting techniques at an old stone blind, St. Lawrence Island. Below: Auklets in flight above St. Lawrence Island.