Collaborative Research: Building Capacity for Community-based Marine Mammal Conservation in Bristol Bay
- Chanda Meek, College of Liberal Arts, University of Alaska Fairbanks
- Helen Chythlook, Bristol Bay Native Association
The focus of many research programs sometimes is not broad enough to address concerns important to Alaska coastal communities. Specifically, communities have repeatedly requested studies that address the availability of resources to local communities, as well as efforts to monitor habitat quality in the marine environment. In this project, researchers will expand a Bristol Bay Native Association pilot project aimed at documenting the ways in which marine mammal ecology and harvesting patterns among hunters have changed over time. In this expanded project, researchers will examine sea otters and bearded seal hunting patterns among subsistence hunters in the Bristol Bay communities of Togiak and Port Heiden, and in the Alaska Peninsula community of Chignik Lagoon. Researchers will use the traditional knowledge they collect as well as archival data and field surveys to add to maps that illustrate past and current areas important for subsistence as well as marine conservation.
Arctic and subarctic marine mammals are important subsistence species for Alaska Native communities and are the subject of ongoing marine conservation efforts. They also are experiencing multiple stressors from a combination of ecological and industrial fronts, such as climate-forced changes in sea ice extent
and growing industrial uses. Management of marine mammals in the face of rapid environmental change is complicated by a lack of baseline data. Past studies have focused on population distributions that may not answer key questions communities have about the availability of resources to them at a regional scale. Even so, ecological knowledge of ice-associated seals is very poor. For instance, it is not known whether bearded seals continue to haul out in Bristol Bay as they once did.
Since 1994, Alaska Native organizations have co-managed aspects of marine mammal management with the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In most rural Alaska Native marine mammal harvesting communities, traditional subsistence activities occur year-round, including the harvest of a broad range of species in the marine ecosystem. Over the years, Alaska Native organizations and agencies have developed research plans together to monitor the status, abundance, and distribution of marine mammals that are important for traditional subsistence harvest activities.
However, the focus of these research programs is sometimes not broad enough to capture many research issues important to communities. Specifically, communities have repeatedly requested studies that address the availability of resources to local communities, as well as those that monitor habitat quality in the marine environment.
Why is this an Alaska Sea Grant project?
One of Alaska Sea Grant's six key goals outlined in the 2009–2013 Strategic Plan is sustained, well-managed, and healthy marine, coastal, and watershed ecosystems in Alaska. The program pursues this goal through support of research that provides decision-makers with science-based information that can be used to craft well-informed policies governing the use and conservation of Alaska's marine and coastal resources.
How will researchers conduct their study?
This project is a follow-up to a pilot project using both observation and historic information to construct regional-scale traditional ecological knowledge maps for marine conservation planning uses.
In this project, researchers, biologists, and community members will collaborate to systematically document localized historic and current distribution of multiple species of seals and sea otters through synthesizing past data collection efforts, personal interviews, and field surveys.
The overall objective is to document the ways marine mammal ecology and harvesting patterns among hunters in two Bristol Bay communities (Togiak and Port Heiden) and one Alaska Peninsula community (Chignik Lagoon) have changed over time.
Documentation and analysis will be done through traditional ecological knowledge interviews emphasizing historical patterns of subsistence use and marine mammal distributions in addition to real-time boat surveys and GIS technology to map important contemporary marine mammal habitat features and particular sites of importance for subsistence.
The main goals of the interviews are to identify key habitat areas including haul-outs, breeding locations, foraging areas, migration areas, and pupping areas of marine mammals that are of most concern to the study communities.
Partners at the Bristol Bay Native Association will facilitate interviewing, train researchers in regional cultural protocols for research, and oversee the field surveys of marine mammals.
With the approval of participants, interviewers will film interviews in addition to transcribing the interviews for a full record of the traditional knowledge interview. Combined with video footage from the boat survey, project partners will edit and document the project to share with the communities in their schools and/or special events.
The data and results will be shared with partner communities and Alaska Native marine mammal co-management groups for their use in drafting marine conservation strategies. The Bristol Bay campus of UAF is collaborating in the project through the development of educational materials including a short course on co-management as a method for achieving sociocultural and ecological sustainability. Izetta Chambers, the Dillingham Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program agent, will assist with local observations of stranded marine mammals and will lead a training exercise during our field research planning stage relating to the Marine Mammal Stranding Network.
A reporting session will be held in all three communities at the end of the project, with the UAF graduate student reporting on her/his project results as well as the video project.
Bristol Bay Native Association
Native Council of Port Heiden
Togiak Traditional Council
Chignik Lagoon Village Council
Bristol Bay Marine Mammal Council
The Alaska Sea Otter and Steller Sea Lion Commission
Qayassiq Walrus Commission
UAF Bristol Bay and Fairbanks campuses
Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program–Dillingham
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game will provide project technical support; the project is coordinating with the National Marine Mammal Laboratory, the Ice Seal Committee, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service for technical assistance in field survey design.
PI: Chanda Meek (UAF) is an Assistant Professor in the Political Science Department responsible for overseeing the training of graduate students and community partners in social science methods for research design and data collection. Meek has expertise in analyzing the linkages between communities, the environment and conservation policy, especially as it relates to marine mammal co-management. Meek will mentor a graduate student (to be recruited) in understanding state-of-the-art techniques in documenting human-environmental relationships, including mapping local uses of the marine environment. Mentoring will occur through organizing training opportunities (including beginning GIS, participatory research, oral interviewing skills), the oversight of a master’s thesis or dissertation, and teaching field techniques for applied social science. UAF, and specifically the College of Liberal Arts, offer much of the required coursework to prepare a student for this type of fieldwork, including Yupik language training (if necessary), and Northern Studies research methods. Additionally, the graduate school provides opportunities for students to travel to share research at conferences.
Co-PI: Helen Chythlook (BBNA) is the overall project coordinator and will be managing the tasks of community consultation, boat surveys, contracting out local research assistants, and data analysis. Ms. Chythlook has long-standing expertise in marine mammal co-management, marine conservation, traditional knowledge research and a close working relationship with project communities. The Bristol Bay Native Association (BBNA) was formally organized in 1973 and it is an Alaska Native nonprofit corporation that operates a wide range of service programs for the 31 federally recognized tribes in its region and their members. The BBNA Board of Directors is composed of representatives from each of its 31 tribes, and BBNA is considered a tribal organization for most federal purposes. BBNA will use its existing data collection protocols to ensure data collected is consistent with previous studies as well as NOAA National Marine Mammal Lab collection efforts.
Researchers expect the traditional knowledge maps they create will be used in marine conservation planning, either through the local coastal zone management district planning program, a proposed subsistence use "special area," or through partnerships with groups like the Nature Conservancy. They will measure this impact through tracking distribution, uses, and additional impacts of the maps.
A second anticipated impact is the adoption of social science techniques within the Bristol Bay Marine Mammal Council (BBMMC) protocols for traditional ecological knowledge mapping. These techniques, such as the systemization of data-collection and the development of a sampling strategy to fit the research goals, will build confidence in the results of the map among resource managers and other stakeholders. It is difficult to quantify these impacts, but the more knowledge communities have and are able to communicate to decision-makers and the public about the availability and change in distribution associated with marine mammals, the stronger they can build a case for conservation and strategies for adaptation. Researchers will evaluate this impact by the successful adoption of the research techniques into BBMMC protocols.
Finally, a third projected impact will be the use of the GIS maps in a course under development that is related to co-management of marine mammals. The maps will illustrate a management technique useful for marine spatial planning and coastal zone management, and local research assistants, local
technicians, and students will get a hands-on look at the production of a traditional knowledge map as well as learn from interviews with community members. This type of course has been a long-standing desire of the Indigenous Peoples’ Council for Marine Mammals, an umbrella group of marine mammal co-management leaders with which the researchers have had a long-standing working relationship. Researchers will evaluate this projected impact through documenting the creation of the course and the number of students who have attended the course.
• The construction of traditional knowledge maps delineating areas important for marine conservation planning and regional subsistence priorities. In addition, the project will build capacity within partner coastal communities for understanding and adapting to changes in the distributions and availability of marine mammals for subsistence. Social science protocols for interviewing will help to make the analysis more rigorous and the project easier to replicate in subsequent years as the Bristol Bay communities build upon their community-based monitoring programs.
• Videotaped collection of in-depth, qualitative interviews with elders or other knowledgeable hunters and family members documenting subsistence uses and directions of change over time in Port Heiden, Togiak, and Chignik Lagoon.
• Researchers will produce a narrative report on environmental change based on their analysis of the interviews to detect themes relating to trends in abundance or distribution of animals over time. The narrative will be validated through follow-up community consultations.
• Regional boat survey findings and traditional ecological knowledge maps relating to each community's knowledge of the marine environment and marine mammal subsistence species. The maps will also be validated through community consultations. Findings will be shared with community members each year and as requested.
• Sharing of social science methodology useful for traditional ecological studies between UAF and coastal communities, training community liaisons in interviewing techniques generally, and community liaisons training UAF staff in culturally appropriate interviewing techniques in partner communities.
• Graduate training of a UAF master's student in social science methods and marine socioecological systems, and the completion of a master's thesis.