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Collaborative Research: Building Capacity for Community-based Marine Mammal Conservation in Bristol Bay


Chanda MeekCollege of Liberal Arts
University of Alaska Fairbanks
Helen Aderman
Bristol Bay Native Association



Please see the Imarpim Ungungsiit (Marine Mammal) Project for additional information.

Mark Kosbruk and Ilona Kemp examining a map of AlaskaThe 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.

This project was featured in the news story “Graduate student documents traditional knowledge from Alaska Native hunters”.


The issue

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.

Research collaborators

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 Profiles:

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.


What researchers learned

We have a complete set of interviews and habitat maps for each of our partner villages and have completed a thematic analysis of environmental and social change related to subsistence in Chignik Lagoon and Port Heiden. We have also completed a preliminary analysis of themes from bearded seal interviews in Togiak. We have returned to each village and presented the knowledge we collected and analyzed.

In the first phase of our project, we archived past reports of sea otters and bearded seals in our partner village areas on a website designed by our GIS specialist: http://blueskiessolutions.net/marinemammal.

We have recorded and mapped a wealth of knowledge relating to fine-scale habitat use by sea otters on the Alaska Peninsula in the regions near Chignik Lagoon and Port Heiden. Both communities have experienced local population booms of sea otters in the past decade. Through our return visits, we are exploring each community's strategies for dealing with the increase in sea otters in nearshore areas that are also desirable for subsistence clamming.

Research impacts

Traditional ecological knowledge gathered by Alaska Sea Grant researchers is used in tribal marine mammal conservation plan

Relevance: Alaska Natives have harvested marine mammals for millennia. Now as the climate changes around them, recording and mapping traditional resource and hunting locations can provide a resource for tribes and government agencies as they consider adaptive management. The villages of Chignik Lagoon and Port Heiden have experienced sea otter population booms in the past decade in nearshore areas desirable for subsistence clamming. Togiak villagers are concerned about the ecology of bearded seals, an important subsistence resource.

Response: Alaska Sea Grant–funded researchers interviewed Chignik Lagoon and Port Heiden families about their hunting patterns and traditional ecological knowledge on sea otters, and explored strategies for dealing with impacts of sea otter increases on subsistence resources. Researchers mapped traditional knowledge, archived data, and current sea otter distribution using GIS, and worked with residents to identify areas for conservation planning and subsistence priorities. Togiak residents researched traditional knowledge on local bearded seals and mapped hunting locations, seal feeding areas, haulouts, and pupping sites to use in monitoring future changes.

Result: In Chignik Lagoon, Togiak, and Port Heiden, researchers collaborated with residents to interview and map resource presence and use areas. Bristol Bay regional tribes are developing a marine mammal conservation plan that relies on the interview and mapping data. The GIS maps created by the local residents and researchers were used to inform sea otter and bearded seal ecology and conservation strategies. Maps were also used as a teaching tool in a University of Alaska course on field techniques for environmental and social data collection.

Recap: Alaska Native hunters and local residents collaborated with Alaska Sea Grant–funded researchers to document marine mammal subsistence hunting and habitat knowledge. Researchers created GIS maps with traditional knowledge, archived data, and current sea otter distribution. Bristol Bay regional tribes used the information to build a marine mammal conservation plan.