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Indigenous peoples to help track changes around Bering Sea

Well-being of locals and billion dollar fishery greatly impacted by changing environment

ANCHORAGE, Alaska - The National Science Foundation has awarded $3 million to the Bering Sea Sub Network (BSSN), a regional initiative connecting coastal communities in Western Alaska and Northeast Russia for systematic gathering of local observations on the changing environment around the Bering Sea. The five year project is implemented by the Resilience and Adaptive Management Group at the University of Alaska Anchorage and the Aleut International Association as a partnership between scientists practicing in both western and indigenous traditions.

The health, economic well-being, and ways of life of indigenous and non-indigenous peoples in the region are connected to the Bering Sea and its natural resources. The socioeconomic development of coastal villages along the Bering Sea, on both the Russian and U.S. sides, is dependent on maintaining ecologically sustainable conditions in the region.

The Bering Sea - one of the most productive seas in the world, which includes globally important habitats for many biological resources - is now undergoing far-reaching environmental changes including climate change that alarm scientists, coastal residents and others from around the world. The region is of vital economic importance to both the U.S. and Russia. U.S. commercial fisheries in the Bering Sea are worth close to $1 billion per year, and make up more than half of all annual domestic fish landings. In Russia, the fishery is worth about $600 million a year, and makes up about a third of the country's fish harvest.

BSSN began as an International Polar Year project and completed a two-year pilot phase in August 2009. Six villages participated in the research: Gambell, Togiak, Sand Point (Western Alaska) and Kanchalan, Tymlat, Nikolskoye (Northeast Russia). Hundreds of fishermen and hunters were interviewed about various species of salmon, Broad Whitefish, smelt, Arctic Grayling, trout, Pacific Cod, Arctic Char, seal, walrus and other important subsistence species. Many of them, such as pink salmon and halibut, are also important commercial species. An increasing competition for such species, coupled with environmental changes driven by human activities and other changes in natural and physical environment, may require more efficient regulatory policies so that coastal communities can better adapt and mitigate negative impacts on the marine biological resources they depend on for their well-being and survival.

The survey participants showed a great concern for the health of the sea and its fish, and they shared their observations in great detail. The project's findings in the pilot phase revealed that residents in Alaska attributed changes in subsistence harvesting mostly to climate change. "There's a big change. It's warmer. The seals are leaving early because the ice goes out early. They're going up north. We used to hunt till June," said one Alaskan hunter.

The multi-year research will help better understand the occurring changes, their consequences to the local societies, and will improve the ability of coastal communities to respond to these changes. BSSN will include four more villages in Alaska over the course of five years.

For more information, contact Victoria Gofman at (907)332-5388 and e-mail victoriag@alaska.net or Lilian Alessa at (907)786-7749 and e-mail afla@uaa.alaska.edu. Visit the Web site at http://www.bssn.net.

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