Bering Sea Elders Group

Alaska Native elders seek united voices on bottom trawling in Bering Sea

Originally Posted: The Tundra Drums

The Bering Sea is warming.

Alaska Native people living on the coast, keen observers of the world around us, are witnessing many changes in sea ice and animals. Elders report that it’s harder to predict the weather in the traditional way because natural indicators are different.

Scientists report that loss of summer sea ice in the Arctic polar basin inhibits the formation of winter ice in the Bering Sea. Late formation of winter ice and early melting in spring is changing the ecosystem.

Regular surveys show that 45 species of fish have shifted their range northward. With rising temperatures and loss of annual sea ice, commercially valuable fish species are beginning to occupy increasingly more northern waters, inviting fleets to expand trawling into new habitats and sensitive areas.

In June 2007, federal fishery managers agreed to establish a northern bottom-trawl boundary as a precautionary measure to prevent movement of fleets northward beyond their current footprint. The boundary is a moratorium while they develop a plan for the northern Bering Sea.

Alaska Native Elders from eight tribes formed the Bering Sea Elders Advisory Group, administered by the Native Village of Kwigillingok, to provide traditional guidance on how to protect our subsistence way of life as part of the pending fishery plan to govern bottom trawling in the northern Bering Sea.

Representatives of the advisory group have been traveling village to village presenting the issue and inviting more tribes to join. The group has already expanded to 20 tribes and their designated elders.

All tribes from Kuskokwim Bay to Bering Strait are invited to join. The goal is to recommend a unified proposal for protecting our subsistence.

Participating tribes will determine what areas need to be protected from bottom trawling based on elders’ traditional knowledge and today’s active hunters, fishermen and gatherers.

Each tribe will develop maps delineating important and historical use areas and places of ecological significance that are necessary to support the species we depend on in the Bering Sea.

The mapping program is under development. It will include traditional knowledge already documented. Additional or updated information will be collected based on methods used by Canada’s First Nations and experience in Alaska.

Collecting this information will be done in the Yup’ik and Inupiaq languages. Information will be translated for fishery managers to understand.

The final proposal, approved by the tribes and our respected elders, will include maps along with stories, descriptions and seasonal practices provided by Alaska Native holders of traditional and local knowledge specific to each tribe.

Developing a northern Bering Sea bottom-trawl plan is an opportunity to apply the best science and knowledge held by traditional hunters and fishermen toward pragmatic outcomes affecting conservation and cultural integrity in the Bering Sea.

David Bill Sr., chair of the Bering Sea Elders Advisory Group, lives in Toksook Bay. He can be contacted at (907) 427-7165.