IN NOME— The federal Marine Mammal Commission consisting of commissioners Michael Tillman, Daryl Boness and Frances Gulland visited Nome this week for a listening session with the public, among other meetings.

Marine Mammal Commissioners visit Nome

Commissioners, scientific advisors and staff from the Marine Mammal Commission, MMC for short, visited Nome earlier this week. The purpose of the trip was to hear comments and concerns from local hunters regarding marine mammals.

Commissioners were interested in contacting Alaska Native hunters about any changes they would like to see the MMC make. Representatives from Shishmaref, Wales and Unalakleet traveled to Nome to attend the meeting, and two MMC members visited Shishmaref.

After leaving Nome, the MMC will present a summary of what they learned during their trip to the Indigenous Peoples Council for Marine Mammals as well as the entire MMC staff. Though they were aware of the problems facing Arctic communities, they were surprised by the extent of those problems and the lack of communication between those villages and the U.S. Government.

Most of the MMC’s interest in Alaska has been focused on the North Slope and only a few members have visited any Alaskan towns outside of Anchorage and Barrow. During this trip, MMC members originally planned to visit only Barrow and Kotzebue. Vera Metcalf, Director of Kawerak’s Eskimo Walrus Commission, coordinated the Nome portion of the trip. Metcalf, who serves as the MMC’s Special Advisor on Native Affairs, believed that it was important that commission members experienced first hand the problems facing subsistence hunters on the Seward Peninsula. Many of the issues are caused by climate change. “Perhaps the most important issue that everyone is concerned about is climate change and its impact on food security,” Metcalf said.

Metcalf believes that, once the commission sees the Bering Strait region, they will begin to understand the importance that marine mammals have in Alaska Native communities. She hopes that the MMC will see that the rural Alaska Native population has unique, important perspective of the marine ecosystem. “We would hope that the commission would have a better understanding that Alaska Natives are and will continue to be critical and vital partners in marine mammal conservation efforts,” Metcalf said.

During an interview with the Nome Nugget, Marine Mammal Commission Executive Director Rebecca Lent and MMC Energy Policy Analyst Victoria Cornish confirmed that the local hunters they spoke with were very concerned with climate change, and what it means for their subsistence lifestyle. Abbreviated hunting seasons and weak ice make it hard for hunters to get food. The weak ice is not only dangerous for hunters but makes it hard for them to bring marine mammals to shore after they are killed. “That weak ice really affects their ability to process the animals,” said Cornish.

Marine Advisory Program Advisor with UAF’s Northwest Campus, Gay Sheffield said she hopes the commission understands that people in rural Alaska rely on the animals for subsistence, and that there have already been significant changes to the environment and wildlife. Because of this, there needs to be more regional representation on a federal level. Sheffield also said the hopes the MMC will realize that the villages on the Bering Strait are very different from Barrow, environmentally, financially and politically.

Cornish and Lent did realize the importance to the Alaska Native cultures and lifestyle.  “It’s not just an academic issue, it’s a cultural issue,” said Lent. For example, hunters can’t pass down traditional knowledge because can’t hunt and teach their children to hunt, and a way of life begins to die. It is also an economic issue, since people have had to find alternate ways to provide food for their families. The steep prices of food and other supplies surprised Lent and Cornish. On top of this, many communities do not have a lot of job opportunities. Despite all of the obstacles communities face, Cornish and Lent were impressed by how people adapt to climate change. “There’s changes happening, but they just have to adapt because they have adapted for hundreds of years,” said Lent.

Along with the troubling changes in the climate and lifestyles in rural Alaska, there is a lack of understanding about what is happening. “We definitely felt a lack of communication and understanding, going both ways,” Lent said. Before considering federal actions, she said, it is important to consult with the Native community, since they will be most affected by the change. To go along with this, Cornish said that is important for the MMC to actually hear back from the communities before making their final decisions. 

“I think one of the most important things is just to be here more often,” said Lent. Since is not feasible for the MMC to make constant trips to the Arctic, it is vital for the commission to find ways to communicate consistently with the villages.

Cornish and Lent heard concerns that, because of the lack of communication between communities and federal agencies, the government is acting too late. “In Barrow, we heard a lot more deep, deep, deep concerns about the federal government,” said Lent. It is important to start responding now because the effects of climate change will only expand. “[People told us] ‘If this is happing to us today in Alaska and the Arctic, you guys are next,’” Lent said.

Sheffield highlighted some of the main problems facing marine mammals, and their hunters. One of the troubling phenomena she spoke about was the algal bloom, which is a result of the warming ocean. The bloom causes public health and food security concerns. Another problem is the increase in shipping traffic. There have already been reports of oiled seals and birds in Shishmaref and St. Lawrence Island.

 Noise deflection, when animals travel in alternate routes to avoid the noise made by a ship, is also a possible issue. Metcalf, too, is worried about the noise that comes with ship traffic. She mentioned walrus as being particularly vulnerable to disturbances, and when walrus are frightened they haul out on land.

Last summer, 35,000 walrus moved onto the shore of Point Lay. The enormous number of animals moving on a small piece of land can cause stampedes, resulting in young and sick walruses to be crushed.

The ongoing reports of sick seals are another concern that both Sheffield and Cornish mentioned. In 2011, there were reports of lethargic seals displaying extensive hair loss, sores and lesions. The number of compromised seals has diminished, but five years later people are still reporting seals with similar symptoms.

Cornish used the ongoing issues with the seal population as an example of the importance of continuing to sample the animals and their environment. Lent said the MMC will contact the U.S. Congress to ask for funding, since researchers need resources in order to resolve issues. Cornish and Lent agreed that getting the results of the samples back to the Native population is also important. “We need to get back to the community, because a lot of people are like ‘what the heck’s going on, you’ve been testing and testing but we haven’t had any news’ so that’s definitely something we need to focus on once we get back,” Lent said.

The MMC’s trip comes at a crucial time for walrus hunters. Later this year, USFWS will determine whether or not to place the Pacific walrus on the Endangered Species List. The Marine Mammal Protection Act, MMPA, of 1972 stated that, if an animal population is at a healthy level, subsistence harvest cannot be limited. If the population is low, all other activities must be stopped before subsistence can be decreased. However, once a species is placed on the Endangered Species List, the government can restrict harvest however it chooses. This means that the subsistence priority established under the MMPA may not continue. The Bering Strait region accounts for 97 percent of walrus harvested annually throughout the U.S.

Another change coming this year will be a polar bear quota. Several years ago,  the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Nanuuq Commission made an agreement with Russia. The treaty set a limit on the killing of polar bears to 29 per nation per year. The problem with this agreement, Sheffield said, is that it disregards the MMPA’s priority for subsistence hunters. The agreement does not designate between subsistence harvest of a polar bear and killing for protection, each bear killed counts as one of the 29.

But the international treaty trumps the MMPA, and starting this year the killing cap will become law. While the treaty does not have much affect on the Bering Strait region, Lent and Cornish said that the polar bear quota was of great concern to hunters in Barrow, many of whom did not learn about it until recently due to a lack of communication.

The MMC was established under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 to provide an independent view on federal agencies’ marine mammal conservation policies.

 USFWS controls the management of polar bears, walrus and sea otter. USFWS works with USGS, who conducts research. NMFS, run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is in charge of research and management of all seals, sea lions and whales. Normally, the commission gets their information from USFWS and NMFS and conveys what they are told to Congress. MMC also recommends changes to species management.

An article regarding the MMC’s public meeting with community members will be in next week’s Nome Nugget.

The Nome Nugget

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Nome, Alaska 99762

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