By Geoff York
As luck would have it, the weather is good, but we are required to take the second mandatory crew rest day for our pilot (two off during any 14 day window). He would much rather be flying, but the rules are very clear. With only two more flight days for the season ahead, we begin to make plans for our return to Anchorage on Saturday. For our pilot Howard and our lab technician Jessica, it has been almost seven straight weeks of fieldwork – and as much as they like the job, they are ready to be home.
The down time also allows Karyn and Jessica to start looking ahead to June when the FWS will host two important meetings under the recently activated US/Russia bilateral polar bear management agreement (Bilateral Agreement). This agreement was a decade in the making, was signed in 2000, ratified by the US in 2007 and implemented in 2009 with a meeting of the Bilateral Commission in Moscow last December. It is a landmark for polar bear conservation as it requires a collaborative, long-term, science-based conservation plan for the shared population.
As I’ve mentioned, this region has seen the most severe losses of summer sea ice compared with the rest of the Arctic, along with temperatures as much as 4C above average. This warming is not only melting sea ice; it is also melting the permafrost in many areas and allowing new species of plants and animals to push further north. Concurrent with these changes in physical habitat and the ecological impacts that are likely to follow, polar bears are still hunted on both sides of the Chukchi.
Russia officially banned all polar bear harvest in 1956, the first country to take such a protective stance. This ban, however, was very difficult to effectively enforce in such a massive and remote region as the Chukotkan coast. While the ban effectively eliminated any sport hunting, poaching (by people from outside the region), and subsistence hunting by native Chukchi people was pushed underground creating a situation of unknown harvest for several decades.
Chukchi, Inuit, and Yupik people still utilise polar bear and other marine mammals for food, spiritual, and cultural purposes. These are hunting cultures that rely on these traditional practices to pass on language, beliefs, values, and fundamental survival skills to future generations. In much of the high Arctic, living off the land and sea is not merely a choice, it is a necessity. The cost of imported western goods is very prohibitive and the comparative nutritional value of processed foods is generally poor. From a human health and ecological footprint stance, sustainably harvested local food is far and above the best choice in the Arctic as it is for the rest of us around the world.
In Alaska, polar bears are legally harvested by coastal dwelling Alaskan natives, predominantly Inuit and Yupik people living from St Lawrence Island in the northern Bering Sea all the way to the Canadian border in the Beaufort Sea. The Beaufort population is shared with Canada and has been effectively co-managed under the Inuit and Inuvialuit Agreement, an arrangement between people on both sides of the border and informed by government scientists and managers that sets voluntary quotas. Harvest in the Alaskan Chukchi, while reported and monitored, currently has no set quota system.
Addressing the information gaps and shared management challenges is exactly what the Bilateral Agreement sets out to accomplish. The agreement also formally recognizes the engagement and requires the input of Indigenous people. The FWS research we are working on this week is the beginning of what will become a bilateral effort that to provide much needed information on the heath and current status of this population.
The two meetings FWS is holding this June, a harvest workshop followed by a meeting of the Bilateral Commission, will focus on the discussion of needed information and quotas. Unlike the Beaufort Sea where we have very good current data on the population size and status, we have spotty and mostly dated information on the Chukchi. We do have sound information on historical harvest in Alaska, but only estimates of potential harvest from Chukotka.
The Commission will essentially be confronted with two main harvest choices: request a temporary moratorium on both sides or allow a legal, but very conservative harvest on both sides. Neither will be easy and both are fraught with political and conservation challenges. A moratorium, already proven ineffective in Russia, would politically be a non-starter in Alaska, would have similar enforcement issues across a remote region, and is opposed by both Alaskan and Chukchi Indigenous groups.
A limited legal harvest, closely monitored, and adaptively managed as new information is available may actually be the best choice at present. This would affirm the rights of Indigenous people on both sides to the sustainable use and management of polar bears, would allow a regulated and reported hunt on the Russian side (to replace the illegal and unreported harvest at present), and would give scientists and local people time to gather new data along both coasts to better inform future management decisions.
Results from the recent Scientific Working Group of the Bilateral Commission and the upcoming harvest workshop will provide the Commissioners with the best possible advice as they consider this delicate situation. I will be sitting in on the meetings and will update you on the outcomes later in June, so stay tuned.
WWF International Arctic Programme polar bear specialist, Geoff York, is currently in the Chukchi Sea area with the US Fisheries and Wildlife Service, conducting research into the status of polar bear populations in the area, and is blogging for the WWF Climate blog while he is there.