Marine Mammal Commission meets with local hunters
Last week, eight members and staff of the Marine Mammal Commission, an independent Federal agency that oversees marine mammal conservation policies, held a public meeting in Nome. The purpose of the gathering, held in the Nagozruk Conference Room of the Northwest Campus building, was to allow commission members to connect with local marine mammal hunters.
Concerned hunters and residents as well as employees of Kawerak and the University of Alaska, attended the meeting, which was held mid-day during the work week. “That’s a lesson learned,” said MMC Energy Policy Analyst Victoria Cornish prior to the meeting, regarding timing. The meeting was attended by about 15 members of the public. One attendee, Merlin Johnson, called in from Unalakleet. The villages of Wales and Shishmaref were both represented in Nome.
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, moderated the session. MMC General Counsel Michael Gosliner answered many of the questions regarding regulations.
The three topics the commission brought to start the conversation were: how subsistence hunting is changing (including access to animals, climate, safety, open water activities), issues that the commission should address, and federal agency rules and regulations (which aspects are working and which need work). The commission made it clear that the meeting was a listening session, and only spoke in response to questions.
Roy Ashenfelter of Nome was one of the first to speak up, and voiced several concerns. One question was in regard to an issue before the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this year: whether or not to place walrus under the Endangered Species Act.
Gosliner assured him, and other Native hunters, that under the Act there will be a Native exemption, meaning that Alaska Native subsistence hunters will not be limited in their walrus take. Metcalf also said that the Eskimo Walrus Commission will work to get the information out to clear up any possible confusion. “With walrus, we are planning to do an extensive ESA informational so they understand this new process and what political implications there might be,” she said.
Not every concern was resolved so quickly. In an interview with the Nome Nugget prior to the meeting, Cornish and MMC Executive Director Rebecca Lent spoke of the challenge of communicating with local hunters. It became evident throughout the meeting that this was very much the case. It was not only that hunters were one of the last parties to hear about regulation changes, but also that when they did learn the rules they didn’t understand what they meant. The failure to communicate in an effective way has resulted in several hunters being arrested for breaking rules they didn’t know existed.
Even when local residents are involved prior to a decision being made, they are not always kept up to speed. Ashenfelter voiced concern about another example of spotty communication. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had asked Alaska Native hunters for comments before they made a decision on the status of fur seals, but never informed the hunters of the final decision.
Gosliner said that this was a problem the commission was unaware of. “A common theme we’ve heard throughout the meetings [is that] communication among the agencies and the Native communities is a problem, something that I imagine we are going to discuss a lot further and see what possible remedies [there] are.”
However, as Gosliner pointed out, the MMC is an oversight agency, and therefore one step removed from the process. The action agencies making the regulations, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service, should be the ones getting the information out. The MMC, with a total of 14 members, does not have the staff or the budget to take much action. However, the MMC will take what they learned during their week in Alaska back to the agencies they oversee and help them to find solutions to the problems.
Chairman Randall Reeves said they need to make sure co-management agreements are working more smoothly, and the regulations need to be written in a way that resonates with local hunters. “Clearly co-management isn’t working properly if the message isn’t getting out to the Native communities,” Reeves said.
Sue Steinacher, a Nome resident who spent years on Little Diomede as a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service monitor, spoke of the communication issues she had observed during her time on the island. Her point was that the commission needs to make sure that regulations are explained clearly to hunters who were not attending their meetings. Steinacher recalled three separate times when hunters had been put into federal prisons for breaking rules they did not know existed. “I knew that there was no understanding as to why this was happening to them,” she said.
She also proposed a solution to the problem. “[The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service] has got to give [the Eskimo Walrus Commission] the funds to contract the personnel, or contract the personnel to work with people to create materials that are meaningful for that audience, not for a federal audience or a general college educated audience, but for your on-the-ground hunters,” Steinacher said. “That costs a lot less than all the legal actions against hunters who violated them,” she added.
Clyde Oxereok of Wales seconded Steinacher’s comment. He recounted an incident in which an elder in his home community was fined $1,200 by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for illegal take of walrus.
To further complicate an already complex situation, climate change is causing marine mammals to migrate at different times. These times do not always fall within the set seasons, so subsistence hunters sometimes miss out on their take because they cannot find any animals.
“Sometimes with the climate change, we can’t predict our weather any more,” Oxereok said. With the weak ice, hunters can’t go as far as they want to, and when the animals pass through they need to get to them. Instead of being able to predict the weather and ice conditions two or three days in advance, hunters are now limited to six to eight hours, said Oxereok.
Even when hunting parties are successful, they can’t always get the animal back to shore. If the weather goes down and the ocean gets rough, hunters need to leave quickly, so they end up abandoning the dead animals, which can result in wasteful take penalties. “Walrus, they’re heavy. If you get stuck out there with a whole walrus, you can sink and drown,” said Oxereok.
Oxereok said the rules regarding wasteful take, how much meat needs to be salvaged from an animal, are not always clear, and can vary by agency. “You are going to have to come up with one interpretation on all animals,” he said. More than one attendee mentioned they had heard of people who had been fined for wasteful take, or for hunting in the wrong places. “We, as an Alaska Native people, we seem to have a hard time translating our subsistence life to regulations, something is lost,” Austin Ahmasuk said. Austin Ahmasuk works with the Kawerak Marine Program but attended the meeting as a hunter.
Ahmasuk spoke of the problems brewing with climate change. He spoke not just of the “mystery” of how marine mammals will adapt, but also of the psychological issues that come from misunderstanding regulations. “Some of the things we are experiencing are dramatic and unprecedented,” he said.
Marie Katcheak, who works at UAF’s Northwest Campus in Nome and is originally from Stebbins, spoke against any and all limits to subsistence take. “If we don’t need [regulations], then why make them?” Katcheak asked. “There’s no need to be regulated on how many we need if we don’t even get our quota.”
She said that villages should be able to govern themselves in order to best provide for their families. She sees regulations as an attack on the subsistence way of life. “Our diet, and our way of life, we need to have this system going, we don’t need to be regulated on that. You got restaurants every time you turn around in Anchorage, you’re not regulated on how you choose to eat.”
“I see this as a regulation on my subsistence people,” Katcheak said, then added “We need to be part of it in order for it to work.” The Commission agreed, but acknowledged that this is easier said than done.
An example of complexities created by cultural differences is what happens when a dead marine mammal turns up on the beach. For centuries, Ahmasuk said, Alaska Natives viewed beached marine mammals as gifts from the ocean, and utilized them. But now, when more and more animals are ending up on the beaches, the mammals are increasingly unsafe to eat. This causes a food safety concern, something that the federal government might not understand because it is uncommon. “You get to wondering if what you’re eating is safe for someone like myself, when you see a beach cast marine mammal, if it’s fresh, your first thought on your mind is that it is a food item.”
However, commissioner Frances Gulland said, there are several toxins that cannot be seen with the naked eye. To be declared safe, they would need to be sent to the State epidemiologist to be tested. Gulland asked Ahmasuk how he thought Alaska Native hunters could “screen” the beached animals for diseases before they consumed them. “How can we assure food safety for you without causing panic?” Gulland asked. Ahmasuk said that there is no guarantee of safety, but typically the animals are eaten anyway.
Gay Sheffield with the University of Alaska Fairbanks Marine Advisory Program gave a presentation detailing what she described as “extremely alarming” marine mammal issues over the last 10 years. The changes were reported by residents and included a sleeper shark in Teller, an unusual mortality event in seals, and oiled shore birds and seals.
Sheffield is working to compile a document with all of the guidelines and regulations for marine mammals that apply only to the Bering Strait region. She said compiling the document was a difficult process because here marine mammals are used in a way that is “not common in the lower 48,” making federal regulations, when there are any, difficult to apply. “That leaves things very ambiguous,” Sheffield said.
The MMC presented a summary of what they learned during their trip to the Indigenous Peoples Council for Marine Mammals as well as to the entire MMC staff during a webinar in Anchorage. The group also met with the Indigenous People’s Council for Marine Mammals, or IPCoMM, to discuss their findings.
Created under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, the MMC is the only U.S. entity that oversees all science, policy and management actions affecting marine mammals. The commission is comprised of three government-appointed commissioners, a nine-member committee of scientific advisors, and 14 full-time staff.