Scientists, Natives work together for marine species research.

Posted: Thursday, November 15, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Hundreds of times each year, Alaska Native hunters pause beside their freshly killed seal or whale to perform a careful chore. They take a tiny sliver of tissue -- then send it to a state or federal lab for genetic analysis or contaminant tests.

Native commissioners write hunting rules and quotas side-by-side with federal managers. Elders sit down with biologists to map whale migrations and polar bear haunts. Hunters help scientists design studies -- and then go out to capture the shrewd, fast-moving subjects in the frigid ocean or on the frozen sea.

It's called ''co-management,'' advocated by the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act, and it's slowly transformed how Alaskans take care of seals, whales and other marine mammal species hunted for subsistence over the past decade.

This increasing collaboration between traditional knowledge and Western science is generally working well and should continue, a series of Native managers told the federal Marine Mammal Commission on Wednesday.

''Western scientists have learned that traditional knowledge can be a very reliable source of information,'' said Maggie Ahmaogak of Barrow, executive director of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission that oversees the subsistence hunt of the bowhead whale. ''As a result of this work, we now have better understanding of the bowhead than any other species.''

The comments came during the first day of the 40th annual meeting of the federal Marine Mammal Commission, an independent agency that reviews government actions and policies on marine mammals in the United States.

During meetings Thursday and Friday, the commission expected to receive stock assessment and biological reports on the status of more than a dozen species in Alaska seas: Pacific walruses, Steller sea lions, sea otters, polar bears, seals and six species of whales.

In nearly every case, the discussion was to include scientific data that could only have been obtained through the traditional knowledge of Native people, many actively managing certain species in cooperation with government agencies.

During a session Wednesday, several Native leaders told the commission that their groups needed additional funding to further research efforts, and would like the Marine Mammal Protection Act to be strengthened when Congress reauthorizes it.

They also noted examples of how collaboration with government or university biologists had resulted in breakthroughs that benefited subsistence users, scientific understanding and the species.

''Our system is based on respecting that animal,'' said Ross Schaeffer, chairman of the Alaska Beluga Whale Committee and mayor of the Northwest Alaska Arctic Borough. ''It's based on spiritual values. If you get an animal, you treat it with respect -- when you stalk it, when you butcher it, when you eat it, and when you share it with others.''

That respectful approach leads to careful observation and vast traditional knowledge about what the animals do, where they go and how they behave, said Schaeffer and others.

Monica Riedel, of the Harbor Seal Commission, said that more than 100 hunters have produced 500 samples for an archival project at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Those samples will ultimately provide a record for tracking the rise of contaminants in important subsistence food.

When the International Whaling Commission decided that bowhead whales off Alaska's Arctic Coast had plummeted to about 1,000 whales and banned Alaska Natives from their traditional subsistence hunt a quarter-century ago, North Slope residents knew that the scientists had gotten it wrong, said whaling commission director Ahmaogak.

''Our elders and our whaling captains knew from years of watching the whales migrating by that there were many more bowhead whales than that,'' she told the commission.

Scientists worked with hunters and elders to learn how the bowhead migrated underneath the ice, she said. Now bowheads whales are known to be a healthy population of at least 8,000 whales, and the whaling commission will manage a 2002 hunt with 67 strikes shared among 10 whaling villages.

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