Climate change is not only affecting the health of many Arctic species—it is also having an impact on the people and communities that depend on them to survive. A new study shows that a decline in sea ice has severely curtailed the length of the seal-hunting season in northern Alaska, threatening the communities that have depended on these marine mammals for food and clothing for generations.
The study was led by Indigenous hunters, the Native Village of Kotzebue, Alaska, and scientists at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. It found that over the past 17 years, the hunting season for bearded seals, called ugruk in Iñupiaq, shrank by one day each year. BOBBY SCHAEFFER is one of the Iñupiaq elders and hunters who co-authored the study. He spoke to The Circle about the changes he’s seen in the seal population and what its decline might mean for his community.
What was your role in the study, and why did you get involved?
I took the scientists out on the ocean, and we studied the sea ice to try to determine what impacts the thinning of the ice was having on our seals. It was interesting to look at sea ice from a scientific perspective because I had never done that before—as a subsistence hunter, I’ve always looked at it from the animal perspective. I got involved in the study because we’re feeling the effects of the climate crisis more than most places in the state, and in fact, most places in the world. It is affecting our subsistence resources, our animals in the oceans and our animals on the land.
What changes in the sea ice have you seen during your lifetime?
A huge difference, all for the worse. When I was growing up in the fifties, we had minus 40°C or minus 45°C, guaranteed, between December and January, our coldest months. The ice got to be more than two metres thick, and my dad was always out on the ocean hunting seal during the warmer periods after storms. That was a really important part of our diet. But as time went on, he started noticing the huge differences in the weather patterns and the thickness of the ice—and that was back in the early seventies.
What about temperature changes?
My dad also talked about the differences in the lengths of our winters. Usually, we’d have four months of summer and eight months of winter, but that has changed rapidly. As our summers got hotter—it wasn’t uncommon to see 27°C or 30°C degrees at our camp in the summertime— the waters started heating up tremendously. A lot of algae started to grow, and we started noticing a difference in the health of the fish. Around the same time, we noticed the ice getting thinner out where our seals live. That was back in the sixties. These changes really started to speed up in the seventies, and even more so in the eighties and nineties. By 2018 and 2019, Kotzebue Sound was ice-free all winter. And that had never happened before.
We are north of the Arctic Circle, and we are supposed to get our 40°C and 45°C below winters, but we never see these temperatures anymore. Never. Last year, for example, it never got cold until February. It stayed warm, a few degrees above or below zero, the entire time. So, the changes have been dramati —traumatic, for that matter.
How has this affected the seals that you would traditionally hunt?
It has changed the seals’ feeding habits— and our way of hunting—tremendously. For seals, ice is so important, especially the bearded seal, which we harvest in the springtime. They have to go to where the food is plentiful. And when they get done feeding, they normally rest on top of the ice to digest their food. But in 2018 and 2019, and even 2020 and 2021, the seals we were getting were healthy, but not fat.
We used to get two to three inches of blubber out of our ugruk, or bearded seal, but the ones we got last year had only about an inch of fat. What’s happening is that when they go to the hotspots to feed on clams and shrimp, there is no ice, so they have to travel for 30 to 50 kilometres before they can start feeding. And when they get done, there is no place to rest and digest their food, so they have to swim all the way back to the edge of the ice. So, they are getting a lot more exercise. So, not only are we seeing animals that are a lot skinnier now, but we also have to travel further away to find them, because there is no ice out there.
What concerns do you have for the future of this seal population?
The ugruk, or bearded seal, is probably the most important sea mammal that we hunt. It has a lot of fat, and we render the blubber for seal oil. We store a lot of the dried meat products from that animal in seal oil to preserve it for long periods of time. The nutrition part is really important too.
We are also seeing a lot of dead seals on the beaches because there is no more ice to protect them during huge storms. After one storm we had in the spring, a number of seals drowned because there was no ice for them to haul out on. They don’t like to go to the beach because the waves will hurt them, so they end up drowning out there. I don’t know how many we lost.
How should people respond to the changes you’ve described?
It’s important that people take notice, because we’re already experiencing the effects of the climate crisis, especially when it comes to our sea mammals and their health. The most important part is that it is also going to affect the food chain.
What can we do to change this? It is up to the people of the world. We need to find an energy source other than fossil fuels. If we don’t, we are doomed. The Earth is doomed.
SEA ICE determines much of the nature of life in and around the Arctic Ocean. Research published this year by Nature demonstrated how historic changes in ice conditions in the channel between Greenland and northernmost Nunavut, Canada were linked not only to biological productivity and abundance of species in the area immediately south, but also to the very presence of people in Greenland.
THE SCIENCE OF SEA ICE