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Two views, same news: Underwater noise is hurting our communities

17 July 2018

This article originally appeared in The Circle: The rising tide of underwater noise. The Circle shares perspectives from across the Arctic, and the views expressed here are not necessarily those of WWF. See all Circle issues here.

Toby Anungazuk Jr. and Eben Hopson are from Alaskan towns almost 800 kms (500 miles) apart . They are also almost half a century apart in age. But they have at least one thing in common—their deep concern over what increasing underwater noise is doing to their communities.

Toby Anungazuk is a “young” elder who was raised in Wales, Alaska, the westernmost town on mainland North America. He spent much of his early life on the spring shore ice in a boat in the leads or floating around on floe ice.

Eighteen-year-old Eben Hopson is from the town of Utqiagvik, on the tip of Alaska, 480 km (300 miles) north of the Arctic Circle. The world he grew up in is much different—and noisier—than the world of Toby Anungazuk’s youth.

The two Alaskans share their views on underwater noise and its effects on the sea mammals that have long sustained their communities.

What does the term “underwater noise” mean to you personally?

TOBY: Well, I was born in 1955, and I grew up listening to the noises below the water because we relied on them for harvesting—it was very important to put food on the table for the year. If our parents could afford it, we ate one meal a week from a store. But we hunted in the spring and fall. The bearded seal would be making noise, so we would track it. We’d stick our oar or paddle in the water and when we heard a noise, we’d start spinning the paddle until we heard the loudest noise, and that’s the direction we’d go.

EBEN: To me, underwater noise means the voice of the animals that we harvest and that sustain us. It means life to me, because without underwater sound, there wouldn’t be any sign of life. The sound of the animals in the water—that means life for them and life for my people.

What experiences have you personally had listening to these sounds?

TOBY: In maybe 1963, when I was eight years old, I went out to chip the ice and one of the hunters had a boat. They grabbed the oar from the boat and stuck it in the water, and put the spear next to it. I was looking at him wondering because I couldn’t really see anything. That was my first experience. I was fascinated by it.

Back in the early sixties, it was actually very quiet, so noises would carry a long way. Now there are generators for power, we have two different airlines that come once in the morning and once in the afternoon, flying to several different villages. Of course, there are also snow machines. So, it’s a really big change.

EBEN: In 2016, I went out on the ice, off the shore here in the Bering Sea with a couple of scientists and they opened a hole in the pack ice and dropped a hydrophone in the water. When I first heard the sounds of the seals and whales in the water, that opened up a new world to me because until then, I didn’t know what they sounded like in the water. That was really outstanding to me. It was pretty amazing to hear.

How concerned are you about the increase in underwater noise? What does it mean for your community, and for the belugas, bearded seals and other sea mammals that live there?

TOBY: When I was young, hunters could hunt from the ice edge. Early spring migration could be right off shore—all you really needed was a little scull to get seals. Now, to get that same amount of food, they have to go off shore in boats earlier in the spring.

What I’m very concerned about is the increased Arctic shipping. The sea mammals migrate north from Wales, from the northern Bering Strait, and then they go out into the ice. And now there are all these ships that never used to pass through there. If you listen, if you put the oar underwater, you’ll hear a ship before you see it. It must be having an impact on the sea mammals that are feeding to gain weight, since it’s their prime feeding time of the year and the ships are travelling through the prime feeding areas. The ships might drive them into areas where there is nothing to eat, and they’re not going to gain weight. And of course, when the ships have the black smoke coming out, they’re putting soot in there and if it’s falling on ice, it’s making the ice melt faster.

EBEN: In the past they used dog sled teams, so it was really quiet compared to now, with snow machines. The snow machines make a louder sound than a dog team does. When we were out on the ice in April of 2016, when the scientists dropped the hydrophones in the water, there was a snow machine about two miles away driving back into town from a whaling camp, and we heard that really clear on the hydrophone. If it had been a dog sled team coming back into town, we wouldn’t have been able to hear it.

If they allow offshore drilling here in Alaska, the sounds of the oil rigs will scare off the animals, altering the migration routes they've taken for hundreds of thousands of years. We're depending more on oil for energy than any other power source. But there are hundreds of streams where we can hook up hydroelectric power plants, there is sun shining on the Earth where we can put solar panels to absorb the power, there is wind blowing every day all around the world and that wind can make power.

Being a native here in Alaska, where we depend on the ocean for food more than the grocery store, and knowing that the outside world is impacting our land for their benefit—that bothers me a lot, because it’s where I live and where I was raised. If anyone wants to do anything to the land or the ocean, then they will have to put up a long fight with the Natives.