Oil, Conservation & Hunting Rights in the Chukchi Sea

King eiders, a commonly hunted bird in the Arctic, is part of the focus of Prof. Jim Lovvorn's research on tribal rights, conservation, and oil development in the Arctic. Photo: Wikipedia
King eiders, a commonly hunted bird in the Arctic, is part of the focus of Prof. Jim Lovvorn's research on tribal rights, conservation, and oil development in the Arctic. Photo: Wikipedia

At first blush, there is not a lot in common between eider ducks and increased oil production off the coast of Alaska’s Chukchi Sea. But look a little deeper—or follow the work of Professor James Lovvorn of Southern Illinois University and colleagues Henry Huntington (Huntington Consulting) and Tuula Hollmen (University of Alaska, Fairbanks)—and you’ll discover that the researchers’ work on water birds is a key component in engaging Native communities in northern Alaska that may be affected by oil development.

Lovvorn and colleagues recently launched the first year of a four-year, NSF-funded project to model habitat requirements and map viable prey densities for the formerly hunted (now threatened) spectacled eider, and a commonly hunted species, king eider, in the Chukchi nearshore zone. They’ll amend their maps with traditional ecological knowledge on conditions and areas where indigenous people hunt for king eiders, and use the information to predict which hunting areas could be impacted by oil production, specifically by potential oil spills from pipelines, during the eider migration.

The researchers plan to present this information in workshops in local villages, and to assess methods for evaluating the potential risks of proposed oil pipeline routes, relative to cash benefits of local construction projects. The project is funded by the National Science Foundation.

Subsistence rights

The goal, says Lovvorn, is to test ways for local communities to assess different options for protecting their historic subsistence lifestyle by empowering them with data and other information. The situation in the Chukchi is, he adds, complex.

In 1971, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act mandated the federal government to protect subsistence activities in Alaska. Since then there has been much debate and legal controversy over who qualifies as a subsistence hunter. At present, all resident Alaskans—Native or non-Native, urban or rural—have a right to hunt for subsistence. However, it is often unclear to what extent subsistence hunting trumps other national interests, and what activities actually threaten subsistence hunting in a given case. Decisions can be highly political and are sometimes settled through litigation.

Lack of unanimous agreement

Individuals disagree within communities about the benefits of allowing oil production. In some communities, oil development has brought an influx of money that’s ameliorated the health care, transportation, and schools. Conversely, many people fear the long-term environmental impacts of oil development and urge minimal development. Spread between those two extremes is a range of preferences.

“There’s a general misconception that there’s a single ‘Native perspective,’ but that oversimplifies the diversity of views,” says Lovvorn.

“There is a long history of decisions being made without adequate input from local indigenous people,” says Lovvorn. “Inevitably, this leads to misunderstanding and troublesome policies. So how can communities balance viewpoints and work toward positive and sustainable goals for everyone?”

Consensus and legal standing

Consensus building is often difficult. In Native communities there’s a strong tradition of respect for the perspectives of the elders, but this is being overwhelmed by rapid change. Recognizing that consensus may not be possible, Lovvorn still aims to help the locals improve their communication so they can present a more unified viewpoint to decision makers regarding their stance on oil development.

Before that, though, he and others must work to earn the trust of local communities.

He also hopes to demystify the labyrinth of legalese governing the development. Different federal agencies hold jurisdiction in different places—offshore exploration falls under federal jurisdiction; land near villages belongs to the local communities, but villages are separated by large stretches of land controlled by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Construction on Native land is subject to local restrictions, but the local people would have no formal control over a pipeline passing through federal land unless they successfully argue that the government is not fulfilling its legal mandate to protect subsistence hunting, says Lovvorn.

“Even for legislators back in Washington, DC who would like to consider Native interests, if there is no clear and well-supported documentation of the Native consensus it is hard for them to know what to do,” he says. “The Native communities are in fact often divided on issues of development versus possible threats to subsistence hunting.  Our project is intended to test a method (structured decision-making) for reaching consensus within the local communities, and for documenting that consensus and the process for achieving it.”

Specifically, the researchers intend to move beyond a situation where an outsider flies in, holds a town meeting for one night to get comments, and then leaves without further discussion, deliberation, or formal documentation of those processes.

“If the procedure we are testing proves useful, we hope that it will help the local communities present a more representative, well-documented position for use in federal policy decisions,” says Lovvorn.

He adds: “We are trying to test tools for documenting local perspectives while working through differing opinions, interpreting scientific information, and then deciding what to do. However, we are still outsiders. The decision-making of course rests with them.”

Historic hunting

North Slope communities have a long history, both economic and cultural, based on subsistence hunting. For thousands of years the focus of hunting along the Chukchi coast has been whaling. Whales provide a large source of meat for the community, but other animals and birds are important, too. Pipelines connecting offshore oilrigs to onshore facilities could impact feeding grounds and migratory routes. Spills would undoubtedly be difficult to monitor and clean up because of limited infrastructure and often challenging weather conditions. The impacts on local animals and the peoples that hunt them could be severe.

“In the Iñupiat culture there is a tradition of sharing whale meat with the entire community, particularly with those unable to fend for themselves. There is a social system built around the hunt and the tradition of feeding everyone. In the 1960s, outside observers thought that subsistence hunting would phase out with technological improvements, but the opposite is true because now people can buy boats, gas, guns, and other equipment that helps them hunt more effectively. They take hunting very seriously. Food that is flown in is expensive, so a large fraction of their needs is met through subsistence hunting. Protecting this way of life is important,” says Lovvorn. “It is imperative.”

Marine mammals and eiders in the Chukchi Sea

Alaska’s remote northern coast lies on the Chukchi Sea migration corridor, an important region for marine mammal and bird species that move between the Arctic Ocean and lower latitude oceans each year. Mammals, particularly whales, form the bulk of the subsistence diet. In general, the local population eats far more meat from mammals than from migratory birds, but these animals use the same pathways that are constrained by ice conditions.

King eiders spend winters in marine waters near coastlines in the Gulf of Alaska or Russia. In the summer they make their way to the Chukchi and Beaufort Sea coasts where they nest in low, wet tundra. During migration through the Chukchi Sea, these birds eat mainly clams, which they dive for offshore at 10 to 40 meters depth.

Role of habitat mapping

During spring migration through the Chukchi Sea, the eiders must find areas of adequate prey density that they can access through the ice. A large part of this project involves mapping prey densities and then evaluating (based on satellite data on ice cover) how often good feeding areas are accessible. Sampling of prey organisms from ships, computer modeling of food requirements, and 13 years of ice data from satellites are being used for this evaluation.

“Patterns of ice cover are highly variable, and we want to know if the birds can have trouble finding good places to feed,” says Lovvorn. They probably require a range of feeding areas distributed along the migration corridor. This is likely true of many marine birds and mammals because they all follow open leads between landfast ice which is frozen to the ocean bottom in the winter, and pack ice which moves with changes in wind and currents.”

Understanding eider migration patterns and needs in more detail will be important for Chukchi coast communities that want to assist in policy making down the road.

Special occasion birds

Eiders are not a major part of the subsistence diet from a biomass perspective, but often provide fresh meat in spring before other animals are around. Eiders are often reserved for special occasions like Thanksgiving, Christmas and traditional feasts. Areas critical to birds may or may not be the same areas critical for hunting other animals.

If Lovvorn’s group can determine important areas for these birds, they may be helping other animals, too, in terms of choosing areas less important for where oil development occurs. Offshore exploration is anticipated with talk of pipelines crossing shallow feeding grounds for eiders and other birds and animals. A couple of eider species are threatened, so the impact of oil infrastructure must be considered before development can occur. —Marcy Davis