Healthy communities need healthy oceans - An Athabaskan perspective on a sustainable Arctic Ocean

19 October 2020
Chief Gary Harrison is chairman of the Chickaloon Native Village, located North-East of Anchorage, Alaska, and representative of the Arctic Athabaskan Council. As the Arctic Council is enhancing its cooperation on marine issues, we spoke to Chief Harrison about the importance of the ocean to Athabaskan communities and some of his main concerns related to the marine environment.

Why is a healthy marine environment important for Athabaskan communities?

While my community is located between the coast and the inland, we used to hunt beluga whales, and salmon is still one of our main foods. Thus, we have a strong connection to the ocean, and some Athabaskan communities live right by the sea. So, if we don’t have a healthy ocean, we don’t have healthy fish and consequently we don’t have healthy communities. However, a clean ocean does not only require clean water, it also needs clean lands through which the water flows.

With climate change a lot of things are shifting. Fish stocks are moving into the Arctic Ocean and away from the other places. If you combine that with all the litter that is going into the ocean, all the plastics and toxic waste, it makes us concerned – not only about the fish and marine life. If you don’t have clean oceans, you are not going to have clean food.
This is not only important to us but to much of the rest of the world as our salmon is eaten in many places.


Which effects of a changing Arctic Ocean are your communities experiencing?

A friend of mine has been talking about how the fish stocks are shifting from the Bering Sea to the Arctic Ocean and fish stocks from other places are also shifting their distribution in the North because of climate change. In addition, some of the fish are not as firm as they should be and they are having more and more parasites. So, generally, they do not come back in a very good shape.

Another thing, as mentioned earlier, is all the plastics along the shore. That is one of our great problems. There is more plastic getting into the ocean and I don’t know where all this plastic is coming from unless there is a lot of illegal dumping. We need real action from all of the Arctic States and the Council’s Observer States as well – it will take joint efforts to clean all that plastic out of the ocean.


How you think the Arctic Council can contribute to safeguarding the ocean?

I hope the Council’s work on plastics will help to clean up the plastics. But the ocean is a huge place, it takes more than just the Arctic Council to solve the issue. Like at the centre of the Arctic Ocean, which is governed by an international body. So, countries across the globe will have to take initiative to tackle the issue.