Suggestions from the coast: An Inuit perspective on a sustainable Arctic Ocean

13 October 2020
Jim Stotts, president of the Alaskan chapter of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), was one of five experts joining the panel at the first thematic webinar in a meeting series on marine issues, which was recently launched by the Arctic Council. We spoke to Jim Stotts about the importance of the marine environment for Inuit, environmental changes and ICC’s suggestions to adjust the Council’s Arctic Marine Strategic Plan to match challenges that have arise since the plan was adopted in 2015.

Why is the marine environment so important for Inuit?

We live right by the coast, we basically are looking more towards the sea than looking inland. Fish, marine mammals, sea birds are a big part of the hunting activities that we are engaged in. We have a great knowledge about ice and ice conditions because we go out on the ice for big parts of the year to hunt seals, walrus, whales, and polar bears. So, we are very interested in maintaining the cleanliness and pristine nature of our part of the world.
I recall, when I was a little boy, growing up at the coast, it was a much cleaner place. There was a lot more wildlife, in particular a lot more shorebirds. There were a couple of species that I haven’t seen for years. In Barrow, Utqiaġvik, the main cultural and social event is our annual bowhead whale hunting activity. If successful, it results in a big community feast down at the beach with a dance, sharing of food and fellowship. These are the things that we grew up with and that we would like to keep. That is why, when we talk about the environment and biodiversity, we are talking about keeping things as they used to be. But, it has changed.


What changes have you observed?

Environmentally, everybody knows, there’s much less ice than there used to be. The ice, actually, acts as a barrier in the fall time and protects the coastline from erosion from storms. The ice will pile up on the beach and when the big waves come it keeps them from washing on shore. That’s a big change. We have tremendous erosions along the Arctic coast these days.

The hunting for marine mammals was also better in the past, there were more animals. Ice floes used to move North from the Bering Street to my part of the Arctic. Today, there’s not as much ice as there used to be. The ice used to bring up walruses that come from quite a bit South of Utqiaġvik. It’s very hard to find walruses now as there’s no ice for them to travel on.

Oddly enough, bowhead whale hunting is better now than it was in the past. It seems that the bowhead whale is one of the few species that is actually enjoying climate change. It has expanded its range and there’s more to eat. Bowhead whales are the only true Arctic whales, they do not go down South, they stay in the Arctic waters year round.

In your presentation, you mention the role of Inuit as stewards of the region – how can the Inuit Circumpolar Council contribute to a sustainable Arctic Ocean through its work in the Arctic Council?

We are not about to roll over and see our world turned upside down because of mistakes being made somewhere else. We intend to be involved. At the first thematic webinar session with a focus on the Arctic Marine Strategic Plan, I presented – as I called it – some suggestions from the coast.

We are now half-way through our ten year strategic plan, and we think we need to make some adjustments. We believe any plan should be flexible enough to accommodate change and there have been significant changes since the strategic plan was written in 2015. We wanted to highlight these changes and suggested five possible adjustments and solutions from the perspective of those of us living along the northern coast that could possibly make the plan better:

  1. First, the Strategic Plan needs to acknowledge the reality of COVID 19. When the Council decided to address the impacts of the virus, ICC emphasized the many glaring infrastructure deficits that were exposed by the virus. These deficits were not only physical in nature, but also include systemic deficits in areas such as food chains, air transportation, communications, health and social services. We believe COVID impacts will be with us for the foreseeable future, especially economic impacts. We think the strategic plan should recommend the creation of a series of task forces to address the marine infrastructure deficits in Inuit and other Indigenous communities. Without national investment, Inuit can’t be expected to meaningfully participate in the sustainable development of the Arctic.
  2. Second, the strategic plan needs to more strongly consider the notion that Inuit will participate in the management of Arctic marine biodiversity. Inuit are working to develop a network of wildlife management authorities to carry this out at the scale that it should be, at the scale of large marine ecosystems. Large marine ecosystems with their biodiversity are not respectful of national boundaries. Biodiversity should be managed not only from the principles of preservation and conservation. It should also be managed from the principles of sustainable use. Food security is what Inuit are after. We will not get cut off from the ability to feed ourselves. There is a coming paradigm shift in the way people think about biodiversity. The strategic plan could reflect this change in thinking.
  3. Third, the strategic plan needs to consider the notion that Inuit will participate more fully in the development and management of Marine Protected Areas. A key element of this approach would be the right for Inuit to continue using those resources that they have traditionally used within any marine protected area. Again, the principles of preservation and conservation must be balanced with the principles of sustainable use by Inuit.
  4. Fourth, the strategic plan needs to renew its focus on pollution, marine litter, and micro-plastics. This summer, in the Bering Sea, there was a deluge of plastic litter from what appears to be Russian and Korean fishing vessels. Those involved should be called out. This has to stop. Stronger language in the strategic plan could help.
  5. Fifth, the strategic plan needs to acknowledge the northern movement of killer whales into the Arctic Ocean as the result of declining sea ice. ICC brought this up some years ago and now it seems to have been recognized by the rest of the world. This invasion northward of killer whales has a potential for dire consequences for other marine species, particularly other marine mammals. The Strategic Plan could call for a new project to investigate this phenomena and report back any findings.

Watch Jim Stotts' presentation at the Arctic Council's marine webinar series.