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Co-management Strengthens Marine Mammal Research in Alaska

Aerial view of a bowhead whale.

John Goodwin, Chairman of the Alaska Native Ice Seal Committee, restrains a young spotted seal during cooperative research with NOAA Fisheries in the pack ice of the Bering Sea. Credit: Josh London/NOAA 


NOAA Fisheries biologist and veterinarian work with Alaska Native marine mammal hunters to disentangle a
bearded seal from a capture net in Kotzebue Sound. The seal was released with a satellite-linked data recorder that relayed information on its locations and dive behavior.

October 23, 2012

The Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), enacted 40 years ago in 1972, is landmark legislation that established a national policy to protect marine mammal populations so that they remain functioning elements of their ecosystems. Under Section 119 of the MMPA, NOAA Fisheries can enter into government-to-government agreements with tribally authorized Alaska Native organizations. These cooperative agreements address the co-management of subsistence use of marine mammals, which is vital to the nutritional and cultural well-being of numerous coastal communities in Alaska.

NOAA Fisheries’ Alaska Fisheries Science Center (AFSC) works with Alaska Native subsistence hunters and the NOAA Fisheries Alaska Regional Office to provide scientific support for co-management of seals, sea lions, fur seals, and whales. The co-management agreements established thus far address beluga whales, bowhead whales, Steller sea lions, northern fur seals, harbor seals, bearded seals, ringed seals, spotted seals, and ribbon seals.

Working together with Alaska Native organizations under the co-management framework has provided us with unique opportunities to strengthen our science. For example,under several of the co-management agreements research plans are developed to ensure that the research strengths of the partners (including NOAA Fisheries, the Alaska Native organizations, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game) are used as effectively as possible. Research planning identifies opportunities for collaborations between the research agencies and Alaska Native communities, which are rich with hunters and life-long observers of marine mammal natural history and ecology. Some examples of these productive group efforts follow.

Tracking Bearded Seals

AFSC scientists have worked with Alaska Native hunters in the communities of Kotzebue, Wainwright, and Barrow to track the movements and diving behavior of bearded seals. This species, highly valued in Arctic communities, remains poorly documented in the scientific literature. Working with the hunters has enabled us to track adult bearded seals for the first time, which has yielded valuable information about seasonal migration and habitat use.

Assessing Impacts of Disturbance on Harbor Seals

Alaska Native hunters in the Gulf of Alaska community of Yakutat noticed a decline in the number of harbor seals using Disenchantment Bay, a spectacular tidewater glacial fjord that is a popular cruise ship stop. Their concerns led to a series of cooperative studies to detect and measure impacts of disturbance by cruise vessels on the local harbor seal population.

Collecting Data on Beluga Whales

Beluga whale hunters in communities from Barrow down the coast to Egigik in Bristol Bay routinely collect skin samples from belugas for genetic analysis, and many Alaska Native hunters provide other samples such as stomachs and blubber samples. Hunters from a number of villages have participated as boat drivers, guides, and field personnel for beluga capture, tagging, and health assessment projects. The Alaska Beluga Whale Committee, which co-manages the beluga population with NOAA Fisheries, reviews results from these projects each year at its annual meeting.

Counting Bowhead Whales

Bowhead whales have been managed under cooperative agreements between the U. S. Government and the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission since 1981. NOAA Fisheries scientists have worked with the North Slope Borough and AEWC to count whales during the bowhead whale spring migration. Most recently, Alaska Native hunters raised concerns over oil and gas development in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas and the effects on bowhead summer feeding areas near Barrow. This discussion led to a multidisciplinary study involving Alaska Native whalers, NOAA Fisheries, the North Slope Borough, and academic institutions to document relationships among bowhead whale prey, oceanographic conditions, and bowhead whale feeding behavior in the western Beaufort Sea.

Taking Samples for Research on Sea Lion and Fur Seals

AFSC scientists working with the NOAA Fisheries Alaska Regional office have provided guidance to the Alaska Sea Otter and Steller Sea Lion Commission on biosampling methods for collection of tissues during subsistence hunting of Steller sea lions. Similarly, the AFSC continues to work, under a co-management agreement, with the Pribilof Island communities of St. Paul and St. George to collect samples from the annual subsistence harvest of northern fur seals and Steller sea lions on each island. These samples are used for long-term monitoring of harvest age and for disease and contaminant studies. The island communities also use the co-management agreement to provide field assistance to AFSC researchers during annual monitoring of fur seal vital rates and abundance.

These collaborative projects not only strengthen NOAA Fisheries science, they reinforce the co-management process by fostering a key exchange of information: the Alaska Native communities learn about marine mammal science and AFSC scientists gain a greater understanding of traditional knowledge about the species—knowledge acquired and passed on by generations of marine mammal hunters and consumers with day-to-day experience with the animals. There is perhaps no better way for scientists and Alaska Native hunters to share insights about these remarkable species than to spend some long Arctic summer days together in a small boat, working toward the common goal of increased understanding in support of marine mammal conservation.