Meghan Sullivan
Indian Country Today

The first time Inupiaq elder Bobby Schaeffer was old enough to join the community hunt for ugruk, or bearded seal, his dad taught him a critical lesson: always be observant, and always look at the whole picture.

Schaeffer was only 14 then, but he never forgot this advice. He thought of it every spring when he ventured out on to the glacial waters of Alaska’s northwest coast, navigating ice fields and powerful currents, to reach the resting ugruk.

He also thought of it as he began to notice unusual changes in the sea, ones that threatened to interrupt the thousand-year-old Inupiaq tradition that he looked forward to each year.

Decades after his first hunt, Schaeffer’s observations have become a key part of a recently released research project about climate change’s impact on the regional ugruk. The study revealed an unignorable trend: Kotzebue’s seal hunting season has shrunk about one day per year over the last 17 years, primarily due to a decline in sea ice.

It confirmed what Schaeffer and other Kotzebue elders had already suspected.

“We started noticing drastic changes from the time we normally hunt — changes from each decade, starting in the 60s through the 2000s,” Schaeffer said. His village, Kotzebue, sits on the top northwest of Alaska’s Arctic coastline. With a population of just over 3,000 people, it’s considered a hub for other, smaller villages in the region.

A Kotzebue hunter looks out on the sound. 

A Kotzebue hunter looks out on the sound. 

The findings were part of the Ikaagvik Sikukun project, a collaborative effort between University of Alaska in Fairbanks scientists, Inupiat elders, and Kotzebue hunters. Over the course of one and a half years, the team used state of the art satellite imagery, local observations, and traditional Indigenous knowledge to quantify shifts in the surrounding environment.

The combined data determined that sea ice breaks up approximately 22 days earlier than it did in the first years of the study, leading to a shortened hunting season.

It’s a noteworthy development in a region known for its frozen coasts and wintery climate. Like many systems in the area, ugruk hunting is closely linked to a season’s ice conditions. In spring, ugruk follow the melting Chukchi Sea ice edge north towards the Kotzebue Sound. Once there, they rest on floating ice chunks, known as floes, and feed off the area’s abundant fish, shrimp and clams. This is when those in Kotzebue begin their annual hunt.

“We learned from our Kotzebue research partners that hunting ugruk is actually like hunting the right kind of ice,” said Donna Hauser, a marine mammal biologist at the university’s International Arctic Research Center and co-leader of the research project.

The village has already begun adapting to the new conditions. So far, it has mostly affected the hunting process rather than the harvest’s success. The lack of ice means less intensive journeys, and quicker, more frequent trips. The limited habitat also causes seals to gather closer together, making them easier to track and hunt. But while the shorter season hasn’t wiped out the seal harvest, the rapid shift still leaves troubling questions for the coming years.

“Hunters seem to have compensated for the reductions in the amount of time they can hunt ugruk. However, it's also possible to imagine a future scenario where ice is farther from shore, hunting requires more searching, possibly in big stretches of more dangerous open water, and could result in reduced success in the future,” Hauser said.

Bearded seals sitting on the ice edge in Kotzebue Sound.

Bearded seals sitting on the ice edge in Kotzebue Sound.

“The Arctic works best when it's cold. The colder, the better. Because everything's adapted for that, including the opportunities that people need to have for hunting,” said Alex Whiting, Inupiaq, who is the Director of Kotzebue’s Environmental Program.

The ugruk are only a part of the equation. In the interconnected ecosystem of the Arctic, one small adjustment can throw the whole food chain off balance. Schaeffer has also noticed changes in erosion, shellfish, whales, fish, and birds. With less to feed on, the ugruk are skinnier, and therefore provide for fewer families.

“​​It’s expected to continue to accelerate and get worse. And so it's going to impact food security, and our way of life,” Whiting said.

Alaskan villages like Kotzebue can be extremely remote. Many aren’t connected to roads, and are only reachable by plane or boat. Even then, harsh weather conditions make transportation unpredictable. This dynamic can lead to unreliable cargo shipments and high grocery prices, heightening the need for subsistence hunting and fishing.

But the ugruk harvest means more than just food security. The tradition has been a part of Inupiat culture since time immemorial, and plays an important role in community bonding and generational ties.

“It's a challenge for food security, but it's also a challenge for having maximum opportunities to perpetuate cultural traditions and knowledge to future generations,” Whiting said. “It's harder to train the next generation with activities that are becoming more difficult or not even happening anymore.”

Schaeffer believes the environmental problems are worsening an already existing disconnect between generations.

“I think the generational gap is probably the biggest problem. We have very few elders left in the community that can remember what they were taught by the elders of the past,” he said. “And now the new generation doesn't take their children out to hunt as much as they used to.”

Some years the warning signs are more noticeable than others. In 2018 and 2019, the Kotzebue Sound sat empty, free from the ice chunks that usually crowded the surface. They were only 30 miles from the Arctic circle, but it might as well have been hundreds of miles south.

Whiting has been keeping a journal tracking such changes since 2002. In his initial research as the environmental program’s director, he consistently came across written observations from past explorers, anthropologists, and scientists. The entries dated back to the 1900s, but became less frequent overtime. He decided that it could be useful to revive the old practice with his own written recordings, after a dramatic snow storm swept through the village in the middle of summer.

“In the present, what you write about common places and common knowledge is not all that interesting. But as time passes, the information gets more interesting and also more valuable,” he said.

He didn’t have to wait long for his prediction about the journal’s future importance to come true. His daily observations ended up providing ideal qualitative detail to the study’s satellite imagery.

Inupiaq hunter Bobby Schaeffer.

Inupiaq hunter Bobby Schaeffer.

Kotzebue input was an essential element of the entire scientific process. In addition to using local recordings and elders’ insights to augment data, the research team worked with the village to craft relevant questions and determine the most pressing concerns.

“It’s a way to hold researchers accountable, because they’ve been coming to the Arctic for decades and just doing their own thing — not being very responsive to the people here or acknowledging us,” Whiting said.

Schaeffer agreed. He was used to scientists coming to Kotzebue without including Indigenous guidance, or even considering the value of traditional knowledge.

“This is unfortunate because we're the ones that live it. We’ve seen how the damage is done to date. So it's important for us to be involved,” he said. “We were lucky to get someone like (University of Alaska Fairbanks) on board this time.”

The benefits of the partnership were evident to everyone involved.

“I hope that our research approach, which centered Indigenous-led research questions and perspectives, can be an example for other scientists to learn from and re-examine their own approaches,” Hauser said. “I also think we did better and more complete science as a result of our collaborative approach.”

Hauser sees the project as a promising example for future studies.

“Our Ikaagvik Sikukun research project is ending, but we have built collaborations that will propel some of these questions and issues forward in Kotzebue and other communities as well,” she said.

Despite the program’s success, Schaeffer can’t help but worry what the future holds for his community and the practice that has sustained them for centuries.

“It's scary to look at it in a negative way, but how else can you look at it unless something is done about it? What are the ugruk going to do to adapt, and what are we going to do to adapt?” he asked. “I guess time will tell.”

ICT logo bridge

Meghan Fate Sullivan, Koyukon Athabascan, is a writer for Indian Country Today. She grew up in Alaska, and is currently reporting on her home state from Anchorage. Financial assistance for this story was provided by a grant from the Alaska Center for Excellence in Journalism.

Our stories are worth telling. Our stories are worth sharing. Our stories are worth your support. Contribute $5 or $10 today to help Indian Country Today carry out its critical mission. Sign up for ICT’s free newsletter.