TORONTO — The length of seal hunting in a rural Alaskan village is being “severely reduced” due to climate change, which experts say threatens a necessary aspect of the community’s Indigenous way of life.
According to a recent study, the seal hunting season for the Inupiaq people of Kotzebue has been shortened by approximately one day per year for the last 17 years with sea ice decline being a “major cause” of the shrinking timeframe.
The study, conducted by Indigenous hunters, the village of Kotzebue and scientists out of the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), noted that the Inupiaq people have depended for generations on bearded seals, known as ugruk in Inupiaq, for food and clothing.
The findings were published Tuesday in peer-reviewed journal Environmental Research.
According to the study, ugruk and hunters both rely on specific sea ice conditions.
Scientists report that ugruk follow the melting Chukchi Sea ice edge northward during breakup and enter Kotzebue Sound in the spring. Once inside the sound, the seals feed while resting on chunks of floating ice, called floes.
Donna Hauser, marine mammal biologist at UAF and co-leader of the research, said the Kotzebue Sound provides an important spring habitat for ugruk between foraging bouts.
“We learned from our Kotzebue research partners that hunting ugruk is actually like hunting the right kind of ice,” Hauser explained in a press release.
The study used hunters’ knowledge of the ice conditions combined with satellite images over the years.
The study found that the ice floes in the Kotzebue Sound now melt about 22 days earlier than they did in 2003 — the first year of the study.
Bobby Schaeffer, a Kotzebue elder, hunter and co-author of the paper, says the community used to be able to “safely and predictably” find seals on these floes.
“We used to hunt ugruk into July when I was growing up back in the 1950s. People would be out there during Fourth of July celebration because there was so much ice. Now sometimes we’re done before June comes around,” he said in the release.
The study reports that the hunting season closes roughly 26 days earlier on average than in the past. Authors of the study say this shorter window for hunting means there is less flexibility for hunters as they are not able to begin hunting any earlier.
According to the study, the season’s start timing depends on the arrival of the seals and a channel in the ice opening in front of the Kotzebue so hunters can launch their boats.
Because of the reduced hunting season, researchers say the type of hunting experience has shifted. With less ice, hunters typically embark on shorter, more frequent trips, according to the study.
In addition, hunters say the ugruk have changed their behaviours. With less ice, they say the seals now congregate in large groups on the scarce floes.
The study noted that in spring 2019, the Kotzebue Sound had almost no ice, forcing hundreds of seals to gather on just a few floes.
While this resulted in a high hunting success with little effort, local hunters worry that ice floes may be farther from Kotzebue across large expanses of open water if the current rate of climate change persists.
Experts say this means hunters would face increased risk and lower their chances of success.