In a conference room in Bethel, Alaska, twenty-some Yup'ik elders from surrounding Bering Sea villages bent their heads over three tables spread with maps. In Yup'ik and the occasional English translation, they talked about the colored sections and shared their own personal knowledge of the parts of the Bering Sea near and sometimes not so near their villages, where they fish and hunt for walrus, seals, ducks, and beluga whales. Except for two women, they were all men, mostly in their seventies and eighties, mostly peering from behind eyeglasses. They wore knitted vests and fleece, or jackets with tribal names on their backs. David Bill, the chairman, wore a bright blue shirt and equally blue ball cap. Arthur Lake, the group's executive director, sported a diamond in one ear.
The maps were the result of earlier interviews with these elders and many others, about their subsistence uses and the habitats important to the fish and animals on which their families and cultures relied. The elders, members of the Bering Sea Elders Advisory Group, were checking the maps to see if they agreed with the lines that were drawn, and they were marking more detailed information about the times animals were in particular places, the conditions in which they hunted in different places, and the numbers of animals they had seen in different years.1
The elders were from small-dot places like Kwigillingok, Quin-hagak, Mekoryuk, Toksook Bay, and Kipnuk, and they talked together about changes they had seen. Most had long histories of hunting and fishing in the Bering Sea, going back to the time of kayaks and harpoons and knowing how to navigate by reading the ocean currents. They had been told how things were by their own elders.
At the table with the seal map, the men talked about ice thickness and the danger of hunting on ice that's too thin. In an area they marked for a lot of bearded seals, they noted that the ice is usually thick enough by the end of November. "We stay home when it's not safe," a white-haired man said. Someone else said, "We used to tell the weather by the ice. Now we can't."
The table's scribe asked, "How do you tell the weather now?"
"TV," someone said, and they all laughed.
At another table, David Bill tapped his finger on a portion of the fish map. The elders there were talking about their subsistence catches of salmon and whitefish, anadromous species that live in the Bering Sea and travel up the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers.
A couple of important lines were drawn on all the maps. One cutting through the Bering Sea was the international date line, dividing U.S. waters from those of Russia. The other, extending from the south end of Kuskokwim Bay in jagged steps around Nunivak Island and then west around St. Matthew Island before straightening north to intercept the date line, the elders referred to as "the northern boundary." Above the line, put into effect in 2007 as a precautionary, interim measure, bottom trawlers shall not go. Even as the Bering Sea warms and fish and ice coverage both move northward, the trawlers—those boats that drag big nets weighted with chains and tires across the ocean floor—may not, for now, follow them.
The line up to which trawling was allowed was already as close as fourteen miles to some of the communities from which the elders in the room had come, and places they'd marked for their fishing and hunting were in some of those same waters.
The ice is different now, the men with the walrus map were saying. Sometimes the winds blow it farther south, but then it goes out faster in the spring. It's thinner. The ice edge—that's where it all happens—is different; it's hard to know where it will be and how it will move. They have to travel farther to get to the walrus. That takes more fuel, and they don't know the area as well. It's more dangerous. Here—they pointed to a spot in Kuskokwim Bay. Here's a heart-shaped rock that only the best hunters go out to.
In 2011 the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, responsible for most fisheries in Alaska's federal waters, will reconsider the northern boundary, and bottom trawlers may be allowed to follow the fish northward, into waters they haven't previously fished. Those same waters are home to ice-dependent sea mammals like walrus and seals, crabs, threatened species like the spectacled eider, and the Yup'ik, Inupiaq, and Siberian Yupik people who depend in profound ways on the health and bounty of the northern Bering Sea.
First, though, a large area above the line—called the Northern Bering Sea Research Area—is supposed to have a "research plan." The plan is primarily meant for research into the potential impacts of trawling on bottom habitat, but it is also meant to provide some protection for vulnerable species along with the subsistence needs of the people.
Over at the first table, the woman acting as a facilitator rolled up the maps the elders were finished with and laid out another one. "This is a science map," Dorothy Childers explained, making clear the difference between the maps generated from local and traditional knowledge and this new one, which had come from scientific data. "The science maps show where the animals are when you're not hunting them." The particular map was of Alaska's four species of eiders, sea ducks that nest on land but winter at sea. The men studied the map with interest, locating uninhabited St. Matthew Island far to the northwest and placing their hands on the circular shape marking the winter habitat of spectacled eiders. That part of the ocean was far from anywhere they knew and in winter well beyond the travels of any Native people.
Who would have thought that frozen place would also be home to such life? It wasn't until 1995 that researchers tracked a transmitter implanted in a spectacled eider to discover the wintering ground of that species. A fly-over and subsequent research confirmed that the entire world's population—some 360,000 spectacled eiders— winter in open-water leads in the otherwise frozen Bering Sea and in those leads dive to the bottom to feed on clams. Childers set a photo of one of these polynya (Russian for "little field") areas beside the map; the thousands of birds squeezed into it looked like grains of brown sand filling a crack in an otherwise vast expanse of white.
The elders looked to the areas they knew along the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and discussed the places marked there as eider breeding grounds. One man remembered that in 1983 there had been a lot of king eiders. Not anymore. "We don't hunt them like we used to," another said. When they were sea mammal hunting, they sometimes saw eiders migrating past.
Their eyes went back to the polynya area in the Bering Sea. "This needs to be protected," they told Childers. "Let the fish and the rest grow out there."
Childers wrote that down.
"We rely on the sea for subsistence," someone said. "All the sea. We need to take care of it."
The Bering Sea might best be known to most Americans as the setting for a ridiculously popular television show, the Discovery Channel's Deadliest Catch. I say "ridiculously" because most of this reality-type series involves watching giant crab pots being hauled over boat rails, with various numbers of king or opilio crabs in them, some worthy of the crews yelling "Yeah, baby!" and others not so much. Let me admit right here that I personally love this show. Regardless, the truth is that the words Bering Sea, if they mean anything to most people, bring to mind images of thirty-foot waves, broken ice, and exhausted men swearing at one other.
It is true that the Bering Sea, that semienclosed part of the Pacific Ocean that extends from Alaska to Russia and the Aleutian Islands to the strait also named for explorer Vitus Bering, can be a ferocious place in winter, when the crab fisheries take place, and that boats go down and men die on a regular basis there. It is also true that the Bering Sea, because of physical properties including its broad continental shelf and general shallowness, the movements of currents and ice, and upwellings, is a prodigiously rich biological basin, one of the most productive environments in the world.2 Its biodiversity is profound: more than 450 species of fish, crustaceans, and mollusks; fifty species of birds including twenty million individual seabirds; and twenty-five species of marine mammals including the world's rarest whale, the North Pacific right whale.
The Bering Sea's great bounty has supported people who've lived on and around it for a very long time—"from time immemorial," as the Natives say. On the American side lie sixty-five communities, home to 27,500 people. Although this human population is small, the villages that line the coast—on the Russian side as well as the American—today remain intricately connected to all aspects of Bering Sea weather, seasons, and nourishment in all its forms. This part of Alaska was late to be influenced by the trappers, traders, and outside interests of all kinds, and it maintains more cultural intactness—including language and traditional foods—than much of the rest of Alaska, where cultural change came earlier and hard.
For the elders in the Bethel conference room, the Bering Sea is home, the center of their universes, their gardens and breadbaskets, the place of their ancestors back to the beginning. One said to me, "It's not the Bering Sea. That's the name from a newcomer. It's
Imarpik." Imarpik translates literally to "big container," identifying the sea as a big bowl, full of resources. Less literally it refers to the one ocean that means everything. The elders spoke of their own elders, and what their elders instructed. "My grandmother told me, you will protect the Bering Sea. When you talk about the Bering Sea, you're talking about me."
Today, though, the Bering Sea also feeds the world. The fish and shellfish catches on its American side make up almost half (by weight) of all fisheries production in U.S. waters. Dutch Harbor on its southern edge has ranked number one among U.S. fishing ports nearly every year since 1981. In the beginning, king crab was king. Now the largest catches belong to the trawl fleets—enormous schools of pollock caught in midwater (also known as pelagic) trawls out over the deep water and groundfish caught in bottom (nonpelagic) trawls on the continental shelf. In both cases huge cone-shaped nets sweep up everything in their paths, and in both cases there are environmental consequences. The midwater trawls catch tons of "nontarget" species, including salmon intended for subsistence and commercial fisheries elsewhere. The bottom trawls tear up the sea bottom—toppling corals, overturning rocks, busting apart crabs, scraping up the sediments that are home to the clams and worms that other creatures eat.
In the regional center of Bethel, forty miles up the Kuskokwim River from the Bering Sea, the elders who gathered to document their resource use knew about trawling, and they didn't like it. Many had been involved in efforts to "cap" the pollock fleet's bycatch— to make them stop fishing when they've caught too many salmon. They don't want the bottom trawlers to go any farther north; in fact, they would like to see them confined to a smaller area than they already fish. They want them to leave the bottom of the Bering Sea alone, in the wholeness that provides the habitat and food for so much else.
When the elders spoke, the throaty sound of strange consonants and catches, of Yup'ik words flowing and colliding, was simply beautiful. The skillful interpreter, Fred Phillip, sometimes translated passages to English, sometimes summarized, and sometimes—if the conversation was "internal"—just let it go. The Yup'ik was frequently peppered with enough English that I could at least figure out the general topic. Yup'ik speakers generally use English for numbers and dates—their own number system is a more complicated base-twenty—and, although they're good at creating new words, they've borrowed a certain amount of English. I heard in English "disaster declaration," "Magnuson-Stevens Act," "Norton Sound," "tribal consultation," "memorandum of understanding," "$1,000," and
Was this article helpful?
Lets start by identifying what exactly certain boats are. Sometimes the terminology can get lost on beginners, so well look at some of the most common boats and what theyre called. These boats are exactly what the name implies. They are meant to be used for fishing. Most fishing boats are powered by outboard motors, and many also have a trolling motor mounted on the bow. Bass boats can be made of aluminium or fibreglass.