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Avoiding Clashes Between Ocean Researchers and Indigenous Communities

The University of Alaska has produced a procedure for what scientists on research vessels should do to avoid disrupting Indigenous communities’ traditional hunts. The university’s Brenda Konar hopes that other vessels will adopt codes of conduct.

Written by Ian Evans Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
The Sikuliaq is a highly advanced Arctic research vessel, and anyone who wants to use it will need to follow CECSOP.Mark Teckenbrock, courtesy of the University of Alaska

The Arctic Ocean is rapidly changing, and researchers are rushing to understand those changes. That means more research expeditions are coming into more frequent contact with Indigenous communities and the marine animals they depend on. To avoid those conflicts, a recent paper by researchers at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks lays out a “Community and Environmental Compliance Standard Operating Procedure,” or CECSOP.

Indigenous hunters rely on Arctic marine mammals, like whales and seals, for food and cultural traditions. But many scientists also want to study these animals to see how climate change is impacting them and the ecosystems they live in. The mere presence of large, loud research boats can drive the animals away or disrupt important migration routes, making it difficult to hunt, said Brenda Konar, director of the university’s Institute of Marine Science and a coauthor of the paper. CECSOP specifies that researchers should be in communication with communities that could be impacted by their scientific work, and vessels must hold off on entering certain waters until Indigenous communities have completed their annual hunts.

However, CECSOP is limited. It only applies to work done on board the Sikuliaq, a research vessel owned by the National Science Foundation and operated by the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Still, Konar said that the basics of CECSOP can be applied to many other research vessels whose work might conflict with native culture. In fact, the procedure is based on existing suggestions produced by the Arctic Waterways Safety Committee. But for the Sikuliaq, CECSOP is more than just a suggestion, said Konar. If scientists want to use this state-of-the-art Arctic research ship, they have to follow the procedure.

Oceans Deeply spoke with Konar about CECSOP, the potential for conflicts between Indigenous communities and researchers and how the procedure might be implemented on other ships.

Oceans Deeply: Why is there a need for this kind of regulation? What is the conflict between researchers and Indigenous communities in the Arctic?

Brenda Konar: I think it was mostly just to be a good neighbor. They hadn’t had, and we hadn’t had, any incidents, and I think that it was just more of a good-neighbor thing.

The potential conflict is that, when [Indigenous communities] are hunting, and even before they’re hunting, they don’t want ships in the area that might be changing the migration patterns, because it might pull whales further offshore, which makes it potentially more dangerous for them to be hunting. So, while the researchers might want to come in and study the krill that whales are eating, they need to respect that boundary. And until the subsistence hunts are done, they need to stay out of the area so that they don’t scare whales away or push things further offshore.

Ships are loud, in general. The Sikuliaq was built with that in mind, and it has certain things that make it a quiet ship and a more eco-friendly ship, but any ship is going to make noise. So the idea is just to stay away until the subsistence hunts are done.

Oceans Deeply: Is there concern that there is scientific work that you won’t be able to do, or data on vulnerable species that you won’t be able to collect because of these recommendations?

Konar: We’ve only been working with CECSOP and with the Sikuliaq for a couple of years now, and so far, everything has worked out. There hasn’t been any research that has been denied. Other researchers have gone to various whaling meetings and Arctic Waterways Safety Committee meetings and presented what they want to do.

This year, there was one crew that wanted to start a bit earlier, and they agreed to hold off until one of the hunts was done. I think that everybody was okay with it – they seemed to be okay with it. The researcher had just gotten back, and she was quite happy with how everything went, and we got some really nice emails from some of the whalers saying, “thanks for the communication,” and “This was great, we got our whales, we’re happy.” So far, we have had nothing but really good stories and we’re hoping it stays that way.

Researchers in the Arctic collecting an ice sample as part of a summer 2016 cruise. Even this kind of research needs to follow CECSOP, because the large boat can drive away culturally important marine mammals. (Kim Kenny courtesy of the University of Alaska)

Oceans Deeply: As climate change continues to alter the Arctic, and change how these animals live and are hunted, how do you think CECSOP will evolve?

Konar: I think that everybody realizes that everything is changing up there, and both the subsistence groups and the researchers are modifying what they do in accordance with that. It is almost like a day-to-day, year-to-year thing. What do we need to do to be successful next year, knowing that things might change?

The hunting areas might change, so we might have to alter that in the CECSOP. There might be some kind of time constraint. Or things could open up. I don’t think that we’ll know until it happens, but we are going to be very communicative with the various communities up there to ensure that the Sikuliaq can keep working up there, and in the hopes that other ships can also keep working up there.

Oceans Deeply: Do you think CECSOP will be adopted by other vessels?

Konar: I think that, right now, a lot of researchers really want to get a working, good relationship [with Indigenous communities] so they are very much embracing this document. It would be nice to see lots of groups embracing the document. I know that there is a lot of industry activity up there, and I don’t know what their procedures are, but it would be nice to see groups other than the research community be more aware.

They do know that this document exists, and they know that the standard-of-care document exists, but maybe as they see these types of plans in action and that they really aren’t that much more work, and don’t really restrict what you can do, maybe [industries] will come to embrace the spirit of the document.

Oceans Deeply: Do you think that CECSOP could be adopted to work in another part of the world with other Indigenous communities?

Konar: Yeah, definitely. Any place where there could be some sort of conflict, or where ship activity might be hurting an entire community, I think that it needs to be addressed. In the lower 48, I don’t think it is that much of a problem, and there is already so much traffic that one more research vessel isn’t really going to matter. But, in places like the Arctic, historically there hasn’t been that much ship traffic, and historically there are a lot of people that rely on the water, not only for their food, for their culture, and I think that just needs to be respected.

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