National Marine Protected Areas Center Presents: “Indigenous knowledge and Use of Ocean Currents in the Bering Strait”

April 9, 2015 – Webinar
Julie Raymond-Yakoubian of the Kawerak Social Science Program described the results of her project during this webinar. Kawerak is the regional Native nonprofit providing services in the Bering Strait region.
The communities that participated in the study included Shishmaref, Diomede and Wales in Alaska, and Neshkan, Inchoun, Lavrentiya and Lorino in Russia. The residents of the communities contributed local information to maps and knowledge of currents in the Bering Straits region.
During the project, a workshop was held in Nome, allowing participants from Shishmaref and Wales to review maps and other data. Diomede residents were unable to attend because bad weather prevented travel.
Study participants identified and discussed current data gaps in ocean science knowledge.
Local residents contributed information about near shore currents, all based on first-hand experience. Western scientists had the most knowledge about conditions hundreds of miles offshore. The two groups were able to share their information and discuss potential future projects. This study was seen as a pilot project that could be expanded in the future.
Hunters and community members learn from early age how to read signs in the environment that allow them to operate safely on water or land. Knowledge is acquired through observation, listening to elders, and direct experience. Traditional knowledge allows hunters to make serious calculations about their activities and safety, and to communicate with other boat captains.
Below are some key takeaways from the project:

  • Climate change is impacting sea ice, making it form later and thinner. Longer time is required for ice to become land-fast.
  • Sea ice around Little Diomede Island, for example, once formed a flatter and smoother surface. Now it breaks up and reforms a number of times before the permanent winter surface sets in. The unevenness has prevented the construction of the annual winter airstrip.
  • For Shishmaref, open water remains much closer to shore than before. There’s also a bigger build-up of a broken ice ridge, creating a barrier for ice access. Each community is experiencing something different, but all are impacted.
  • Experienced hunters will use the currents on their hunting trips. Wales and Diomede hunters typically travel south, against the current. When the hunting is completed, the currents push the hunters and their boats back toward home.
  • With all of the change in the region, ocean currents have remained one of more stable factors in the regional environment.
  • While the main currents are still operating the same, current speed has changed in some locations, going both slower and faster. Also, small changes in seasonal timing have been noted.

The project produced maps that show seasonal currents, eddies, shoals, winter ice buildup areas, open water areas, strong current areas, late season walrus locations, and tall mountains (used as navigational features). While they contain a lot of information, the maps are not for navigation.
The study also included:

  • Details about the characteristics of wind and currents, which control the ice flows;
  • The advantages and disadvantages of skin boats and aluminum boats, and the factors considered in deciding which design to use;
  • Landscape features, which serve as navigational markers and affect local weather conditions; and
  • Details about whale boat hand signals, food resources, tool use, and driftwood gathering locations (driftwood was vital to tool-making and construction in regional indigenous culture).

In the question and answer period, Raymond-Yakoubian offered additional observations. The following is a summary.

  • Project research on the Russian side of the Bering Strait had very similar results.
  • Diomede and Wales are the two communities seeing the biggest increase in vessel traffic.
  • Questions still need to be answered about where large vessels will be allowed to go and what will happen if there’s an accident. The chain of command and the role that communities will play have not yet been determined. The U.S. Coast Guard is taking comments on a vessel routing study.
  • Different opinions have been offered about how much vessel traffic will increase and where it will occur.
  • Integrating the new information into ocean models has been discussed, but no action yet. The study was a pilot project and the data was not collected for the use in other models. The data could help determine where to deploy research equipment.
  • People in the region are motivated to share their knowledge by all of the change that is occurring. They wonder how the region will be impacted and want to document what they know so the information can be used by future generations. They want outsiders to understand their way of life and why it needs to be protected.
  • For a future study, Raymond-Yakoubian would like to have more community activities, more workshops in more communities, and have Alaskans and Russians travel to each other’s communities. ‘The completed project had very little funding, and she would like to see it grow.
  • For future projects, there’s interest in more collaboration between western science and indigenous communities.
  • Community residents are interested in offshore vessel research, and western science and social science projects in general. People know that what happens in one area will impact other areas.
  • Project information will be used for social science and school curriculums. It has contributed to the knowledge of ocean currents in this part of the world. It will be useful for search and rescue activities, vessel traffic planning, oil spill response planning, marine debris clean-up efforts, and coastal erosion studies.

Kawerak will manage and store the data from the study. Project funding came from the Shared Beringia Heritage Program.
The project resulted in a book and poster. For the complete report and more information, visit the website

About The Author

Andrea Wagner