December 2016 marked one year since President Obama signed the executive order creating the Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area. It was a historic move that directly responded to the wishes of the people of the Bering Sea. I am a member of the Bering Sea Elders Group, a group of 39 elders who, in collaboration with Kawerak, Inc. and the Association of Village Council Presidents, worked on behalf of 76 tribes to establish the Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area. Our collective effort went to many offices and spanned many years.
Despite this fact, the Trump administration reversed the executive order in April of this year without consultation with the tribes or communities of the region. The Bering Sea Elders were shocked by President Trump’s actions because we had gone to our delegation very early in the administration (the very first full day of the administration, Jan. 23, 2017, to be exact) to ask for help in protecting the executive order. Yet it’s gone.
The executive order was important to us because as we lose the seasonal sea ice we are facing challenges we have never seen before, and the order put in place a commonsense set of rules to include the coastal communities in the discussion and ultimately to better protect our ability to hunt and fish in the Bering Sea.
In late December, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, released a report indicating that global warming in the Arctic is happening far faster than we’d anticipated and that the current observed rate of sea ice decline and warming temperatures is higher than at any other time in the last 1,500 years. As one NOAA scientist stated: “the Arctic is going through the most unprecedented transition in human history.”
Rapid climate change and the resulting potential for increased industrial activities like shipping makes the Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area that much more important. The executive order was flexible and practical. It created a task force so that our voices from the Bering Sea region would inform federal decision-making. It directed the federal government to address pollution like sewage from new marine vessel traffic and the routes they can take through our waters. It reinforced a ban on destructive bottom trawling in our northern waters and it ensured that offshore drilling wouldn’t disturb marine mammal hunting areas. It valued and prioritized our traditional knowledge in how Northern Bering Sea waters would be managed.
We, the Yup’ik and Inupiaq people, have been here since time immemorial. Because we spend so much time out on the Bering Sea fishing and hunting, the sea is just as important to us as the land. And we understand it in a way others cannot. Some of the elders are walrus hunters, and they describe how they go out in the Bering Sea in 18-foot Lund boats and then they stop. They wait, silently, and place one end of the oar in the water and their ear to the other end. And then they listen. They can hear the walrus in this way, and can even tell whether the walrus is male or female. They can tell which direction the sound is coming from, and which way to go to follow the walrus. This is the kind of knowledge you cannot find in a book or from a scientist. This knowledge comes from experience, from living on the Bering Sea.
The executive order was so unprecedented because it provided local Alaska voices a seat at the table. It provided us — the people of the Bering Sea — real input in what happens in the waters that we depend on for our survival. President Trump’s action is an attempt to silence our local Alaska voices. We are asking — again — that our delegation work to reinstate each of the provisions of the executive order, or improve upon them. Given the rapid changes our region is experiencing, our way of life, our food security, and our children’s future depends on it. And we will not give up. Not now, not ever. We have always been and we will always be.
Harry Lincoln is chair of the Bering Sea Elders Group and an elected member of the Tununak Traditional Council. More information about the Bering Sea Elders Group is available at www.beringseaelders.org.