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Indigenous Sentinels Network offers opportunities for community-led research

An otter floats in Chignik Lagoon. July 2021.
Izzy Ross
An otter floats in Chignik Lagoon in July 2021.

Representatives from the Indigenous Sentinels Network are coming to the Western Alaska Interdisciplinary Science Conference in Dillingham today.

Hannah-Marie Garcia helps coordinate the network as part of her work with the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island’s tribal government. She says the goal is to use Indigenous, local and traditional knowledge to inform and steer decision-making.

“We help communities, non-Indigenous and Indigenous, collect environmental data on things that they're seeing shift in their environment, so that they can have better voice and say in helping our scientists and managers grapple with all of the shifts that we're seeing in our environment.”

The network started about 20 years ago, when data was collected in waterproof notebooks. Now, participants use internet-based tools, like online databases and apps.

The Aleut Community of St. Paul Island Tribal Government owns the network, which partners with a wide array of tribal, environmental and federal programs and incorporates both traditional ecological knowledge and western scientific methods into its work. Garcia said it helps communities record significant environmental and ecological events so they can take an active role in addressing the effects of climate change close to home.

And because Alaska is such a big state, local efforts to understand, record observations and inform decisions are especially important.

“Whether we're talking about how the warming ocean is creating all these changes in coastal communities in Alaska, all of our communities have been witnessing changes in marine environments, including ocean temperatures shifting and fisheries increasing in harmful algae bloom increases," she said. "Really, it's kind of a recognizing that it's an all hands on deck situation, often.”

Garcia said communities drive the Indigenous Sentinel Network’s programs from the start, and the network ensures communities own the data that is gathered.

“If our programs aren't able to allow communities and empower them to really have a voice in helping to grapple with these challenges, then it's at a disservice to them," she said. "So our programs really help document the impacts on marine wildlife as one way for communities to bear witness to be active in this process, and also to ensure that information is returned to communities and also collected in a way that's usable for communities to make decisions on a local scale, too.”

Garcia said people who participate in the network can help fill in data gaps and ensure that community voices are centered in research.

Along with participating in WAISC, Garcia is co-hosting an ecosystem monitoring workshop on Friday at 2 p.m. on how to participate in a seabird die-off alert program in Alaska.

For more info on this week’s conference, head to the WAISC website for an updated schedule.

Get in touch with the author at or 907-842-2200.

Izzy Ross is the news director at KDLG, the NPR member station in Dillingham. She reports, edits, and hosts stories from around the Bristol Bay region, and collaborates with other radio stations across the state.
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