Indigenous Sentinels Network: bringing traditional knowledge to resource management in Bristol Bay
For over 20 years, the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island has employed sentinels to keep watch over the environmental conditions in the roughly 80 mile Pribilof Islands stretch of the Bering Sea. The Bering Watch sentinel program has changed over the years, upgrading from waterproof data journals to smartphone apps and expanding from the Pribilof Islands to the entire state.
The state-wide network of indigenous and non-indigenous communities, fishermen, scientists, and others is now called the Indigenous Sentinels Network. Hannah-Marie Garcia, the network coordinator for the Aleut tribal government, explained the goals 20 years later.
"Our mission is to support the collection of indigenous, local, and traditional knowledge and scientific information to really empower a holistic approach to resource management for remote communities dealing with the effects of climate change," she said.
The network helps communities build out their capacity for climate monitoring and fill ecological data gaps through tools, training, networking, and coordination.
Over the last 20 years, that’s looked like projects addressing rat prevention in the Aleutians, community-based water temperature monitoring, software for monitoring invasive species and migratory birds. The Aleut tribe’s first app is still being used in conjunction with the federal government today on St. Paul Island to co-manage the hunting of northern fur seals.
The Indigenous Sentinels Network entered the conversation in Bristol Bay earlier this fishing season because of one of those tools: a citizen science smartphone platform for subsistence and fishing crews to self-report observations and details of their catch, called the Skipper Science app.
The Skipper Science program partnered with Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association and the University of Washington on the Nushagak King Mapping Project this year which asks local users to self-report where they are seeing king salmon in the Nushagak district in the hopes that data can inform conservation practices.
That is just one aspect of the network that works at the intersection of indigenous, local, and traditional knowledge and western scientific methods. Garcia said it isn’t an intersection, though, as much as a way of painting a fuller picture.
"The ultimate goal is to understand that both traditional, local, and indigenous knowledge and Western science ways of seeing the world aren't 'either, or.' They're just two sides of the same coin. And it's so important, when we think about these broader environmental stewardship models that we're trying to build out, that each source of knowledge is included in the way that we are designing research questions and providing data to scientists and researchers that are operating in these spaces," Garcia explained.
Indigenous and traditional knowledge refers to the body of understanding and qualitative data practices, things like generational oral and written accounts, innovations, beliefs, and interactions with the environment that native Alaskans have developed on ancestral lands and waters, over time immemorial.
Last year, the Biden administration released formal guidance on Indigenous Knowledge as an important scientific practice in informing federal research, policy and decision making. Across federal agencies, advocates say it’s an attempt to remedy their shortsighted dismissal of this form of knowledge, and strengthen the nation-to-nation relationship with tribes.
For Garcia though, the work is about giving local communities like those in Bristol Bay more agency over their resources.
"The way that we approach the work is really starting from the ground up and recognizing the diversity of both qualitative and quantitative data that are so valuable in decision making processes, whether we're talking about conservation or policy or management," she said. "Even just providing a platform and a tool for communities to collect information about their day to day harvests and how that can help influence how they manage their resources."
Communities self-reporting data can have a large impact on driving the kind of research questions that are being asked, which in turn, can inform management decisions. One of those ways, as Garcia put it, is "to help bridge data gaps in western science, but also provide a network that can really be a co-production of knowledge and a co-design of research projects that not only help answer questions that researchers coming in from outside of the state might want to answer, but understanding the local and personal context in these areas when they are gathering data."
The group is also beginning conversations on expanding operations in the northern Bering Sea to find out what tools communities need to address things like coastal erosion. They’re also partnered with research labs at National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administrations on the ecosystem status report, which provides a federal update on environmental changes in southwestern Alaska and the Bering Sea.
As far as Bristol Bay, Garcia noted that getting the Nushagak King Mapping Project up and running was the group's main focus this summer but hopefully, just the beginning.
"The community is very diverse. It involves both non indigenous and indigenous partners, commercial fishermen, recreational fishermen. We're having conversations with communities in the region on developing other specific environmental monitoring tools but those projects are still kind of in the formation stages."
Garcia said that applying the principles of indigenous and traditional knowledge gathering and having fishermen, as environmental stewards, provide observations, data, and real time local context on fisheries like Bristol Bay makes all the difference.
To learn more about the Indigenous Sentinels Network, ask questions and get in touch you can visit sentinelsnetwork.org.
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