Claim: Climate change threatens seal hunting by Indigenous Alaskans

Peer-Reviewed Publication


Bearded seal on ice

Climate change has severely reduced the length of the seal hunting season in a rural Alaska village, potentially threatening a key feature of the community’s Indigenous way of life.

The Iñupiaq people of Kotzebue have depended on bearded seals, called ugruk in Iñupiaq, for food and clothing for generations. A new study led by Indigenous hunters, the Native Village of Kotzebue and scientists at the University of Alaska Fairbanks shows that over the past 17 years, the seal hunting season shrank about one day per year. Sea ice decline is a major cause of the shrinking season.

Both ugruk and hunters are closely tied to specific sea ice conditions. In spring, ugruk follow the melting Chukchi Sea ice edge northward during breakup and enter Kotzebue Sound. Inside the sound, ugruk rest on persistent chunks of floating ice, called floes, while feeding on abundant fish, shrimp and clams.

“Kotzebue Sound provides important spring habitat for bearded seals, with ice floes as platforms for seals to rest on between foraging bouts,” said Donna Hauser, marine mammal biologist at the UAF International Arctic Research Center and co-leader of the research. “We learned from our Kotzebue research partners that hunting ugruk is actually like hunting the right kind of ice.”

Hunters safely and predictably found ugruk on these resting platforms in the past. The study combined hunters’ knowledge of the ice conditions needed for ugruk hunting with data from satellite images. The results showed that the necessary ice floes now melt from the Kotzebue Sound roughly 22 days earlier than they did in 2003, the first year of the study.

“We used to hunt ugruk into July when I was growing up back in the 1950s,” said Bobby Schaeffer, a Kotzebue elder, hunter and co-author of the new paper. “People would be out there during Fourth of July celebration because there was so much ice. Now sometimes we’re done before June comes around.”

While the hunting season is pushed to a close about 26 days earlier on average than in the past, hunters are not necessarily able to begin hunting any earlier. The season’s start timing is driven by the arrival of seals and a hunter’s ability to launch boats through a channel in the ice that opens in front of Kotzebue.

Squeezing the hunting season into a shorter window means that there is less flexibility for hunters.

“Now in some years there is only a good weekend or two, and, if people want to maximize their opportunity, they have to prepare before the season even starts,” said Alex Whiting, director of the Native Village of Kotzebue’s Environmental Program and co-leader of the research.

Whiting’s weekly observations of the local weather, ugruk activity and hunting pursuits of Kotzebue residents helped to quantify the shrinking ugruk hunting season.

Whiting said he was inspired to start a journal in 2002 after reading records of Alaska from the early 1900s.

“When you’re living in the present, daily activities don’t seem particularly notable or remarkable,” explained Whiting. “But I understood that they would be useful over time and that things were changing rapidly, and it would be great to have a record of it.”

Even with the shrinking season, Whiting’s tribal records show that harvest success has not significantly changed. Instead, it is the type of hunting experience that has shifted. Past ice floes were large and complex, and hunters had to search long and far to find ugruk. Now, with less ice, hunters typically embark on shorter, more frequent trips. 

Hunters have noticed that ugruk seem to have changed their behavior too. They often congregate in large groups on the scarce ice floes. Spring 2019 stood out to hunters and scientists because Kotzebue Sound was nearly void of ice. Hundreds of ugruk gathered on just a few floes near Kotzebue. Hunting success was high, and effort was low.

Hunters worry that in future years, ugruk and ice floes may be farther from Kotzebue across large expanses of open water, increasing the risk to boaters and lowering their chance of a successful hunt.

This research was part of a larger collaborative project called Ikaaġvik Sikukun, that also included researchers from Columbia University, the University of Washington and Farthest North Films. Additional co-authors include Andy Mahoney, John Goodwin, Cyrus Harris, Ross Schaeffer Sr., Nathan Laxague, Ajit Subramaniam, Carson Witte, Sarah Betcher, Jessica Lindsay and Chris Zappa.


Environmental Research Letters



Not applicable


Co-production of knowledge reveals loss of Indigenous hunting opportunities in the face of accelerating Arctic climate change



From EurekAlert!

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August 25, 2021 2:43 am

Seems entirely reasonable: in the last 2 decades ice has rapidly retreated from the Alaskan coast at an early date: this also affects walrus who rely on ice floes over shallow water and increases the number of haul outs.

An indisputable consequence of rapid arctic warming and ice decline

Reply to  griff
August 25, 2021 3:08 am

Griffo, it is called natural variability, you have to stop leaving your brain at butchers.
Not warm enough yet for a redwood forest
Scientist Probes Fossil Oddity: Giant Redwoods Near North PoleSource: Johns Hopkins University

Gary Pearse
Reply to  Vuk
August 25, 2021 1:22 pm

Vuk, Ekati is a fair distance south of this site. As a geologist I have a problem with the idea of a forest in darkness four four months. Either the drifting of continents was not so advanced as we think or there was an equatorial shift somehow.

I don’t like either of my alternative hypotheses very much, so I would welcome a third one.⁷

Reply to  Gary Pearse
August 25, 2021 2:35 pm

Hi Gary
If the dating method and results for Axel Heiberg Island fossils  are verified by at least two or three other research institution then the science has to look for a credible explanation. 
Main problem for a forest establishing in the Axel Heiberg island (80 deg N) are prolonged periods of daylight and darkness (about 3 months at the time) at these latitudes.
Over 40 million years ago during the Eocene epoch, a forest of tall trees flourished on Axel Heiberg Island. The trees reached up to 35 m (110 ft) in height; some may have grown for 500 to 1,000 years. At the time, the polar climate was warm, but the winters were still continuously dark for three months.” – wikipedia
 However there is a possible alternative.
Geothermal gradient is around 25C/km depending on
location. Magma plumes drive Iceland’s geysers. It is possible that a large area magma plume under AH island could have kept top soil and atmosphere above it maintaining a large area ‘heat island’ at temperatures suitable for redwoods to flourish (25 to 30C in summer and 0 to -5C in the winter) . Winds from much further south may have brought the seeds.
An old Yu compatriot of mine (Tomislav Kurevija) produced an interesting graph for annual changes in the thermal gradient for city of Zagreb (46 deg N) for purpose of heat pump systems construction:
&nbspcomment image

The average AH island annual summer temperature is about 15C below and the winter is 30C below that in Zagreb.

Looking at Kurevija’s graph above, it would mean that 40MY ago ‘the’ geothermal source of heat would have been about 2-3 km closer to the surface than it is now, after taking into account difference in the angle of incidence of sunlight. Speculative but possible.

Last edited 8 months ago by Vuk
Ron Long
Reply to  griff
August 25, 2021 3:19 am

I wondered who checked five stars. Alex, I’ll take the griffanator for a million.

Reply to  griff
August 25, 2021 3:23 am

Yesterday, griff, you said the poles (plural) were melting

Presumably, now it’s only the Arctic? Can you make your mind up?

4 Eyes
Reply to  griff
August 25, 2021 4:32 am

What about 99 years ago Griff – sailors couldn’t find any ice. Do I have to explain the rest?

Reply to  4 Eyes
August 25, 2021 4:48 am

You’ll probably have to.

Reply to  griff
August 25, 2021 5:26 am

Just checked, Arctic Sea is covered with ice, so your lie is still a lie, lie spewing liar.

Reply to  griff
August 25, 2021 6:17 am

And before that, ice was expanding. That’s what cycles do.
BTW, the ice hasn’t shrunk at all in the last 9 years.

Reply to  griff
August 25, 2021 7:02 am

Easy to fix we microchip them so the hunters can easily find them 🙂

Dave Fair
Reply to  LdB
August 25, 2021 9:49 am

No need; they are catching just as many seals as before with less effort.

Reply to  griff
August 25, 2021 7:32 am

BTW griff, first groundfrost in Germany since july 😀

comment image

So much about your heatwaves 😀

Last edited 8 months ago by Krishna Gans
Reply to  griff
August 25, 2021 10:33 am

Oh, griff, there you are showing your disregard again for life on Earth by purposely emitting dangerous CO2 to use your devices and the technology necessary to blog on WUWT. Please, please, listen to your conscience and stop your dastardly ways. Perhaps you can actually do some good and help the locals in the North find more bearded seals to kill.

Hoyt Clagwell
Reply to  griff
August 25, 2021 11:30 am

So your position is that not enough seals are being killed by hunters?

August 25, 2021 3:11 am

Climate change has severely reduced the length of the seal hunting season in a rural Alaska village

In a new study, the washing on the line in my garden is taking increasingly longer to dry.

This I attribute to climate change – and a complete lack of warming.

Who do I blame? Perhaps Alaska is the place to do laundry now?

Last edited 8 months ago by fretslider
Ron Long
August 25, 2021 3:17 am

What a nothing burger story. Here’s the key line for me “…ugruk rest on persistent chunks of floating ice, called floes, while feeding on abundant fish, shrimp, and clams.” If I had a choice of what to eat I would go with the fish, shrimp, and clams, and leave the bearded seals alone.

Reply to  Ron Long
August 25, 2021 4:29 am

Seal blubber remains edible far longer than fish, shrimp and clams. Plus you can use it as fuel for cooking, light, heat…

Reply to  ATheoK
August 25, 2021 6:55 am

Decisions, decisions, ATheoK.

Do I use fossil fuels for heat and light or do I use whale and seal oils?

Do the residents up there still use sealskin kayaks to hunt or are their boats and snowmobiles powered by gas motors?

I honestly don’t know how it’s all done by the residents up there, but in the lower 48, we seem to have drifted away from using whale oil for our lamps and we no longer get around much on horseback or in buggies.

What’s a “Save the whales” and “Stop killing seals” fellow supposed to do?

Macdara Bryan
Reply to  H.R.
August 25, 2021 12:28 pm

In all fairness seal oil is a very important part of their diet out there. They dip the dried fish and meat in it while eating. Otherwise it would be too much protein calories and not enough fat. Kind of like rabbit starvation. Plus the oil keeps their bodies warm with slow burning calories.

Gary Pearse
Reply to  Ron Long
August 25, 2021 12:56 pm

I worked as a contractor for a Labrador Inuit organization in Nain Labrador and was invited to an Inuit home for dinner. I was expecting seal or caribou, but was served spaghetti with beef meatballs. The family was well to do and I guess they didn’t want to serve traditional.

The project was on Taber Island, out to sea from Nain. The rock is entirely a Labradorite pegmatite with crystal’s commonly larger than a meter long. Labradorite is a calcium feldspar with a strong iridescence of a number of colors making it an attractive gemstone. The job was to quarry away a couple of meters of ruined stone from a blast by someone sent by Tiffany’s of New York in the 1920s, to get at stone free of cracks for a gemstone/jewellery manfg.
comment image

Gary Pearse
Reply to  Gary Pearse
August 25, 2021 1:03 pm

I neglected to mention that, from a mile or more away from Taber Is. the labradorite lit up the island like a pirate treasure!

August 25, 2021 3:38 am

So, how fossil fuel do they burn tearing ound the tundra on their skidoos, in their diesel powered boats and heating their homes – I bet it’s a lot more than I do!!!!!!

Reply to  Crowcatcher
August 25, 2021 3:40 am

Oops! “round the tundra” and “round”

Pamela Matlack-Klein
August 25, 2021 3:54 am

So the co-author and elderly hunter says back in the ’50s he used to be able to hunt up into July? Well, I can recall back in the ’50s that Springton Reservoir used to freeze over every year so all us kiddos could skate on it. Variations in sea ice coverage are cyclical, but we already know that from numerous reports over the past few hundred years. There has been less ice, more ice, less ice, more ice, and maybe in a few more decades a LOT more ice….

Curious George(@moudryj)
Reply to  Pamela Matlack-Klein
August 25, 2021 8:51 am

Another example of borderline statistics. Invariably based on a very fresh recollection of a very old villager. Statistically, this is known as a sample size of 1 (one).
Read Asimov’s story The Franchise, where thanks to a development of precise statistical methods, the expensive U.S. presidential election is replaced by an interview of one person.

Last edited 8 months ago by Curious George
August 25, 2021 4:26 am


Co-production of knowledge reveals loss of Indigenous hunting opportunities in the face of accelerating Arctic climate change”

Even with the shrinking season, Whiting’s tribal records show that harvest success has not significantly changed.”

Apparently the learned urbanite academics have a real problem identifying the real problem. Instead they write up their alleged research from their Confirmation Bias personal lives.

Coeur de Lion
August 25, 2021 4:51 am

Griff didn’t take up my four million sq km bet last year when he would have won. This year looks like more than five. I don’t think these hunters have much to worry about. Arctic ice is pretty stable.o

Dave Fair
Reply to  Coeur de Lion
August 25, 2021 9:54 am

The hunters are now getting more seals with less effort. What’s not to like?

Peta of Newark
August 25, 2021 4:54 am

I’m struggling to see an actual problem here.

These indigenous Folks would then be able to grow and consume the demonstrably ‘Proven To Be Healthy’ Mediterranean Diet of sugar and alcohol

They’d then wave bye-bye to the medical monstrosities of:

  • Obesity
  • Depression
  • Diabetes
  • Cancer
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Cardio Vascular disorder
  • Autism and Dementias

….that they are so famously noted for suffering from.

They’d then be able to spend 25% of their generous salaries on medical insurance & care and 6 hours per day intently studying their TVs so as to to be knowledgeable on the latest scientific marvels such the GHGE, Phlogiston and Dancing Angels

Some may even go on to ‘Learn Coding’
Such as our man Griffles has done (##)

What Is The Problem Here

## Be careful what you wish for Joe Biden, you may just get it

August 25, 2021 5:23 am

Coming out of a ‘ little ice age ‘ might have something to do with it .

August 25, 2021 5:29 am

So their claim is today’s Eskimos are inferior to their ancestors. Okely dokely.

Reply to  2hotel9
August 25, 2021 7:03 am

Yeah but with drones and so microchips they can level the playing field … those pesky seals are going down.

Last edited 8 months ago by LdB
August 25, 2021 7:11 am

Poor polar bears and humans, they will not be able to viciously kill seals as they deserve, because climate change will prevent that. Bad climate change, bad!

August 25, 2021 7:13 am

Here’s a link to the albedo at Barrow, AK. You can follow along when ice/snow covers the ground and when it doesn’t.
comment image

Steve Z
August 25, 2021 8:00 am

One thing that was not mentioned in the article is that Kotzebue Sound is a bay about 40 miles in diameter, which is nearly surrounded by land except for a pass about 20 miles wide into the Arctic Ocean to the northwest. The village of Kotzebue is on the end of a peninsula near the northeast coast of the bay, but hunters looking for seals on ice floes could launch their kayaks or canoes from any of the surrounding land, which is mostly uninhabited, in order to be as close as possible to the ice floes.

Also, Susan Crockford has mentioned that, despite the fears of global warming alarmists, polar bear populations have been increasing. Is it possible that some of the seals hunted by the Inupiaq people have been stolen by polar bears?

August 25, 2021 8:05 am

“…increasing the risk to boaters and lowering their chance of a successful hunt…..”
OMG what nonsense….distance of ice from shore depends on wind direction, and hunters prefer to hunt NOT in cold weather, and the 30 years occurrence of this ice phenomenon that would legitimately be called climate change hasn’t been achieved in their lifetimes….

Bruce Cobb
August 25, 2021 8:31 am

Cry me a river. Things have changed since the 50’s. Seal hunting has gotten harder? Doubt it, with all the improvement in technology, but even if so, so what? That is why supermarkets were invented. “They can’t afford it”. Really? Doubt that, too.

August 25, 2021 8:42 am

Ok, I will make a comment since I have been to Kotz and live here in AK.
In the report one person said that they only get one or two weekends to hunt, if they are so willing to ask for goverment assistance and handouts but still want to live the subsistence lifestyle, maybe they need to get out of their government supplied housing and go hunt.
They want all of it locked up so they can hunt when they please from their power boats that can’t get out when the ice is high vs the old way of canoe.
Sorry rant/off

Did not read through the comments and see others have same comments about Kotz. Ty

Last edited 8 months ago by Aksurveyor
August 25, 2021 10:04 am

But isn’t hunting seals a bad thing, so this would be good?

Patrick B
August 25, 2021 10:20 am

So, as I read the paper, they had three “hunters” look at satellite shots and pick when there were certain milestone events each year for the ice.

So three guys picking dates based on satellite pictures for a 16 year period.

And they combined that with tribal stories.

Sounds like good enough science for the government to spend, and mandate regulations spending trillions, to me. Right?

August 25, 2021 10:30 am

Well, I guess the story line about SAVING the Polar Bears wasn’t working out too well, so instead we have the latest attempt at alarmism because the locals can’t KILL enough bearded seals any more.

Perhaps if it gets so warm the locals can’t find enough seals to kill they will save enough in heating bills to go to their local store for some.

August 25, 2021 10:53 am

So you have to read all the way to the bottom to discover that the top of the article was wrong and misleading. It is NOT getting harder for eskimos to hunt seals it is getting easier to hunt seals.

The only bad news here is for the seals.

One man’s good news is another man’s bad news. On the flip side, if things were getting harder for the eskimos to hunt seals, that would be great news to a seal.

SMH – it’s all just bullshit spin, as always.

Climate believer
August 25, 2021 11:00 am

“Spring 2019 stood out”

“Kotzebue Sound was nearly void of ice”

“Hunting success was high, and effort was low.”

…. sorry, what’s the problem again?

2020 and 2021 must have been a bummer….

Kotzebue ice.png
Climate believer
Reply to  Climate believer
August 25, 2021 11:07 am

June 2021 two weeks later…

Kotzebue ice June 17 2021.png
August 25, 2021 12:03 pm

Easier, more successful hunting. Soon to be added to the endangered species list. It’s always the hunting.

Reply to  AndyHce
August 26, 2021 3:36 am

I think you miss the point: hunting is part of these peoples society and food supply and the changing environment is altering how they do that.

Last edited 8 months ago by griff
Matthew Sykes
August 26, 2021 1:39 am

So when westerners hunt seals, thats bad. When indigenous people do, thats good.

OK, gotcha, just trying to get my double standards lined up.

Reply to  Matthew Sykes
August 26, 2021 3:35 am

Because the natives are doing it on a small scale, taking no more than the population can recover from, whereas take whaling: was causing extinction of whole populations.

What is wrong with some hunting? Responsible levels of deer hunting or duck hunting in the USA help conserve habitat and control species in the absence of predators.

Matthew Sykes
Reply to  griff
August 26, 2021 11:50 pm

So a bit of murder is good, ir a bit of bank robbery is good, just because it is on a small scale eh?

August 26, 2021 4:36 pm

It’s amazing that indigenous hunters are held forth as valid and natural, their interests and activities must be ‘protected’, but these greenie-racists treat anyone and everyone else as an invasive pest, invalid and unnatural, and their interests must be ‘condemned’ and not ‘protected’ at all.

Dividing people to create fake ‘us verses them’ conflict. Prejudice is what it is.

August 27, 2021 6:05 am

I remember a time when activists were trying everything humanly possible to end the seal hunt. How times change.

Kevin Stall
September 1, 2021 4:26 pm

weather back in Alaska is always changing. Back in the 80s one year we had no snow until April. Ground was frozen solid but we had to worry about water pipes more because the snow wasn’t there to act as an insulator. Things are always different.

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