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Sea Grant agent works with Arctic communities to study bowhead whales

Sea Grant agent works with Arctic communities to study bowhead whales

Integrating science and cultural practices to tackle emerging issues

By Kenneth Lang,  2014 Sea Grant Knauss Fellow at NOAA's Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research

Farther from Washington, D.C. than London; where night lasts more than twenty hours in winter; and where the sea freezes, lives a set of communities unlike any other in the United States.

In Alaska’s Bering Strait and Arctic regions, there are dozens of Alaskan Native tribes, many of whom depend on the marine environment for food, as they have in some cases for thousands of years.  In this world more foreign to most Americans than many other countries (and bigger than many too) works exactly one NOAA Oceanic & Atmospheric Research Sea Grant extension agent: Gay Sheffield.

While many Sea Grant agents work with commercial fisheries, Sheffield’s role is unique.  There are few commercial fisheries in the north of Alaska – the primary fishery there is a subsistence one.  A study done on Saint Lawrence Island, in the southern Bering Strait, found that 80 percent of the population ate only subsistence food an average of five days per week.

“Our ocean freezes.  People here eat polar bear,” Sheffield says.  In fact multiple marine resources, from fish to seabirds to mammals, are not only consumed but depended upon for survival.

Take, for example, the bowhead whale: a protected species, a very limited number are allowed by the International Whaling Commission to be harvested by 11 Alaska Native communities around the Arctic.

Sheffield works collaboratively with these communities, and various managing agencies and tribal, local, and federal governments, to understand bowhead behavior and health.  She is typically the only biologist at a harvest, though she is quick to point out that “we are all in this work together – we all bring different skills.”

The only whale associated with sea ice throughout its lifecycle, the bowhead uses its oversized head to break ice from below so it can breathe.  It is also unique in having no dorsal fin, which enables it to get  up close to the cracks in the ice. Sheffield participated in aging one whale at 190 years old – meaning it lived both before and after the time of whaling – establishing the bowhead as the longest living cetacean, and probably mammal, in the world. But much remains unknown.

“We’re still documenting what and where they are eating. You might think, ‘It’s 2015, shouldn’t we know all this?’ But this area is just starting to be examined.”

Much of Sheffield’s work focuses on analyzing stomach contents to determine what they eat.  She also studies their black skin, which turns white where it scars, providing evidence of injuries such as crab line entanglements, ship strikes, or orca attacks.  Sheffield also takes tissue, bone and blood samples from harvested whales for other scientists who use it to gain a better understanding of not just bowheads, but all whales.

“Where else in the world do we have access to pristine whales? All other whale science is carried out either by tagging live whales or analyzing beached whales, which are often diseased or otherwise compromised,” says Sheffield.

Rapidly changing conditions in the Arctic make obtaining this knowledge extremely important.  Significant changes in sea ice timing and thickness have resulted in an increase in ship traffic, changes in ocean current speed and temperature, and increased oil and gas exploration.  All can have an impact on whales, and in turn, the Alaska Native communities that depend on them.

“The village of Gambell hasn’t gotten a whale in three years because of ice and weather, and they’re really suffering,” says George Noongwook, a Yupik whaling captain in Savoonga, the only other village on Saint Lawrence Island.

“The food we harvest is consumed not just by the 1,600 people of the island, but a lot is distributed to families in Nome, Anchorage, Fairbanks, and elsewhere – it’s very important for our extended community.”

“We have learned a lot about the bowhead with Gay Sheffield over time, working hard to coordinate science, traditional knowledge, and agencies towards a common goal.  We’re pretty proud of what we’ve done.”

Craig George, a bowhead whale scientist with the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management in Barrow, Alaska, acknowledges Sheffield’s multiple scientific results and findings.  But, he says, her most significant accomplishment may be how she has built a two-way relationship with the Native Alaskan communities.

“The feedback loop is so often missing when scientists go into these communities – we just go in and take what we need and leave.  But with Gay’s genuine love of and commitment to the area and the people, she has built a relationship of mutual respect where everyone benefits.”

How did Sheffield, who grew up in Rhode Island, wind up working on the remote and frozen coast of the largest state in the country?  “It was a journey I did not expect or plan.  But you would be surprised how much New England whaling history comes up in dealing with the bowhead whale, which is a first cousin to the right whale,” says Sheffield.

“To work here now with the people and communities that I do, it’s nothing but a privilege really.”

And there is encouraging news.  The bowhead whale population, still recovering from commercial whaling that occurred from 1840 – 1921, continues to grow at over 3 percent per year.  And so far the changes in sea ice do not seem to have a negative impact on the whale.

“It’s what people understand least – what are the domino effects of all the different changes?  We’re being told the Bering Strait is going to be the next Panama Canal – what will happen then?”

“We’re all learning together,” says Sheffield.  “We are working on the whale together at the same level.  It’s teamwork, is all I can tell you.  I remain hopefully humble. People have great faith that the animals are going to figure it out and we will too.”

Gay Sheffield is a Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program Agent of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, with an office at the Northwest Campus in Nome, Alaska.  She holds a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Conservation from the University of New Hampshire and a Master of Science in Marine Biology from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. 

To read more on the bowhead and its importance to Alaska Natives, see NOAA Fisheries story online, “A Whale of a Thanksgiving Day Feast.

For more information, please contact Monica Allen, director of public affairs for NOAA Oceanic and Atmospheric Research at 301-734-1123 or by email at

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