The Arctic Ocean and the Sea Ice Is Our Nuna

 

By Okalik Eegeesiak

"Our entire North American Arctic homeland is a vast wildlife habitat nourishing a very fragile food chain in which we Inuit are but an important link. We Inuit are hunters. There aren't many subsistence hunting societies left in the world, but our Inuit circumpolar community is one of them."

Eben Hopson, 1978 Address to the London Press Corps

The Arctic is our Nunaat—our homeland. Nuna is land; Nunaat is homeland. As Inuit, we are intimately connected to the past, both distant and more recent. Why are we so closely tied to the Arctic marine ecosystem? We depend on it for our identity as indigenous peoples of the Arctic, for food security, for our transportation needs and mobility—for our future.

We are 165,000 people living in Canada, Greenland, the Russian Federation, and in the State of Alaska in the United States of America. Inuit are one people divided by what we consider to be artificial boundaries created by the old European colonial system. The Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) is a Permanent Participant in the Arctic Council and holds Consultative Status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council. ICC acts as a representative voice, speaking on behalf of all circumpolar Inuit on matters of international importance.

As we prepare for World Oceans Day on 8 June 2017, during which we will celebrate "Our Oceans, Our Future" and discuss how we can all support the implementation of Sustainable Development Goal14 to "conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources", Inuit will be watching. In particular, we will be watching because our ocean and sea ice is changing right before our eyes. The sea ice is melting, the glaciers are melting, the permafrost is melting, the shorelines are eroding, the animals are changing and the ocean is changing. In addition to having to monitor these environmental changes with added sensitivity, Inuit are concerned that more and more people are coming north in search of non-renewable resources, such as oil, gas and minerals, as well as commercial fisheries and shorter, faster shipping routes. Tourists are coming to see it before it is gone. Many scientists are keenly interested in the changes and the effects of climate change in the Arctic and how they will impact the fate of the world's oceans and global weather patterns.

We are willing to share our indigenous knowledge of the ocean, the ice, the animals and the weather so we can work with the scientists, understand the change, and prepare our people and our communities to adapt. It will take all of our collective knowledge to understand the rapid and unpredictable changes we are witnessing across the Arctic marine environment.

We are concerned that it may be too late. The world may not be able to make decisions and take the action needed to protect the Arctic. This is a tragedy because the ocean is our future and we do not know what the future will hold.

Inuit are a marine people, dependent on the Arctic Ocean for our transportation and its marine resources for food security. Inuit life today also depends on movement, and that movement takes place across Arctic sea ice and on the open ocean. Our entire culture and identity are based on free movement on land, sea ice and the Arctic Ocean. We rely on free movement in order to eat, to obtain supplies for our traditional clothing and to preserve our rich cultural heritage through activities such as the creation of art. This movement takes place on the sea ice that surrounds and connects Inuit communities. During winter, our highway is sea ice. During summer, it is the open sea. This connection to land and ice gives Inuit a great sense of pride and community well-being, as well as a spiritual connection to our past.

It is the Inuit position that any action or intervention that affects our ice, the Arctic Ocean and the lands we live upon must protect the environment, wildlife and, therefore, Inuit, in such a way that we can continue to live off this land. This is the standard of sustainable use that we insist upon. The actions impacting the Arctic, however, are beyond our control.

ICC has participated in many international meetings and in numerous studies to understand the changes underway in our Arctic Ocean environment. The greatest threat to the Arctic Ocean and sea ice is climate change. ICC is active within the Arctic Council and in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, adding our voice to the negotiations. Not only is our sea ice changing, the Ocean itself is changing. Ocean acidification, for example, is an emerging issue. We know that the global increase in CO2 in the atmosphere is causing ocean acidification, and that the oceans act as a sink for this greenhouse gas. The Arctic Ocean is more vulnerable to acidification for many reasons, including the fact that colder waters absorb more CO2; that there is more freshwater entering the ocean, thus reducing its buffering capacity; that the reduced sea ice increases the area of open ocean and CO2, absorption; and that there is a shorter, more simplified marine food chain. These changes are not only locally and regionally significant but are globally important, as well. The Arctic ecosystem supports the life cycles of many millions of mammal, fish, bird, shellfish and plankton species that migrate around the world providing food for millions of people. We work to convince the world that protecting the Arctic indeed secures our common future.

"Our children no longer know the place names of our hunting grounds, nor have they traveled across the ice bridge that links these lands."

This is what we are hearing in communities that surround Pikialasorsuaq, or "Great Upwelling"—the largest Arctic polynya (area of open water surrounded by ice) and the most biologically productive region north of the Arctic Circle. Pikialasorsuaq has been recognized by Inuit for generations as a critical habitat. Communities in the Qikiqtani and Avanersuaq regions in Canada and Greenland rely on the polynyas biological productivity. Pikialasorsuaq is vital to many migratory species upon which these communities, as well as global species, depend. In recent years, the northern ice bridge in the Kane Basin, the Nares Strait and Smith Sound (Ikeq) has become less reliable and the polynya less defined. The consequences of these changes, which are linked to larger climatic shifts observable in many parts of the Arctic, are not known.

ICC initiated the Pikialasorsuaq Commission to address issues with an ecosystem that has supported Inuit communities for millennia and that is now at risk from climate change and industrial and shipping activities. It is led by three Commissioners: Eva Aariak, the Canadian Commissioner and former Premier of Nunavut; Kuupik Kleist, the Greenland Commissioner and former Greenland Premier; and me, Okalik Eegeesiak, the International Commissioner and ICC Chair. The Commission is mandated to conduct consultations in the communities in Nunavut and Greenland that are closely connected to Piklalasorsuaq. With the support of the Oak Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Oceans North Canada and the World Wildlife Fund, the commissioners have undertaken consultations with Canadian Inuit communities in Grise Fiord, Resolute, Arctic Bay, Pond Inlet and Clyde River, as well as in Northern Greenland, to hear from Inuit on the Greenlandic side of Pikialasorsuaq, including Siorapaluk, Qaanaaq, Savissivik, Kullorsuaq, Nuussuaq and Upemavik. The discussions are designed to facilitate local and regional input, incorporate indigenous knowledge, and recommend an Inuit strategy for safeguarding, monitoring and managing the health of Pikialasorsuaq for future generations.

The Pikialasorsuaq Commission's goal is to provide a body of evidence, key principles and recommendations to insure that Inuit are central to the future of Pikialasorsuaq and that an Inuit vision of the management of the area is implemented. The intricate sophistication of indigenous knowledge and understanding of the region can be mobilized and integrated in multiple, innovative ways. Our northernmost communities rely on Pikialasorsuaq. In the fall of 2016, they participated in hearings and called for Inuit-led management and monitoring of this important marine area. We are developing a framework for an Inuit-led monitoring plan that will ultimately support indigenous knowledge in policy and control as a central concept of Inuit-led management, and further, for Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs) to serve as a novel and effective approach to self-determination.

We visited both the Canadian high Arctic communities of Grise Fiord and Pond lnlet and heard from knowledge-holders from Resolute Bay, Clyde River and Arctic Bay. We also travelled to Qaanaaq and Siorapaluk—the most northern community in the world—and down along the coast of Melville Bay to the other Greenland settlements that depend on Pikialasorsuaq. Most of the beautiful villages in this region lack airstrips. The sea is their only link to the outside world.

Hunters from all of these communities generously shared with us their knowledge. Recurring themes included: instability, unpredictability, changes in migration patterns, the presence of new species, and open water where there should be ice. They also talk of political change, of artificial borders that separate them from a time not so long ago, when they could still travel across the polynya's great ice arch that connects Umimmat Nunaat (Ellesmere Island) and Greenland, linking these eastern communities of Pikialasorsuaq to the hunting grounds on Ellesmere.

We heard from every community that Inuit are best placed to monitor and manage this region. They want to lead and set the research agenda, study the indicators of change and establish more realistic hunting regulations that will sustain their communities. Once again, Inuit on both sides of the borders are expressing a strong desire for free movement across Pikialasorsuaq, as well as increased cooperation to achieve a common vision for shared resources and lnuit-led management of the polynya. Similar concerns over increased tourism, shipping, fishing, resource exploration and seismic testing are being heard on both sides of Pikialasorsuaq. Most emphatically, Inuit, though divided by national borders, want to rebuild a caretaking regime for the polynya together, as one people from one sea.

For Inuit, the sustainable use of the marine resources and the future of the Arctic Ocean and sea ice is not a luxury—it is life itself; it is about protecting our culture. Inuit are adapting to changes and we will continue to thrive in the changing Arctic. We have much to learn and much to teach the world. We look forward to working with you. We ask that you accept our invitation to discuss issues affecting our land. Our nuna, the Arctic.