Alaska Sea Grant

Teacher Background

Teacher Background

This unit focuses on oceans and rivers as an interconnected system into which people are interwoven. From the systems perspective, Alaska Seas and Watersheds are dynamic physical and chemical systems that make up the environment, which supports dynamic biological communities. As a major player in biological communities, people have diverse relationships with the environment and with individual species of other living things. People fish for and eat salmon, halibut, and a variety of other marine and anadromous fish; eat ice cream and shampoo their hair with products that have an ingredient derived from seaweed; enjoy watching whales and waterbirds, walk on the beach, build their homes or recreational cabins on the shores of bays, lakes, and rivers; and are inspired to create paintings, songs, and poems about water environments. Their actions, particularly consumption and waste disposal, have the potential to disrupt ecological relationships and the integrity of marine and aquatic ecosystems and to provide stewardship of the systems within which they are such an integral member.

The roles and relationships of people in these systems have changed significantly over the thousands of years that they have inhabited the land that is now Alaska. The ocean and rivers have been the means by which people first inhabited Alaska, by crossing the land bridge and arriving by skin boats from the Asian continent, and later “discovering” it from Europe. Boats and ships remained the primary mode of travel to Alaska until well into the twentieth century when roads and airplanes improved the connections.

Many of the animal species that depended on marine and freshwater environments were in turn the means by which the earliest human inhabitants met needs for food, clothing, and skin boats. From the beginning, the importance of these animals was recognized in cultural expressions of song, dance, and ornamentation of tools and clothing. The use of marine and freshwater animals expanded to an industrial scale after colonization by Russians, British, and Americans who sought whales, furs, and fish for export. Harvests and populations grew, at the expense of the original Native Alaskans and the targeted fish and wildlife populations.

As boat technology evolved from the earliest skin boats and log canoes to the modern power skiffs and ocean-going vessels, and use expanded from local to being exported to Europe and Asia, the technology for harvesting animals from seas and rivers also evolved from hand-held lines and fishwheels to traps, pots, large nets, longlines, and trawls. The nomadic lifestyle of Alaska Natives, which was well suited to the patchy and seasonal abundance in the Far North, evolved into permanent settlements, often because there was a nearby resource to extract or to process for export. Both the scale and efficiency of harvests increased, causing decimation of several marine mammals, until conservation measures were finally put into place. In addition, as the population of Alaska grew, so did the uses of ocean and river environments and animals—through recreation (boating, kayaking, beachwalking, beachcombing, wildlife-viewing), economic development (fishing, offshore oil development, marine transportation, tourism), and inspiration for enjoying beauty or creating art. The impact of people on the physical and chemical aspects of the environment increased through alterations of shorelines for residential and industrial uses; large-scale use of land for timber harvest, agriculture, and oil development; and water and air pollution.

Today, sustaining the productivity of Alaska Seas and Watersheds is crucial to Alaskans and people throughout the world.

From the beginning, careful observation of the Alaska environment has been key to predicting what might happen in the future and adapting human activities accordingly. The early Native people who failed to learn did not survive. A rich resource of traditional ecological knowledge has been passed down in Alaska Native cultures through stories, oral histories, and the practice of honoring the experience and wisdom of elders. Many Alaskans have lived their entire lifetime in areas of Alaska that they have come to know well and observe closely over many years. They are a rich source of local ecological knowledge.

Since the 1900s, after the overexploitation that occurred at the time of colonization of Alaska, science has been employed to develop conservation measures for Alaska’s fish and wildlife populations. Alaska scientists have an important role to play in seeking to understand the ecology of seas and river systems. The application of scientific knowledge of Alaska marine and freshwater ecosystems provides a rational means for balancing harvests and other human activities with their effects on ecosystem, so that harvests and other uses are sustainable. Due to the integral role of people in the system under study, the physical, chemical, and biological sciences are often not sufficient to answer the questions being posed. The social sciences, which focus on the study of human actions, attitudes, and motivation, are increasingly important to understanding and to fashioning solutions to environmental problems related to the impact of growing human populations and pressures on marine and aquatic ecosystems.

The Bidarki and Halibut Cove Stories

The unit includes two stories that provide an opportunity to develop a perspective on the use of the scientific process and other ways to reach a conclusion about cause and effect relationships.

The bidarki story describes a deliberate combination of scientific process with traditional ecological knowledge to determine why a chiton species used traditionally as a subsistence food by Native people in the villages of Port Graham and Nanwalek had declined in numbers and size.

The Halibut Cove story is one of local ecological knowledge about a series of events occurring at a time when herring stocks declined precipitously and eventually disappeared from Halibut Cove. No scientific data were collected that would confirm or disprove the conclusion.

The two stories together can serve as a springboard for discussion about the types of questions and investigations that scientists would pursue to verify local or traditional cause-and-effect stories using the scientific process. Caution is required, however, because beliefs arising out of experience or respect for traditional ways of transmitting knowledge are often deeply held and have cultural significance. The discussion should focus on the standards of evidence and the scientific process that is required to reach a scientific conclusion, in contrast to a plausible or logical explanation of observations. Everyone’s life experiences and observations are valid, but specific conclusions may not be verifiable through the scientific process.

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