Eskimos Fret as Climate Shifts and Wildlife Changes

September 6, 2004


PANGNIRTUNG, Nunavut - At age 85, Inusiq Nasalik has seen some changes in his day.

Born in an old whaling settlement, he lived in igloos and sod houses as a child and drove a dog team to hunt on the tundra through much of his life. Now he lives in a comfortable house with a plush sofa in his living room, a Westinghouse range and microwave oven in his modern kitchen and a big stereo to play his favorite old Eskimo songs.

Life is good for him, he says, but he is worried about the changes he sees in the wildlife that surrounds this hamlet on the shores of an icy glacier fiord just below the Arctic circle.

He says the caribou are skinny, and so are the ringed seals, whose fur has become thin and patchy. The Arctic char that swim in local streams are covered with scratches, apparently from sharp rocks in waters that are becoming shallower because of climactic shifts. The beluga whales and seals do not come around Pangnirtung fiord as much anymore, perhaps because increased motorboat traffic is making too much noise.

"Maybe this is just the way it is supposed to be, but the animals are changing and I cannot tell you why," Mr. Nasalik said, between bites of raw caribou from an animal he had just caught. "Young people now prefer to eat young seals because they think the older seals are more contaminated."

Scientists say the problems Mr. Nasalik observes result from climate change and the gradual increase in contaminants like pesticides and industrial compounds like mercury and PCB's that are transported by wind and currents from the industrialized south and accumulate in the fatty tissues of Arctic animals. The people who eat such animals are also affected, and high levels of contaminants have been found in the breast milk of Eskimo women.

Mr. Nasalik and other local hunters and native elders are sharing their observations about changing wildlife with scientists who have come to appreciate their expertise at natural observation and long memories of environmental conditions in the Arctic. Researchers are beginning to teach Eskimos, better known as Inuit in Canada, how to collect scientific data and take measurements of hunted animals to detect everything from changes in the size of their organs to the abundance of their fat.

Researchers from the World Wildlife Fund Canada and Trent University recently collected the observations of 30 local hunters in Pangnirtung and two other Arctic communities and came to some disturbing conclusions.

Arctic char, caribou and ringed seal are showing abnormally hard livers, according to a draft of the report that is to be released in September. Caribou have worms in their muscles and between their joints. The fat in Beluga whales is changing color. Hunters across the eastern Canadian Arctic are reporting that an increasing number of polar bears look emaciated, probably because their hunting season has been shortened by the shrinking ice cover.

The Pangnirtung fiord, for instance, formerly was covered with hard ice between October and July, but in the past several years residents here say it has only been frozen between December and May.

The Meteorological Service of Canada reports that the summers of 2002 and 2003 were particularly warm in the eastern Canadian Arctic, and the last three winters have also been unseasonably mild. The Yukon and Alaska have been downright scorching in recent months, with temperatures in Whitehorse reaching over 85 degrees nine days in a row in June.

Even migration patterns are changing. Some say the walrus have changed their hunting grounds, moving farther north where it is colder. Animal behavior also seems to be changing. Hunters say the shifts have been most marked the last 5 to 10 years.

"Northern aboriginal peoples possess sophisticated knowledge of wildlife, knowledge that sometimes is more extensive than scientific knowledge," the draft report concluded. "Wildlife health abnormalities observed included behavioral changes such as use of different calving grounds and feeding areas and being less timid" around humans.

"The caribou don't seem to notice noise anymore," said Jonah Kilabuk, 51, a weekend hunter and translator of the Inuktitut language. "Either they are going deaf or they are accustomed to the noise. You can now pass them on your snowmobile and they don't seem to notice."

Scientists have known about the contaminants seeping into the Arctic food chain for some time. The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, an international treaty binding on 150 countries including the United States, went into effect in May to prohibit the production of a dozen toxic chemicals and to bring about the destruction of existing stockpiles.

The treaty has been cheered by Eskimo leaders, who lobbied for the accord. Still, all the change has hunters worried about the future, since so much of the Eskimo culture is wrapped around hunting, the joys of eating and respect for animals that borders on worship.

"What will the younger generations eat?" Mr. Kilabuk asked. "It will mean more eating of processed foods that are already causing more diabetes."

For Paulusie Veevee, a 75, an elder who started hunting with his grandfather when he was 10, the greatest tragedy of all is the changing habitat for the seals that depend on the ice for reproduction.

"The seals have their pups in dens on the ice," Mr. Veevee noted. "If there isn't enough ice, where will they have their babies - on land? That's the question I ask myself."