Unangan culture impacted by mass die-off of seabirds in the Bering Sea

ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - Since 2016, thousands of tufted puffins and other species of seabirds have washed up on the shores of the Pribilof Islands of Saint Paul. The loss is impacting the Aleut, or Unangan, people who have inhabited the area for thousands of years, according to one researcher who has been given authority to speak on behalf of the tribe.

Tufted puffins found dead on the shores of the Pribilof Islands of St. Paul. Courtesy of the Aleut Community of Saint Paul Island Ecosystem Conservation Office.

Lauren Divine is the Director for the Ecosystem Conservation Office for the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island. She’s lived and conducted research on the remote island in the Bering Sea since 2013.

Divine said the Unangan have successfully co-existed with the native species of the area, and are particularly sensitive to drastic changes like the puffin die-off.

"It was something that was very devastating,” Divine said. “It's never something that somebody wants to see -- a bunch of dead animals on their shorelines. It's something that immediately drew attention to the fact that something was wrong in their ecosystem -- in this marine ecosystem -- that Unangan have co-existed in forever.”

Seabirds are a vital part of Unangan culture, and have been for multiple generations. According to Divine, Unangan harvested marine mammals and seabirds off the Pribilof Islands for thousands of years before they were settled in the late 1700’s.

The Unangan consume many species of seabird, but the tufted puffin serves more of a ceremonial role, according to Divine. The birds’ colorful beaks are used to decorate cultural regalia -- the tufted puffin also happens to be the St. Paul School mascot.

“There’s very little take of puffins, but they are intrinsically valued,” she said. “They’re valued for their place in the food web, and people appreciate them. They are a part of the culture.”

The tufted puffins found by Divine’s research team in 2016 are considered part of a larger mass die-off of seabirds in the Chukchi and Bering Seas. Scientists agree this is due in large part to warming ocean temperatures making the birds’ primary source of food – fish – move farther away.

Divine says the Unangan grow more concerned as the pristine ecosystem in which they’ve thrived for generations shows signs of breaking down.

“A healthy ecosystem is something that provides for the culture, that provides for the people -- so it was something that was pretty alarming for everyone," Divine said.

Divine has also paid close attention to another mortality event that scientists have declared “unusual” -- the deaths of nearly 150 gray whales on their migration from Mexico to Alaska. She anticipates whale carcasses will soon be joining the birds on the shores of the Pribilof Islands.

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