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Seal Science: Into the Ocean: The importance of bio sampling for the preservation of Indigenous seal hunting practices

This article is one of eight in a series of outreach materials funded through a partnership between Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI) and the Indigenous People’s Council for Marine Mammals (IPCoMM) on harbor seal conservation and subsistence harvesting.

By Maddie Henson

Wooch Yáx and Haa Aaní — values of the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian cultures which prioritize balance and the protection of land are the same ones applied to culturally responsible seal hunting. In the oceans ranging from the Dixon Entrance to the Aleutian Islands, harbor seals (Phoca vitulina richardii) function as critical links in the food webs of marine ecosystems. On land, they find a place as hallmarks of traditional Southeast Alaskan culture and diets. Everything has a purpose: the hide serves as the basis of art and clothing, the meat feeds the community, and the oil from the blubber is used to preserve and accompany subsistence foods. Indigenous people have recognized that there is no independent member, including themselves, in an ecosystem and have learned that overpopulation, disease, and environmental challenges can impact a healthy seal population and in turn, the entire ecosystem. The convergence of paths to understanding harbor seals in a new light can be combined with western methodologies and Indigenous science. Bio sampling is one methodology, and within the partnership with Southeast Alaskan communities, can be used for the preservation and subsequent education to younger generations of Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian peoples.

Climate change and environmental pollution remain active threats to seal populations and entire ecosystems. Broadly, bio sampling is the use of any biological assay to test and collect data on. Samples can include, but are not limited to, saliva, skin, connective tissue, blood, fur, whiskers, teeth, and much more. In the case of harbor seals, bio sampling allows for the detection of containments, such as microplastics and heavy metals, and various diseases, which threaten the health of the population. The Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world, by a process known as polar amplification, and the immunity of harbor seals is confronted by pathogens, ancient and modern, that are finding more hospitable environments to live in. 

Recently, the communities of Yakutat, Angoon, Juneau, and Hoonah participated in Sealaska Heritage Institute’s seal hunter youth outreach and bio sampling education program with traditional hunters and scientists co-instructing.  Using láayadux̱ḵ’áns’ the traditional offering of tobacco or food to the local spirits of the glaciers, mountains, and oceans experienced seal hunters would bring in a freshly killed harbor seal with the intestines removed. They were removed to reduce contamination, bacterial growth, and ultimately improve the flavor of the meat. This approach also provided better means of testing intestine samples, which are important to understand the trophic gaps in food webs based on the diet of seals. On separate examination tables, the carcass of the seal was laid next to the intestines. Instructors and students were required to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) as a precautionary measure against zoonotic disease transmissions. Examples of zoonotic pathogens found in seals can include, but are not limited to, brucella, mycobacterial infections, seal pox, leptospirosis, toxoplasmosis, and trichinosis. Students were active participants in bio sampling procedures, including the identification of unknown tumors or visible morphological changes, measurement of length and girth of the seal’s body, and the depth of the blubber. Hard data provided a qualitative approach to the health of Southeast Alaskan marine ecosystems, with the long-term collection of measurements to form a database strategic in understanding the local effects of climate change.

 As students continued their examinations, traditional seal hunters explained the value of proper handling of meat and maintaining the hide for optimal coat coloration and preservation. Additionally, several hunters brought in hides that were improperly handled for the students to see the stark contrast in coloration and quality between the two. Being able to identify differences in hide quality sharpens students' identification skills, teaching them to observe all facets of the harbor seal as indicators of ocean health.

Seal hunting is a circular practice, aiming not to harm the ecosystem, but to instead instill Wooch Yáx̱ or the balance of all things. There are no thoughtless actions in Indigenous seal hunting. Every step of the process is a declaration of reverence for the spirits that have allowed Southeast Alaskan Native communities to hunt and survive for over the last 11,000 years. With the use of western methodologies, such as bio sampling, Indigenous communities can deepen their respect for their relationship with the seals, subsistence hunting, and further promote the youth education of traditional knowledge. Haa Aaní is the Tlingit translation of the value of honoring and utilizing the land, and the implementation of biosampling techniques to monitor the health of harbor seal populations is working towards that value. For the sake of the declining marine ecosystem's health, the continuation of strategic programming and outreach education is crucial for the survival of this traditional hunting practice.