Gay Sheffield was interviewed on February 6, 2020 by Leslie McCartney at the Northwest Campus of the University of Alaska in Nome, Alaska. In this interview, Gay talks about her observations of and scientific research on environmental change in the Nome region. She discusses changes in the marine ecosystem, ocean currents and water temperature, fish, seals, sea birds, biotoxins and algal blooms, weather patterns, sea ice, wind, and industrial marine traffic. She also talks about scientific surveys of the Bering Sea region, the importance of local knowledge, and concerns about impacts to subsistence and local food resources.
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Personal background, education, work history, and researching marine mammals in Alaska
Learning from local people, and responding to community concerns
Observations of change in the Bering Strait marine ecosystem
Role of sea ice in the marine ecosystem, and algae in the water column
Presence of fish in cold and warm water
Weakening of the thermal barrier between ecosystems
Observations of change in fish populations
Presence of oiled wildlife
Disease in seals
Sea bird die-off
Arrival of new species, and range extensions for some species
Presence of Stellar sea lions
Observations of change in fish and fishing
Scientific surveys of the Bering Sea
Concerns about biotoxins and the effect of large algal blooms
Mass strandings of marine mammals, and poor body condition of seals
Expansion of large-scale commercial fishing
Importance of population assessments and protecting subsistence resources
Possible impact from increased industrial maritime traffic
Challenges of getting broader attention for regional issues
Strength and knowledge of local people, and the importance of combining local knowledge and science
Communication between communities, scientists, and government agencies
Helping with future surveys of the Bering Sea
Recent weather, sea ice, and wind conditions
Concerns about environmental change to people in communities who are dependent upon local food resources
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LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Today is Thursday, February the 6th, 2020. I’m Leslie McCartney, and we’re here at the University of Alaska Northwest Campus in Nome. And I have the pleasure of being with Gay Sheffield, the Alaska marine biologist. Mammal biologist, correct?
GAY SHEFFIELD: I’m actually now -- in my former career was a marine mammal biologist for the State of Alaska Arctic Marine Mammal Program, specifically, with some exception, in Prince William Sound, working on multi-species marine mammal projects from Kaktovik to Nome.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right. And then today, you are the Alaska Sea Grant marine program?
GAY SHEFFIELD: So now, I’m University of Alaska Fairbanks. And I’ll just say it all so you got it all. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yes. GAY SHEFFIELD: University of Alaska Fairbanks, College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences faculty, and the Alaska Sea Grant agent for the Bering Strait region. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Wow.
GAY SHEFFIELD: It’s a -- it’s a -- Sea Grant is a national program. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Um-hm. GAY SHEFFIELD: That’s embedded in land grant colleges, of which University of Alaska Fairbanks is, so. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Great. GAY SHEFFIELD: And we have lots of coast.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: So Gay, where -- where are you originally from, and what is your background, education, and how you got into marine biology?
GAY SHEFFIELD: I was originally from the island of Aquidneck in the fair state of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. From the town of Middletown.
How I got to where I am now is a trail I would never have guessed, but -- or planned on. But I arrived to Alaska in 1988. My background in education was a master’s in science.
And, of course, I grew up outside all the time. Water. You’re on an island. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right. Yeah. Yeah. GAY SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Sailing and hiking and all those things that one does.
Came up here and started -- I needed a job, so I started working with the US Fish & Wildlife Service as a volunteer, ’cause they would feed you and give you a house for the summer.
And I ended up on a walrus haul-out location called Cape Pierce, because of my boating experience. You needed a boat. It was very remote. Hundred and twenty miles west of Dillingham, so. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Hm.
GAY SHEFFIELD: But interestingly, not many people knew anything that I -- that was in charge of what I was doing, about walruses.
And there was a book in the cabin where I lived for six months called "The Ecology and Biology of the Pacific Walrus" by a man named Bud Fay. And he seemed to know a lot about walrus.
So he is my -- he was my advisor. He passed away in ’94. And he -- we had many conversations, and he wanted me to go back to school, which was not something I wanted to do. And he won. So I did go back to school. Studied walrus diet.
Worked for the State of Alaska for several years, and then came out to Nome, still working for the State of Alaska as the marine mammal biologist. And then, had this opportunity to work with the Sea Grant Program and took it, so I could stay here in Nome.
The funding as faculty is much more secure than as a contractor by the State of Alaska. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right. GAY SHEFFIELD: For marine mammal issues.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Wow, great. Where was -- where did you -- where was Bud based? What -- what university? GAY SHEFFIELD: University of Alaska Fairbanks. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: It was. Ok, right.
GAY SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And he was in the, um -- you know, looking back on that, I’m not sure. I think he might have been in -- he was with the Institute of Arctic Health. I don’t know if that’s even around anymore. Um, amazing man.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right. So I know you’re really super busy, and I really want to thank you for taking the time today, but what we’re -- what we’re interested in -- this is a project where National Park Service has funded, um, us and two parks, Klondike Gold Rush and Bering Land Bridge, to talk to people about changes that they’ve seen in fish, mammals, climate, permafrost, anything.
Changes over -- over a period of time. And then comparing and contrasting the two parks.
So you say that you have seen a lot of changes, and um, that’s really what we want to focus on today, because I know your time is really valuable.
GAY SHEFFIELD: Right. Ok, well, thanks. And change. Where to start on that.
The Bering Strait region, to -- in my eyes, since I first started working out here in ’92 and then fully moved out here in 2007 and was working -- basically living in communities, spring and fall, thanks to the patience of the people.
As a marine mammal biologist working in the Arctic, you were taught that you would be doing things like, what is the reproductive rate of bearded seal? What is the, you know, what are ring seals eating? Things along that nature. The biology and fitness of the animals.
I was taught, not by agency people, but by, uh -- when Bud Fay passed away in ’94, my education was still at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, but my education into the coast was really picked up by a man named John Burns, who was one of Bud Fay’s good, good friends.
So I was carried along by these two men and educated in a completely, I think, different way than I was hearing from the rest of the people in the urban-based setting of Fairbanks.
And that was, you know, if you want to know something, you go to the coast and you -- you -- if you are lucky, and if you work hard, you may -- the people that live on the coast may actually try to educate you and let you know a glimpse of their knowledge.
And uh, and that is -- that is a different mindset, I think, than what we normally hear these days. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Um-hm.
GAY SHEFFIELD: So I have been blessed and humbled by the people of this Bering Strait Region to learn a few things and have people just -- just the very basics, but people have been patient and kind and teaching.
And I try to absorb as much as I can, because the knowledge is comprehensive and -- and well-founded. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yes.
GAY SHEFFIELD: So uh, knowing that I would start -- you know, it would be something like, you’d be studying the walrus diet or the ring seal diet, or something like that, I would say since I took this position, and since I moved to Nome in 2007, since I took this position in 2010, this position freed me up more to respond to communities a little bit more, and it has been --
I have been responding to public health and food security concerns that have not -- in fact, they just keep coming. You thought, well in the beginning, well, that -- that’s -- Wow, that’s unusual. And oh, and we have another one. That’s unusual.
And now, it’s -- it’s -- perhaps the results, the ecosystem shift, the massive ecosystem shift that is underway in the Bering Strait marine ecosystem as to the Northern Bering Sea and the Southern Bering Sea ecosystems are transitioning or merging into each other, is um --
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Can you give me an example, Gay, of -- of you said something, "Oh, well, that’s unusual."
GAY SHEFFIELD: Ok, so if you -- a list of events that have happened, and then I’ll tell you why they’ve probably happened. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Ok.
GAY SHEFFIELD: Well, I guess let me give you the big picture. There were two -- there -- the Northern Bering Sea, which is -- which is, um -- the way I’ve been schooled, the Northern Bering Sea is, we’re shallow, right. Bering Strait Region, the current flows north. We are rich, rich in water that is coming up from, especially on the western side, from the Anadyr Current. And, of course, the Alaska side’s got a weaker, more fresh-water current called the Alaska Coastal Current.
Those two currents are coming up into the shallows on the Northern Bering Sea. That rich water in the west has not been tapped yet, so it, booh! Hits the sun, you know, turns into magnificent algal and zooplankton soup, which is the primary part of the food chain, and we feed a tremendous amount of animals nonstop, spring and fall.
Millions of birds, populations of seals, all clumped together. Four populations of seals. Walrus. We’ve got Stellar sea lion. We’ve got a number of large whales. We’ve got transient animals that are migrating through, here and there, different seasons.
We feed everyone. They always come here to feed. They either feed throughout the winter or they’re feeding throughout the summer or they’re feeding in the -- on the way up or down.
We can do that because we’re shallow, we’re rich in our nutrients in the water, and we have a lot of ice cover that used to cover the Northern Bering Sea.
The ice does two things. You lock up salt water by freezing it, and you’re locking up a large portion of the fresh water. Hope I’m telling this right on your microphone. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Um-hm. Yeah. GAY SHEFFIELD: And I’m still on my coffee.
And um, when you lock up that freshwater portion of the ocean and remove it immediately, right, pooh! It’s a solid now.
Right below is briny water, a little bit saltier. The trick is, that saltier water, that can remain colder than freezing and still be liquid. That’s important. Colder than freezing and still be liquid.
And it’s heavy. Right? It’s condensed. It’s very cold, it’s dense. And pooh! It goes to the bottom of the ocean very fast. And the bottom of the ocean is the calmest place.
And then, you have ice on -- over the top, maybe a hundred feet up. You got ice all on top.
So that cold water, that salt’s gonna drain out of that fresh ice all winter, and you get this very, very cold, stable water on the bottom.
And it reflects where the ice has been, because that’s what’s making it. And it is continually replenished.
And, meanwhile, while winter’s still going on and you have the ice above you, it’s like a greenhouse window. And we’re down here where we don’t lose the sun. We lose it for a while, but not like -- not like they do up north. It’s never gone-gone.
And we have ice algae as the winter plays out. And it’s quiet and -- I don’t know about quiet, but it’s stable down there. And it’s like a little greenhouse.
When -- when the summer comes and that ice goes away, and all that algae, boof! Joins the water column, feeds the clams, we’re rich in the benthos, the bottom sea floor. We’ve got tunicates, crab, clams, snails, you name it. That is how we feed all our -- a lot of, not all. A lot of the large animals here, bearded seal, gray whale, walrus, so forth.
Everything's ok? LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yep. Yep. GAY SHEFFIELD: So where was I? LESLIE MCCARTNEY: All this -- the --
GAY SHEFFIELD: Yeah, all that algae in the water. Ok, so it gets shunted up north, along with the krill we’ve produced, up to a place like Utqiaġvik or further up the coast.
In the summertime, finally, storm action will start to woozle up that water on the bottom, the very cold water that is separating different ecosystems.
I didn’t tell you what the southern is, but I will right now. So when the -- when the ecosystem -- when the waves come in the summer and kind of woozle it up on the bottom a little bit, there’s fish that don’t like the cold. They don’t do well.
Fish are cold-blooded. If you -- some fish are well adapted like our Arctic cod or our capelin. Any of those fish. They love the cold water. Saffron cod.
But the fish to the south of us, large, predatory, typically commercially viable fish, like pollock, polar -- sorry, um, Pacific cod and other large fish, they’re huge, compared to ours, they’re hungry, and they feed on the bottom like a Pacific cod. And they feed through the water column on algae or on little fish. Both do well eating little fish.
We also have jellyfish and all these other southern, large marine mammals. And they always sort of stayed back, ’cause we had that barrier. In the summertime, it would start to break down, and we’d get -- pollock are not unknown up here. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Um-hm. GAY SHEFFIELD: Polar -- sorry, I keep calling them polar cod. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Pacific. GAY SHEFFIELD: Pacific cod are not unknown up here, but they’re not a big player. They kind of sneak up when the water is warm, and then they’ll either die off when winter comes.
And so, it gets a little diffused, I guess, the barrier. But then, phew! Here comes the ice. It freezes. The cold is -- water on the bottom is replenished. That cold, salty, stable water is replenished, and we continue on, Northern Bering Sea and Southern Bering Sea.
We don’t have a system like that anymore. So we have lost ice. That’s well-documented in the recent history.
Um, and all that we are seeing is sort of as a result of, I think, the loss of that barrier due to the loss of ice.
We lose ice, we don’t replenish the cold water. The thermal barrier is weakened. We lose at the same time our ice that holds ice algae.
And the barrier separating two distinct ecosystems has been so dissolved and now removed that there is no longer a barrier to the Southern Bering Sea animals.
Thus, we see things like, we went from -- well, there’s no thermal barrier. They couldn’t find the -- on the bottom. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Um-hm. GAY SHEFFIELD: In 2018.
But we don’t have surveys very often. So the only time they’ve taken a look here, uh, the NOAA fisheries does a great job. NOAA RACE division (Resource Assessment and Conservation Engineering).
And they do a survey, give us a lot of information, the region a lot of information on the temperatures and the -- what they find in their little test trawl net.
And what they found is temperatures, of course, are now very, very warm throughout. So no more barrier. We still have a little cold water here and there, but nothing to hold it back. And the animals from the south have really overwhelmed this region.
So we went from -- from say, St Matthew Island to Diomede is sort of the target area, including Norton Sound. Ends at the border. We went from something, I could get the numbers, but it was like twenty-six thousand metric tons of Pacific cod to over three hundred thousand metric tons of Pacific cod.
And pollock really did it. We had about the same number, twenty-one or twenty-six thousand metric tons of pollock, seasonally, between Diomede and St. Matthew Island, and we are now -- last time they looked last year, 1.1 million metric tons.
So these numbers are -- these are un -- not normal at all to have a, I think they said, like a five thousand percent increase in the biomass of pollock in a -- I don’t know, I’m making these numbers up, but they have it all in a report.
Eleven hundred percent increase in the, you know, in the biomass of Pacific cod in a really small, shallow area. Those are large predators.
At the same time we’ve reduced, though I haven’t seen any figures on this, but just by the fact that we have such ice reduction so quickly, I think we were shy last April. We were missing, in the Northern Bering Sea, about two hundred thousand or more square miles of ice. So we were missing about what I would equate that to, like, the Amazon jungle of ice algae. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Hm.
GAY SHEFFIELD: So less food, bigger predators. Lots of them. And no relief.
So some of the changes, some of the events we’ve had to respond to have been -- and I’ll just go back to 2010. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Um-hm. GAY SHEFFIELD: ’Cause I have that in my brain here. And on this -- I just gave a talk. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Um-hm.
GAY SHEFFIELD: So in 2011? I think it was 2012. I’ll just say in the last twelve -- ten years. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Ten years.
GAY SHEFFIELD: In the last ten years, we’ve had the first -- just in the Northern Bering -- in the Bering Strait Region, we had the first Unified Command stood up for oiled wildlife in the Arctic.
And that was for -- we had um, oiled seals being harvested. Heavily oiled. And we had seabirds. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Um-hm. GAY SHEFFIELD: Also heavily oiled. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Oh, my heavens.
GAY SHEFFIELD: Yeah, heavily oiled. That were harvested, and people acted on their food security and public health concerns and said --
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Where’s the oil coming from? GAY SHEFFIELD: Where’s it coming from? LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right. GAY SHEFFIELD: Thus, we had the first Unified Command stood up for the Arctic.
Interestingly, this region had to inform the federal government that there had been a boat, a fishing vessel, that had gone down. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Um-hm. GAY SHEFFIELD: A processor that had gone down off of Cape Navarin, Russian side.
And I sure hope we get better about communicating. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Um-hm. GAY SHEFFIELD: On both sides of the Bering Strait. You know, Alaska and Chukotka, we seem to communicate, but we -- we hope that Russia and America are able to be better.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: So boat went down there and the oil, of course -- GAY SHEFFIELD: Yeah, and the oil -- and the oil started getting on animals. And we couldn’t find the oil.
The Coast Guard did a tremendously good job of responding, but it seemed the oil was not on our side. So that was one. Then we had to test the animals for food. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Um-hm. GAY SHEFFIELD: You know, ok. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah.
GAY SHEFFIELD: Then starting in 2011, and this was ubiquitous throughout Western Alaska, really, Western and Northern Alaska, was seals were -- ringed, bearded, spotted, and ribbon seals, all four types of seals, all with the same timing, all exhibited similar symptoms of an unknown disease.
Hundreds of cases were reported, which means there were thousands -- LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Thousands. GAY SHEFFIELD: -- of infected animals. There were many that were not infected, or not affected.
But the primary symptoms in 2011 were lesions around the anus and -- and armpits and eyes, all the thin-skinned areas on the animal. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Um-hm. GAY SHEFFIELD: Um, circular, liquid-filled lesions. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Um-hm.
GAY SHEFFIELD: There was -- the animal itself had stopped feeding, various degrees. They were skinny. They were lethargic. They were approachable. Not all -- different species had -- but very -- commonalities to all these symptoms.
And they lost the ability to molt their coat properly, so by falltime, they looked like they were -- the people would say we got bald seals. But really it was because they had not completed their molt properly.
That still we see the molting coat problem occasionally, but the worst year of sort of death and um, affected seals, was in 2011. We saw survivors in 2012.
And by ’13-'14 and so forth, they got -- we saw seals that had difficulty growing their hair, but the crisis seemed to be over as far as dying or not feeding.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: So and the name of this? Was there a name for this? GAY SHEFFIELD: There was not a name. It was called -- the federal government declared it an unusual mortality event. You have to -- that’s at the national level.
We, out of this office, with help from -- help -- the communities were the ones that were providing tissues on their -- the backs of their sweat and effort, um, to Kawerak Subsistence Program, to myself, to the Eskimo Walrus Commission. Lots of people, we all rallied.
Interestingly, it was a completely regional effort. Um, and we dealt with it out here as best we could.
There has been no, uh -- the results that came back were, there was no sort of, quote, “smoking gun.” It’s still unknown what it was. There’s a lot of theories, and no one agrees on what that was. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: So there --
GAY SHEFFIELD: But that can -- was finally officially shut down in 2016 by the federal government.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: So today are the seals still -- some seals still showing signs of this? GAY SHEFFIELD: Yep. Not -- not in the -- not the sickness part. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: But the molt? GAY SHEFFIELD: But the ability to lose -- the ability to grow your coat properly, yes.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Which means for them, come wintertime, does that mean that they’re not as insulated and as warm? GAY SHEFFIELD: No. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: No?
GAY SHEFFIELD: It’s the fat they need. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: The fat? GAY SHEFFIELD: Yeah. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Ok.
GAY SHEFFIELD: I don’t know. You know, it could be more difficult for them somehow with that ratty coat. You know, they might be more visible. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Um-hm. GAY SHEFFIELD: On the ice. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Gosh.
GAY SHEFFIELD: Then we moved right into -- while that was ongoing, and we actually had oiled wildlife three years in a row, we actually had that unusual mortality event of the -- I think it was called, officially, the Alaska -- Northern Alaska pinniped unusual mortality event. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Mm. GAY SHEFFIELD: It had a big, long name.
And, well, in the middle of all that, St. Lawrence Island reported hundreds of birds washing in dead. Multi species one day, so they were -- people out there always responding to public health and food security concerns for all of us, not just themselves.
But what is this? If they see it, is it going on somewhere else? They have the opportunity to try to grab some carcasses and maybe get an answer. People did.
It turned out it was the first avian cholera documented in the state of Alaska, and it was the first ever documented seabirds. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Huh. GAY SHEFFIELD: Multi species.
So we -- again, the communities and the region rallied and responded. For none of these have we seen people come out to respond to these. Although we are contacting federal authorities, who are responsible for these animals.
Um, it just gives you an idea of the remoteness, maybe, or the -- don’t know. But anyway, know that we’ve -- it’s been busy. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah, it’s -- GAY SHEFFIELD: For everyone.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: It’s an alarm bell, isn’t it? I mean, if you’ve got cholera in the northern regions, avian cholera.
GAY SHEFFIELD: Avian cholera is from a bacteria. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Oh. GAY SHEFFIELD: It’s very potent for the bird, but it’s not, as far as we understand it, as far as we were told, it’s, um -- we were all ok.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Ok. So when you say the re -- the communities responded, what -- what is the response of the communities? GAY SHEFFIELD: They report. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Report. GAY SHEFFIELD: They report. They want answers. They want to know if their food is safe. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right. Yeah.
GAY SHEFFIELD: Yeah. So we try to give that message, as well as the communities themselves are trying to give that message to the -- to the authorities when we see them. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Um-hm. Wow.
GAY SHEFFIELD: Then we’ve also had novel species. Um, so in the first hanasaki crab I’m aware of came out of a gentleman’s crab hole at Diomede.
This crab is a king crab. It’s a very near-shore king crab, but it originates in South Korea and Japan. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Hm. GAY SHEFFIELD: And it was the first hanasaki crab documented in US waters, period. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Wow.
GAY SHEFFIELD: And now they’re thriving. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: They’re thriving? GAY SHEFFIELD: They’re thriving, yeah. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Wow.
GAY SHEFFIELD: And they -- I guess they taste good. I -- not knowingly, I don’t know if I’ve eaten one, but um. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Huh.
GAY SHEFFIELD: But um, they -- they -- I’ve heard they’re delicious. Is this all right? You want these? LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yes.
Are they competing, then, with the crabs that -- GAY SHEFFIELD: We have no idea. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right. GAY SHEFFIELD: But people do wonder if --
They are very near-shore. You can pull ’em -- you can see people pull ’em out of the, you know, get in their little dinghy or something and just go float around and rake ’em up. I’ve seen video on the Russian side, Chukotka side. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Um-hm. GAY SHEFFIELD: Same, they’re raking up, if not this one, then it’s another crab. But very near shore.
Um, it’s making it difficult for the NOAA fishery people to actually document them, ’cause they can’t -- the vessels are too large to come in as close as they would need to do to get these crab. Are they competing with our blue and our red king crab? Unknown --
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: So I thought crabs were -- GAY SHEFFIELD: -- to me. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: -- were real, um, needed a real salty water. GAY SHEFFIELD: I --
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: These ones, maybe, thrive in more of a fresh water brine? GAY SHEFFIELD: I don’t know. Or maybe warmer water? LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Warm, yeah? GAY SHEFFIELD: I don’t know. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah. GAY SHEFFIELD: Yeah. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Interesting. GAY SHEFFIELD: Yep.
And then, just in the last ten years, you know, we say range extensions, I -- it’s hard to actually say how many we’ve had.
Humpback whales started going through the Strait, that I’m aware of. People were calling and saying, "What are these whales with long arms?" LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Hm. GAY SHEFFIELD: Blowing rings of bubbles. That was in 2006. We’ve had fish from the Aleutians now established here.
We’ve had visitors five hundred miles from where they were ever -- their most northern documentation prior to landing on St. Lawrence Island. Like the Stejneger’s beaked whale. Dall’s porpoise are supposed to be in the Aleutians.
So we see the fish, we see the -- the southern species that have extended up, and then the animals that we have have -- that utilize the Bering Strait Region are changing up their timing. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Oh.
GAY SHEFFIELD: So we have large, adult Stellar sea lions. Bud Fay himself and all the people on St. Lawrence Island already knew this for a long time, but Bud Fay was the first one, maybe, to go write it down in the science literature.
But -- and he completely and always thanked and humbled himself to say that the knowledge he was gaining was from the communities. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah.
GAY SHEFFIELD: Um, he was just documenting it and trying to get it into the scientific literature where others could see it and learn as well.
So there’s always been sea lions on the south side of St. Lawrence Island. The government has actually had critical habitat established there since 2003 or something. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Um-hm.
GAY SHEFFIELD: And uh, they now stay. Stellar sea lions used to get driven out by the ice. And now they stay into December. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Wow.
GAY SHEFFIELD: I was at Diomede December 16th, this -- 2019, just -- LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Um-hm. GAY SHEFFIELD: And there were four Stellar sea lions hauled out at Fairway Rock. That’s about ten miles south of Diomede. Mid-December. That’s pretty unusual. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right. GAY SHEFFIELD: They used to be there in July. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Wow.
GAY SHEFFIELD: But everything -- So we see these big range extensions or um, timing is different for the animals that -- You know, gray whales stay into December, and -- LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Um-hm.
GAY SHEFFIELD: These fish are washing up. The pollock and the cod wash up in -- when they get cold, finally, in December. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Um-hm.
GAY SHEFFIELD: Those are some recent things we’ve seen. Um, unusual fishing conditions, that -- that goes with this whole big story of what’s unfolding beneath the ocean. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Um-hm.
GAY SHEFFIELD: We have people -- here in Nome, our crabbing season was very poor. We don’t have a market for Pacific cod here, but people were catching instead of crab in their pots, Pacific cod in their pots in number.
So -- and these are large. These are not the smaller -- small-size ones that used to kinda come up here and maybe check it out and then go back. These are the large -- LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Vacuum cleaners. GAY SHEFFIELD: Very large, twenty-five-pound fish. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Wow.
GAY SHEFFIELD: Um, difficult for -- they gobble up. They gobble up crab. They gobble up sculpin. They gobble up pop cans, I’ve been told. They gobbled up -- a NOAA fishery guy told us, they gobbled up a russet potato once. They -- they have a very large head, and they -- they eat what’s in front of them.
Remember we were known for large amounts of small, fatty forage fish and krill. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right. GAY SHEFFIELD: And the pollock will eat plenty of krill, and when they are big enough, they’ll eat their own. And they’ll eat all other small fish.
So we’ve sort of -- seems like we might have become a predator pit here. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Mm. GAY SHEFFIELD: And all these are responses to this transition that we seem to find ourselves in. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right.
GAY SHEFFIELD: So unusual fishing conditions has been easiest way to tell you. But I could go into all the weird -- people catch a lot of this fish. We don’t see this fish typically.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: What kind of fish? GAY SHEFFIELD: Um, you know, I don’t -- we had -- well, we have halibut here. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yes.
GAY SHEFFIELD: But we’ve had really great -- that’s not all bad. We’ve had really great halibut fishing to the south and west of Nome. But um, you know, meanwhile crab is going down and so forth. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah.
GAY SHEFFIELD: And the other one in the last three years, you know, we lost -- the NOAA fishery guys were able to come up and give a look at our water and our fish. Our water temperatures and our fish composition.
In 2010, they’ve only been up here -- in forty years, they’ve only been up here -- they do the Southern Bering Sea every year, very thoroughly, because of the commercial value, I think.
The Southern Bering Sea's providing something like forty percent of the country’s seafood. So this is an issue for them. Because if that’s becoming -- if that’s on the move, or that’s being affected, then what does this mean for -- there’s a bigger problem for the United States, I guess.
So anyway. I feel like I’m scattered all over the place. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: That’s ok. So if that’s the case --
GAY SHEFFIELD: So we’ve only been surveyed -- 2010 was the initial time. They went from St. Matthew to Diomede, and they do a really great job.
And then they came up in 2017. Holy cow, what they saw in 2017 was so stunning they came back in -- They said, "We’ll be back in two years." Would be 2019.
But in 2018, they gave us 72 hours’ notice that they were coming, because of conditions that were so unexpected in the Southern Bering Sea, like no cold water on the benth -- LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Wow. GAY SHEFFIELD: They could find nothing.
So they -- no cold water. Plenty of fish, but no cold water. So they -- they had a -- they called it a rapid response, I think. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah. GAY SHEFFIELD: Emergency is not a good word. Rapid response is better.
So they had a rapid response to this survey that they were undergoing in the south and came and surveyed the Northern Bering Sea as best they could, given that they didn’t have enough money or time to do the thorough. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Um-hm.
GAY SHEFFIELD: They did sort of a second-best, which was still very eye-opening. So they found there was no cold -- there was no thermal barrier. In forty years of looking, that has never been found.
So that was tremendously good they did come up when they realized there was a problem.
Then they came up last year and did their 2019 survey, and we have found out they’re doing their -- it’s the earliest they’ve ever been told they know they have the money to do a 2020 survey.
They’re not -- these surveys are very expensive and very hard to pull off. They’re doing the entire Bering Sea. And after not doing it for thirty-something years. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Um-hm. GAY SHEFFIELD: Pok-pok-pok-pok.
This is now -- maybe you can understand the -- the potential severity of the problem. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yes. GAY SHEFFIELD: That the government realizes this is a -- this is a severe situation, I think. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah. Yeah.
GAY SHEFFIELD: So anyway, we’re seeing lots of different kinds of fish, you know, those kinds of things. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right.
GAY SHEFFIELD: Um, as -- as that has been unfolding in the last couple of years, I would say ’17, ’18, and ’19 were very low ice years for us. That’s when the thermal barrier’s not found.
And then at the same time, ’17, ’18, and ’19, we start seeing multi-species, large seabird die-offs throughout the Bering Strait Region on both si -- not so much that we haven’t been able to communicate as well with the Chukotkan side. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Um-hm.
GAY SHEFFIELD: But they also see dead birds, especially this year. Numbers of dead bird -- multi species.
We were worried about saxitoxin. Harmful algal blooms is a -- is a consideration and is going to be a big story ahead, I think, as the temperatures have risen on the bottom.
We know we have saxi -- we have biotoxins that are, um, dangerous to the animals and the people in high concentrations. And it’s just a matter of time, I think.
We already had blooms this year that people found off-shore, um -- saxitoxin in clams that were above the seafood regulatory limit. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Hm.
GAY SHEFFIELD: So we know at least for seventy miles north of St. Lawrence Island and fifty miles north of Cape Lisburne. That was a cruise done by the US Coast Guard "Healy," that had Woods Hole (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution) oceanographers on board, and that data is with -- a real mix of Kathi Lefebvre, NOAA-WARRN West lab (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Wildlife Algal Toxins Research and Response Network (WARRN) - West), and Woods Hole, Don Anderson. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Hm.
GAY SHEFFIELD: So we’ve got that going on. But multi-species seabird die-offs, everyone tested the birds for saxitoxin thinking, wow, maybe these biotoxins have hit. There is some evidence of low level of saxitoxin, and since we have no information on what that means in a bird, they’re working on that. There’s -- the National Wildlife Health Center is working on trying to figure out what does saxitoxin mean in a bird.
But the common cause of death for the seabirds for the last three years has been emaciation. They have no fat. They are obviously not feeding well.
Are they not feeding well because they don’t feel good? Are they not feeding well because they don’t have any typical amount of food, either krill or small, fatty forage fish?
At the same time, ’18 and ’19, and actually recently it came to light in 2017, first time we’ve ever had mass dead strandings of young sea -- any marine mammal in the Bering Strait Region, and we have pulled off mass strandings of seals, primarily ringed, bearded, and spotted, young. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Um-hm.
GAY SHEFFIELD: For the past three years. Mass strandings? Common cause of death when we are able to get a carcass is um, emaciation. They are not feeding.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: So starvation again? So either they’re not eating because they’re not hungry, or something's wrong. GAY SHEFFIELD: They’re probably chewing (?) your -- you and everyone up. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Or -- or there’s -- GAY SHEFFIELD: But it’s real. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: -- there’s no food?
GAY SHEFFIELD: Yeah, either we have -- yeah, it’s either -- you know, we have this ecosystem’s transitioning, so -- and I’m not the -- I’m just a responder, right? LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right. GAY SHEFFIELD: I'm not -- There's --
All data has been provided by the communities, by the people that are looking at the seals, by the people that we have that are good enough to come back and explain to the region what their results are. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Um-hm.
GAY SHEFFIELD: Um, but I think if you’re looking for change, the Northern Bering Sea marine ecosystem certainly has had their share. Industrially, now -- so there’s another unusual mortality event under way. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Uh-huh.
GAY SHEFFIELD: This one is for the poor body condition of the seals. I don’t quite know how we’re going to work this one, but we are -- are trying to make all -- I’m trying to get a letter out from the federal government to our tribes to invite them as formal partners. ’Cause that hasn’t been done in the past. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Hm.
GAY SHEFFIELD: For working on this investigation as to why the seals are hungry.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: And it’s all the four types of seals you have seen?
GAY SHEFFIELD: We have not seen ribbon seals very much. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Oh. Ok. GAY SHEFFIELD: Um, because they are -- they’re a open-water seal. They really don’t stick around this region, and certainly their young may -- may blow through here, but they are really open-water seals.
They utilize the ice to pup, and I don’t know how they’re doing. There’s a lot of questions about how they are doing. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Hm.
GAY SHEFFIELD: We don’t see very much of them. But um, I want think they’re not -- they're not -- none of these animals are dumb. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah. GAY SHEFFIELD: They’re smart. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah. GAY SHEFFIELD: And um, so we see poor body condition in the seals.
And then industry has responded this past year, a little quicker than anticipated, but I guess they know what they’re doing, so they -- they follow the fish. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Um-hm.
GAY SHEFFIELD: So we now have, um -- we have found out ourselves, it was locally brought to our attention, that we have had about six, up to ten, Pacific cod longline processor catcher boats between St. Lawrence Island and Diomede this summer, into the fall, and into the late fall. And that brings a -- a lot of questions. But now we have large vessels.
And we don’t know on the Russian side, we know they’re fishing it, but we don’t really -- since the countries aren’t talking.
And it’s a shared water body. It’s a shared ecosystem. So that is frustrating at the local level. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Um-hm. GAY SHEFFIELD: But um, that’s the way it is, currently.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: And right now there’s no regulation to say that they can’t be going that far north for fishing?
GAY SHEFFIELD: Oh, there is. Actually, they’re allowed to go there. The area of the Northern Bering Sea, starting around south of St. Lawrence Island, is a non -- non-trawl area. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Um-hm. GAY SHEFFIELD: So you cannot trawl.
Um, it’s temporary. I think people think we should relax. That that’s not ever going to happen. But um, it’s a temporary research zone, I think is how it’s called. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Uh-huh.
GAY SHEFFIELD: I’m sorry, I’m not speaking with a lot of authority here 'cause I’m just -- LESLIE MCCARTNEY: No, that’s all right.
GAY SHEFFIELD: But the arrival of the industry brings a lot of questions into an area when you’re talking about the shallow Northern Bering Sea. And they did quite well. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Um-hm. GAY SHEFFIELD: Um, they were able to get --
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: It was worth their while? GAY SHEFFIELD: It was worth their while. And there’s -- these large vessels were staying for months as far away from Unalaska, which is the port, Dutch Harbor. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yes. GAY SHEFFIELD: Where they can off-load.
So it’s a very long trip down and a very long trip back. Costs a lot in gas. And they continue to stay until basically the ice sort of pushed ’em down.
That is interesting, because they are choosing to stay in a place that is costing them the most amount of money to fish. Which means to me, it wasn’t worth their while to be fishing to the south. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right. Yeah.
GAY SHEFFIELD: So it’s gonna be very interesting. We hear the Gulf of Alaska is closed now to Pacific cod, except for maybe state water, small fishery going on there.
And there’s a lot of question and unknown for me, and I’m sure the regional communities, about, you know, are all these boats gonna show up from the Gulf?
I mean, it is legal to fish non-trawl gear, thus longliners, all the way to Diomede. You can't -- On the US side, none of -- there’s no federal commercial fishing north of the line.
There’s an imaginary line drawn from Wales just north of -- of Diomede. None of those vessels can pass, but that doesn’t mean they can’t come and fish in the Northern -- in the Southern Bering Strait, Northern Bering Sea, they can absolutely.
And, you know, now we have longline, what does that mean? What is that equipment? Does that have any impact on -- physically, on the animals? Does having large vessels deflect or create issues for the animals’ movements and timing? LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Um-hm.
GAY SHEFFIELD: Is there economic opportunities? Um, so forth and so on. So a lot of change. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: A lot of change. GAY SHEFFIELD: A lot change, is I guess what I’ve been droning on about.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: That’s ok. That’s what we’re here for. Um, so we’ve talked about seals.
What about when we start going further up the food chain to larger animals? What about changes in the walrus population or in the whale population? Has there been any noticeable differences there?
GAY SHEFFIELD: In the populations? LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Or not just, yeah. We were talking about the health of the seals, the birds dying off.
You know, I always think of a food chain as -- as going up with larger mammals. Has -- has it shown up anywhere higher up in the food chain?
GAY SHEFFIELD: Well, I sure hope -- this -- this is where, you know, marine mammals are federally managed. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Ok.
GAY SHEFFIELD: So the federal government is supposed to be able to let us know how that’s happening. What are the population? There’s survey requirements. There’s population assessments, and so forth.
Health assessments, I think. So hopefully they’re doing their's -- LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Anything in from the communities -- GAY SHEFFIELD: -- their duties. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: -- saying -- ? GAY SHEFFIELD: Um, that is really that -- that is really the best -- LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yes. GAY SHEFFIELD: -- indicator of what is happening.
Um, I haven’t heard any alarm bells. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Ok. GAY SHEFFIELD: Myself, but that’s not to say -- I’m not contacted by everybody who sees something. I mean, there’s a lot of people, the Eskimo --
It would be a question probably for the Eskimo Walrus Commission, who also does just what -- we all band together here in the hub of Nome. A subsistence program, that's -- Brandon Ahmasuk’s done a tremendous amount of work. Um, Vera Metcalf. Their whole entities.
And then, every single community has provided specimens, concerns, information. And it has been a massive effort on the part of this community, this region. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right. Yeah. GAY SHEFFIELD: With so much at stake. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yes. GAY SHEFFIELD: Their very food.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Exactly. And when I start seeing ships like this coming up in the open waters, and the talk about, you know, more shipping lanes up and down, um, oil spills and --
GAY SHEFFIELD: Oh yeah, that’s on everybody's mind. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: We are not -- GAY SHEFFIELD: We are at the northern edge. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: -- not ready.
GAY SHEFFIELD: The US Coast Guard has -- they -- they’ve -- they presented, I think, at the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council and said, you know, "Well, industry’s arrived at a place wh -- and is staying late enough that we cannot really help you timely." LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right.
GAY SHEFFIELD: It’s pushing the capacity of the Coast Guard. It’s good to hear that now.
We have the least amount of infrastructure for communications in the Bering Strait Region.
We are the highest risk for a maritime accident or an accidental discharge of whatever it is, oil, soybeans, whatever -- you know, whatever the thing may be. Loss of life, um.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: And it’s not just these. It’s also cruise ships are now, um --
GAY SHEFFIELD: Sure, we’ve had -- that’s another change. Right, we had the "Crystal Serenity" here. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah. GAY SHEFFIELD: Several years ago, with 1800 people on board one vessel.
You know, I think our hospital here -- we have a very good local emergency committee here, but, you know, a vessel with 1800 people, and I think we have something like eleven or twelve hospital beds. It’s gonna be real -- max us out pretty quickly.
And -- and if something happens and community members all over the Bering Strait Region are going to try to save people. We -- you know, life is precious, and how quickly will you overwhelm a clinic. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right. Yeah. GAY SHEFFIELD: And people will do their very best. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Um-hm.
GAY SHEFFIELD: So industry is an issue, whether it is -- you know, people use the word shipping. That is very inappropriate to me personally. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Um-hm.
GAY SHEFFIELD: It drives me nuts, ’cause it’s large maritime industrial traffic. It is cruise ships, research vessels, military, commercial fishing, ecotourism, freight, cargo.
It’s industrial maritime traffic. Shipping kind of denotes freight. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right. Yeah. GAY SHEFFIELD: Only. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah.
GAY SHEFFIELD: Have I cheered you up enough, uh? LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Very sobering subject.
GAY SHEFFIELD: I mean, well, it’s -- it’s -- you asked about change, and I don’t mean to be a downer, but these are huge.
I think in our lifetimes, we weren’t supposed to see all this. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right. GAY SHEFFIELD: Or you never expect -- I guess maybe we were supposed to be right here at this time. This is how the story is unfolding, and that is the way it is.
But I never expected that I’d be worrying about having to learn or think about radiation. People had much concern about Fukushima (2011 earthquake and nuclear disaster's release of radioactive pollutants) with hairless seals and seals with a temporary inability to not grow their coat.
Um, there’s been concern to see this amount of industrial fishing in one year, overnight, just arrive as a response to -- it’s just like the -- the loss of ice has -- there’s just a cascading, boom. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right. GAY SHEFFIELD: Boom, boom, boom. Everything is falling into place.
And what is interesting to me, or I guess I’ll use the word interesting or challenging, is the -- I don’t know if the -- the urban-based centers that are -- have federal or state control over a lot of our marine resources understand comprehensively as the communities do throughout this region, as we all witness ourselves.
We’re -- you know, the time it takes to write a scientific paper and gin up a research project, that’s -- it’s already -- I mean, this has just been in the last ten years.
And it’s really ramped up in the last three, and people aren’t here, right? They’re not coming out, um, in a response mode very often, so it’s a --
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: So how do we get that message to those people? GAY SHEFFIELD: We -- we try to be heard.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah. Yeah. But, I mean, the issue of food security, when you have a whole community that depends on subsistence, and you’re starting to see this, this is -- this is frightening for that community.
GAY SHEFFIELD: Well, you know, it’s -- it’s certainly, I guess, unexpected, maybe? LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Um-hm.
GAY SHEFFIELD: But -- but the people of the Bering Strait Region, in my mind, I was taught are the most knowledgeable, the physically strongest.
This was -- Bud Fay was like, "Hooh! You want to see strength?" Yeah. Bering Strait Region. There is physical strength.
And there is -- to me there's continuation of culture. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Um-hm. GAY SHEFFIELD: And knowledge. Vast, comprehensive knowledge of the ecosystem.
And so, I have -- it may be frightening, maybe? Certainly. But -- but personally, I’m surrounded by people who are expert in their -- where they live. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Um-hm.
GAY SHEFFIELD: And what I see is, people are -- have already surpassed science in thinking ahead. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah. GAY SHEFFIELD: A little bit, I think, in what we can provide.
There is some information that science provides. Maybe these off-shore -- being able to have information that is unavailable. Like the temperatures on the bottom, comprehensively, through the Bering Sea.
Having the fish composition nicely laid out throughout -- comprehensively, throughout the Bering, northern and southern. Those kind of things are very helpful, I think, to me and to others to see the -- sort of the size of the issue -- LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Um-hm. GAY SHEFFIELD: -- at hand.
But um, yeah, I’m sure people are -- We’re all worried a little bit. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right. Yeah. GAY SHEFFIELD: I don’t want to sound too down. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: No.
GAY SHEFFIELD: But we’re surrounded by very, um, amazing people. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah. GAY SHEFFIELD: So I don’t -- I don't know. I don’t know what to say in that regard.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Um, I know your time is really short, and I want to thank you. Is there anything else that you wanted to -- to perhaps share about changes that you’ve --
GAY SHEFFIELD: Well, it’s only 10:00. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: It’s only 10:00. I know you have -- you have more time, that’s great. But I know that you have more meetings.
GAY SHEFFIELD: Yeah. What else to share? I don’t know if that was -- LESLIE MCCARTNEY: That was wonderful. GAY SHEFFIELD: Was it? LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yes. Yeah.
GAY SHEFFIELD: But I -- I don’t know how to say it about the people. Amazing. And -- and so under-recognized, I think. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yes.
GAY SHEFFIELD: All of us out here. And it’s ok, except now so much is coming our way.
And I -- I would feel better if I knew we had -- I know we have leadership in our communities. That’s -- that I don’t have any question on.
I feel -- I feel more happy, or more secure. Not secure. What’s the -- I feel -- what worries me, I suppose, is that I hope leadership at the federal and state level that are more urban-based really understand this region and will protect us as far as subsistence.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: How do you make that voice heard, then, to those people? GAY SHEFFIELD: Oh, how do I make -- that would be -- that’s a question I’m probably not -- LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah.
GAY SHEFFIELD: That’s not mine to answer, probably, in this story of change. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right. Ok. GAY SHEFFIELD: Yeah. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah.
GAY SHEFFIELD: Um, that would be up to the -- the tribes. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yes. GAY SHEFFIELD: We have -- that’s their leadership. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah. GAY SHEFFIELD: People’s leadership, not theirs. That is our community’s leadership. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah. Right. GAY SHEFFIELD: For the region.
And so, what I can do, my role is public service. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Um-hm. GAY SHEFFIELD: And I think if there was more public service at all levels of our government in the region, or for our region, phew, it wouldn’t be so, um --
There seems to be a bit of a disconnect right now between what’s going on and how to communicate back results to our region. I see that. Nobody’s bad people, it’s just that I think after forty years of government management of some species, maybe service has become something that wasn’t done. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Hm.
GAY SHEFFIELD: Maybe like they used to do in the old days. In my old days. And work together.
So now we sort of are in a situation while all this is going on, people are grappling with, how do we talk to each other? You know, how do we talk to you in Bering Strait?
I’m thinking, "Oh, wow. Holy cow. We’re at that level?" But that’s ok. We welcome -- we welcome the fact that people are wanting to reach out. We need their information to help us get ready. Not get ready, respond.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Respond. GAY SHEFFIELD: Um-hm. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Definitely. It’s already happening. GAY SHEFFIELD: To already happening, yep.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah. So this summer, um, or this coming year, 2020, you said that NOAA’s coming back up to do more surveys again. GAY SHEFFIELD: Um-hm.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Um, how much connection do you have with them doing that, or are you just, um -- are you involved with any of that?
GAY SHEFFIELD: My only role is to -- to help them get the results out. Um, make sure that communities that might be impacted by having a large vessel nearby are understanding of this large vessel coming by, and that, you know, the NOAA RACE division are the ones doing the research. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Um-hm.
GAY SHEFFIELD: They’re just purely research. They -- they have done a -- they have good leadership, and that leadership is trying to -- more work needs to be done, of course, but they are at least taking the first steps at reaching out to communities.
Um, making sure communities understand where their boat is going to be. Do they need to move back? They’re willing to switch up their research if there’s concerns by the communities.
They provide us a report. Us being the region. They get -- I help them set up their, um -- You know, they talk to media, they have a presentation here in Nome, public presentation. They meet with our -- all the big entities in our regional communication network. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Mm.
GAY SHEFFIELD: You know, so I just try to help out with that, but they’re doing it on their own. And then, they’re working with all the other parts of the puzzle here in Nome and throughout the region. I’m just a little part of it.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah. GAY SHEFFIELD: Yeah. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah. Huge project, right.
GAY SHEFFIELD: Well, huge effort to communicate. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah. GAY SHEFFIELD: And they’ve been very serious about it, so we appreciate their effort. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right.
GAY SHEFFIELD: So we’re very curious to see what they find this year. Especially now, because we got a little bit of ice, but I don’t think it’s really -- the ice -- we’ve had cold. It’s very cold today. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yes.
GAY SHEFFIELD: It’s going to be cold tonight. But I think we’re about ready to have a storm come in from the south, and we’re all holding our breath if we -- I don’t know if it’s going to be a proper storm, but the winds are going to switch up to be out of the south.
And what does that mean? Are we going into another one of these -- lately, the last few years, February has been a very dangerous month for keeping your ice, right.
We get these shifts in the weather pattern, and instead of winds and cold air out of the northeast like we’ve just had. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Um-hm. GAY SHEFFIELD: And we’re so glad to see again, um, we’ve had in February and March very warm air from the south, and the weather patterns have been predominantly from the south.
So that has destroyed the ice, and thus we have the situation that we’re in now, ecologically, industrially. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right.
GAY SHEFFIELD: But -- but I’m sure it will be variable, but it doesn’t seem like we will get back on track.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: So when the winds come from the south, do they actually blow the -- the ice out?
GAY SHEFFIELD: It just -- the ice is -- lately, the last few years? LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah. GAY SHEFFIELD: I can’t tell you right now, but lately the ice is weak. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Mm.
GAY SHEFFIELD: The water is very warm. The temperature of the air may be cold, but it’s having its own battle. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah. GAY SHEFFIELD: Like warm water, cold air.
And so, it’s not the ice types that would normally be here. Normally, being twenty years ago, maybe, I guess now you say. Or ten years ago.
That thick ice that would then not crumple. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Um-hm. GAY SHEFFIELD: Um, now we get -- if you have thin ice and you have wave action on it, "ggr, ggr grg." (sound effects) It’s going to gobble it right up. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right.
GAY SHEFFIELD: And it obliterates it. It not just moves it. It just consumes it. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right. GAY SHEFFIELD: Turns it back into water. We lose ground. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: And so, yeah.
GAY SHEFFIELD: So then your cold water isn’t replaced on the bottom. Your algae is obliterated, or it’s, you know, put in the water column and moving around. And it’s not these big thick -- so yeah, it’s an interesting -- thanks for letting me cheer you up.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Well, I want to thank you.
GAY SHEFFIELD: But I -- If the one thing I would say to the government if they’re coming? LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yes. GAY SHEFFIELD: Address public health. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Hm. GAY SHEFFIELD: Food security.
These things are for people. This situation is not an academic -- solely academic and conservation issues.
That -- that -- those are not the -- I’m not saying it right here on your microphone, with this microphone in front of me, but address the communities. This involves people, all up and down --
Both sides of the coast are experiencing this. It’s a very small amount of water. Western Chukotka and -- I mean, Western Bering Sea, Chukotka, Eastern Bering Sea or Bering Strait, Seward Peninsula, we are -- we are sharing this very small body of water with people on the coast depending on food.
And I would hit those questions as well as conservation and academic issues.
But that would make everyone in this region feel a lot better if we could see a strong push to address the people’s concerns.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Concerns. Right. Thank you so much, Gay. GAY SHEFFIELD: Yeah. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: I really, really appreciate your time. GAY SHEFFIELD: Hope you can tie all that into something. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Thanks. Thank you.