New data on Chukchi Sea polar bears leads to subsistence harvest level increase

A polar bear in Arctic Alaska. Subsistence harvest levels of Chukchi Sea polar bears have just been raised, based on new data about the population’s health. (Photo Credit: Terry Debruyne/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Native hunters in Alaska are about to see an increase in the number of polar bears they can harvest from the Chukchi Sea bear population.

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The commission responsible for setting that limit recently raised the quota from 58 to 85 bears per year, shared equally between Alaska and Russian hunters.

The quota increase was based on new science and traditional ecological knowledge indicating that the polar bear population is doing well.

Eric Regehr is a polar bear biologist at the University of Washington’s Polar Science Center and one of the scientists who advised the commission.

“Currently the nutritional condition, or the fatness, of the bears in the Chukchi Sea is on par with what it was 20, 30 years ago,” Regehr said.

In 2010 the U.S. and Russia put a limit on the number of polar bears Native hunters were allowed to harvest from the Chukchi Sea population. It was part of an effort to conserve the animals in the face of uncertainty about how they would respond to sea ice loss.

Regehr says the new research indicates that the population numbers and reproductive rates of the Chukchi Sea polar bears are good, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t concerns for the future.

“Sea ice loss associated with climate change is the primary threat to the species,” Regehr said. “And we don’t know when or how it may affect Chukchi Sea polar bears, but we would expect, from a scientific perspective, that at some point in the future there will be some negative effects.”

Regehr says that in contrast to the Chukchi Sea bears, evidence suggests that Alaska’s other group of polar bears in the Southern Beaufort Sea is already experiencing negative impacts from the decline of sea ice, including weight loss and a reduction in both reproductive and survival rates.

On average, Alaska Native hunters take about 30 Chukchi Sea polar bears a year.

Katya Wassillie is executive director of the Alaska Nannut Co-Management Council, or ANCC, the group that represents Alaska Native polar bear hunters. She says that the good health of the Chukchi Sea bears is cause for celebration.

But while ANCC is pleased that the harvest number has increased, Wassillie says the group was advocating for an even larger quota.

“When you introduce something like a quota, that creates a different atmosphere, one with more anxiety, with competition,” Wassillie said. “And our hunters were concerned about that. So they wanted just a cushion; the freedom to be able to manage through our own traditional values, our own traditional practices.”

The commission that sets the harvest limit reviews the quota annually. A quota has been in place since 2010, but as of yet is not enforced.