Inuit Wisdom on Conservation
In July of last year, our trip in search of red knots from my home in Greenwich, NJ to the small Arctic town of Coral Harbor in Southampton Island took us to some of the most remote wilderness in this hemisphere. But we also leaped from a modern socially connected world to one with third world communication and economic systems. You can’t use your cell phone in Coral Harbor, in fact neither can the mostly Inuit population. They use Facebook with enthusiasm but have virtually dial-up internet speeds. The cost of a case of coke is $45. An overnight stay in a modest room is $200/person and a dinner of mostly food from cans runs $50per person. Conducting research in the Canadian Arctic can easily break the budget of even the most well planned field budgets, especially when one attempts a vigorous venture such as ours.
Before we returned we spent our last night in the home of Suzy Mckitrick, the partner of Joshua Kineeiak, our bear watcher and guide. She runs the equivalent of the welfare system for the Hamlet and her client base runs to over 180 households in a town of about 800 people. The signs of poverty are ubiquitous. We tried our best to be a beneficial economic influence by hiring Joshua, paying fully for our stays in town and buying as much as possible from the local store. But it’s unrealistic to think the small infusion of cash from our short-lived project will do little to help this impoverished Inuit community. The economic winds are as harsh as the winter wind on the frozen tundra.
One can look at all the obvious signs of poverty -widespread smoking, poor dental care, alcoholism – and leave feeling sanctimonious. Poverty forces us to consider our own wealth and comparisons are inevitable.
Judging the Inuit of Southampton Island poorly would be unfair however and for many reasons. The most personal for me comes from considering the inevitable choice all communities must make when defending wildlife and their habitat. Who prevails: the greedy exploiters or the wise stewards; those who seek short-term profit at the expense of a robust fish and wildlife populations or those who seek to balance growth remembering the needs of life that has not voice?
For people in Coral Harbor, the choice is personal. Most people supplement their earned income or welfare support with the harvest of fish and game taken while out on the land. People spend a large part of their lives hunting for caribou and other game and fishing for Arctic Char and other fish, in all seasons, including the deadly winter months. Wildlife provide one of few sources of outside cash through guided hunting and fishing expeditions, paid for by people from all over the globe. With that economic pressure, most people would find it hard to resist over harvest for personal or financial gain.
Yet last year the Hunter and Trappers Association, in response to falling Caribou numbers, drastically cut the allowable harvest because they were concerned for the future of both the animals and their own way of life. These people of modest means were not forced to reduce the harvest, a major source of meat for their families, by an environmental agency, but voluntarily imposed it upon themselves to stop the decline and speed the recovery of the declining herd. It was an impressive and decisive move by a community that literally teeters on the brink of both economic and climatic catastrophe.
In light of this courageous action, lets consider our own record on Delaware Bay. In the last 20 years or so, the Atlantic Coast fishing industry have decimated emblematic species of the Delaware Bay like horseshoe crabs, sturgeon and weakfish. Even now they continue to resist population restoration with a relentless political campaign to repeal the state’s moratorium on crabs. Our farmers and nurserymen contributed to the decimation of the bobwhite quail, the quintessential voice of South Jersey farmland wildlife. Simple changes to their method would drastically improve conditions, but even a minor hit in profits are unacceptable. Our drinking water is awash in agricultural chemicals to the extent my well water is undrinkable without water purification. Unplanned and unwise development kills our natural lands with a death by a thousand cuts. And all the important trends are going the wrong way (see time series map from Rick Lathrop CRSSA Lab at Rutgers)
In contrast to the Inuit, one of the poorest people in the hemisphere, we traded our conservation ethic for the short sighted pursuit of easy money. Ironically we still have similarly impoverished subpopulations in towns like Bridgeton and Salem. Has our greedy exploitation of the land and sea made our life better?
This is not meant to make my neighbors feel guilty, because for the most part our dismal record of conservation has not been made directly by the people of the Bayshore. Here in rural Cumberland County, the poorest in NJ, conservation is mostly imposed through government regulations that fail to protect, state and federal acquisition of land the agencies cannot afford to manage and short lived conservation programs that gobble up millions of philanthropic dollars but do not alter the bay’s ecologically impoverished condition. Politicians pretending they stand for the working fishermen or farmers, all the while undercutting them by solidifying the interests of the rich and powerful. The effect of these conservation failures is to create the apparent contradiction that most rural folk distrust the conservation agendas of state, federal agencies and politicians but support the need to protect the Bayshore’s wildlife and land.
But there is no contradiction. They just see what’s obvious, the main impact of all this conservation activity is to gobble up funding, staff and good intentions for no real serous impact. I know many people along the Delaware Bayshore and see their conservation ethic is no different than that of the Inuit on Southampton Island. Ironically the difference is the Inuit have more control.
The Inuit management of Caribou suggests two new avenues in conservation that are rarely explored on Delaware Bay. First the Inuit had sufficient power to take action. Second, despite endemic poverty of Coral Harbor, the residents choose to sacrifice short-term gain to achieve long term gain. In short the stewards prevail over the greedy.
next: Effective Conservation