Northern Bering Sea: Our Way of Life—Mapping Methodology

People use nearby resources and also venture out to hunt marine and land mammals, to fish and to gather favored foods. Although some areas are heavily used, hunting, fishing, and gathering are generally land extensive, rather than intensive. Consequently, large areas are needed to sustain villages…Areas may be important because of resource abundance or because of relatively easy access. Animal distribution changes with environmental factors, natural cycles, and shifting migration patterns. Consequently, in some years a subsistence harvest area may have little to offer. In years of low resource abundance, seldom-used areas may take on greater importance.

Bering Straits CRSA (Coastal Resource Service Area). 1984. Bering Straits CRSA, Volume I – Resource Inventory. p. 7.


The Bering Sea Elders Group and Alaska Marine Conservation Council undertook the northern Bering Sea mapping project to compile spatial information about hunting and fishing use in the ocean and ecologically sensitive marine areas for the species used by coastal tribes in the Yukon-Kuskokwim and Bering Strait regions. The objective was to identify use areas and to identify other areas beyond hunting and fishing grounds, either from direct observation, traditional knowledge or science, that are important for maintaining healthy populations of subsistence species (e.g. migration routes, offshore ice edge, seasonal habitats). The maps are intended to inform fishery management and other policy decisions that affect resources used for subsistence activities and local small-scale fisheries, and the marine ecosystem that supports them.

Maps Generated

A set of maps was generated to show general areas used for:

  • Hunting walrus, seals and whales for subsistence.
  • Harvesting fish and shellfish for subsistence in marine and coastal waters.
  • Local small-scale commercial fisheries for halibut, herring, salmon and crab.

A separate set of maps was generated to show important habitat areas for walrus, seals, whales and eiders. As sea ducks, eiders seasonally occupy the same marine habitats as marine mammals. Spectacled eiders were emphasized because they winter in large aggregations in the ice between St. Lawrence Island and St. Matthew Island, an area noted by elders and hunters as having special ecological importance. Defining habitat areas for the many fish and shellfish species that are harvested was not undertaken.

Below is a description of the data sources used to create the two sets of maps.

Use Area Maps – Data Sources

The project compiled data from the following sources to describe harvest areas for walrus, seals, whales, fish and shellfish. Each source is shown as a separate layer:

  • Bering Straits CRSA (Coastal Resource Service Area). 1984. Bering Straits CRSA, Volume 1 - Resource Inventory. (Shapes digitized by Julia Beaty at Alaska Marine Conservation Council.)
  • Cenaliulriit CRSA (Coastal Resource Service Area). 2002. Subsistence maps created for  “Cenaliulriit CRSA Management Plan: Final District Plan.” (Used with permission from the Cenaliulriit board of directors.) (Accessed Apr. 7, 2011). See also: John Oscar and Glenn Gray. 2005. “Mapping Subsistence Resources in a Remote Alaska Region.” Proceedings of the 14th Biennial Coastal Zone Conference, New Orleans, Louisiana. (Accessed May 12, 2011).
  • Project Interviews. 2008-2011. Interviews with elders, active hunters, and subsistence and local commercial fishermen in Yukon-Kuskokwim and Bering Strait regions for Bering Sea Elders Group northern Bering Sea mapping project. (See details about methods associated with this source.)

The CRSA maps provided data where interviews were not conducted for the Bering Sea Elders Group. However the two CRSAs did not use the same approach to mapping. The differences in the data sets are described in the chart.

Bering Sea Elders Group
Cenaliulriit CRSA
Bering Straits CRSA
Separate GIS layers showing subsistence use of walrus, all seals combined, bowhead whales, beluga whales. Single GIS layer showing subsistence use of all marine mammals combined. Separate GIS layers showing subsistence use of walrus, all seals combined, bowhead whales, beluga whales.
Fish & Shellfish One GIS layer showing subsistence use of all fish combined & another layer showing all shellfish combined. Commercial fishing areas for herring, crab, halibut, salmon. One GIS layer showing subsistence use areas for all fish & another showing clams, shellfish, herring eggs on kelp. Separate GIS layers showing subsistence use areas for herring, all anadromous fish, crabs, mollusks.

Although each data set represents lifetime use, the timeframes are different. Bering Sea Elders Group information was collected from 2008-2011. Collection of data for the Cenaliulriit CRSA maps began in 2002. The Bering Straits CRSA Resource Inventory was published in 1984. For the purpose of this project, the Bering Sea Elders Group wanted to incorporate past and present use information to account for changes in natural cycles, species distributions, sea ice variability and needs of communities. Despite their differences, data from all three sources were considered relevant to form a composite picture of the extensive area used.

We reviewed detailed maps published in the Alaska Habitat Management Guide by Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) in 1985. We found the data in the maps for the Western and Interior Regions (vol. IV) and Arctic Region (vol. V) were reflected in the CRSA maps. The CRSA maps were more applicable because they represent regions while the ADFG maps apply to a subset of villages.

Important Habitat Area Maps – Data Sources

The project incorporated scientific information about areas that are ecologically important for the resources that tribes rely on. Sources for these data include:

The maps incorporate spatial information on migration from the following traditional ecological knowledge papers:

  • Huntington, Henry and the Communities of Buckland, Elim, Koyuk, Point Lay and Shaktoolik. 1998. “Traditional Knowledge of the Ecology of Beluga Whales (Delphinapterus leucas) in the Eastern Chukchi and Northern Bering Seas, Alaska.” Arctic 52(1): 49-61.
  • Huntington, Henry, ed. 2000. “Traditional Ecological Knowledge of Seals in Norton Bay, Alaska.” Report submitted to the Elim-Shaktoolik-Koyuk Marine Mammal Commission and National Marine Fisheries Service, translated by Clara Sookiayak.
  • Noongwook, George, The Native Village of Savoonga, The Native Village of Gambell, Henry P. Huntington and John C. George. 2007. “Traditional Knowledge of the Bowhead Whale (Balaena mysticetus) Around St. Lawrence Island, Alaska.” Arctic 60(1): 47-54.
  • Project Interviews. 2008-2011. Interviews with elders and active hunters in the Yukon-Kuskokwim and Bering Strait regions for Bering Sea Elders Group northern Bering Sea mapping project.

In the habitat maps we also show harvest areas as a composite of the data sources presented as separate layers in the use area maps described above. Our purpose was to show the “big cultural and ecological picture” in the northern Bering Sea.

The Map Report – The Northern Bering Sea: Our Way of Life

The use maps are one dimensional without the cultural context from which they emerged. The map report provides excerpts from project interviews to connect the maps with the perspective of elders and active hunters who participated. We also include excerpts from other published traditional knowledge sources to augment the project interviews or elaborate on what was shared. Because of the large geographic scale of the project, we collected information on hunting and fishing areas, but not in depth traditional ecological (natural history) knowledge; we also acknowledge that the cultural practices illustrated through quotes from interviews and other publications can be specific to smaller areas or villages. However, our purpose is to show the use of traditional marine resources as a way of life across the extensive Yukon-Kuskokwim and Bering Strait regions. Finally, throughout the interviews we were asked over and over again to include migration routes and places where the sea mammals, birds and fish go because the interconnectedness of the Bering Sea is as important as the places where hunting and fishing occurs.

Project Interviews for Bering Sea Elders Group, 2008-2011 (Detailed Methods)

Tribes that engaged in the project interviews are participants in the Bering Sea Elders Group by resolution. To generate maps of hunting and fishing areas we conducted interviews with experts in 18 tribes and key local commercial fishermen from 2008-2011:

  • Bering Strait Region: Gambell, Savoonga, Stebbins, Unalakleet and King Island (January 2010); Shaktoolik, Koyuk and Elim (October 2010); Nome (June 2011)
  • Yukon-Kuskokwim Region: Kwigillingok (March 2008); Emmonak (March 2009); Kipnuk (June 2009); Nightmute, Umkamiut and Toksook Bay (July 2009); Chefornak (August 2009); Chevak and Mekoryuk (September 2009); and Goodnews Bay (October 2009).

In organizing this project, the team utilized approaches recommended in Chief Kerry’s’ Moose, A Guidebook to Land Use and Occupancy Mapping, Research Design and Data Collection, which provides support to non-academic First Nation researchers in Canada.

Mapping Process


Tribal officials for each village participating in the project designated 5-7 experts to be interviewed. Local commercial fishermen identified by staff from Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation and Nome Fishermen Association were interviewed in Nome.  In each interview the age and life experience as local hunters and fishermen were documented.

In some villages interviews were conducted with individuals. In others they were group interviews. In both approaches, the individuals or groups had the option to conduct the interview in Yup’ik, Inupiaq or English. As it turned out, a number of interviews in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region were conducted in Central Yup’ik with support from bi-lingual speakers in the community. Group interviews on St. Lawrence Island were conducted in English but the participants spoke among each other extensively in St. Lawrence Island Yupik and then provided consensus information in English. Each interview was audio recorded.

Interviews conducted in Central Yup’ik were translated and transcribed in English by local bi-lingual speakers. Information from all interviews was transcribed with information labeled with headings (such as species, cultural practices or various other topics that emerged from each interview).  This treatment allowed information to be retained the way it was conveyed but also easily accessible. In some cases where information was unclear, follow up inquiries were made by phone.

Documenting areas on the map

Most interviews were conducted using USGS maps (1:250,000) and with some distances on the water noted for clarity.  St. Lawrence Island interviews required using NOAA chart #16006, with the St. Lawrence area enlarged, as the base map. This was used because the USGS map for the island does not include water or any of the U.S. or Russia mainland useful for scale and landmarks. Interviews in Unalakleet and Nome were done using the Norton Sound Fisheries District Map made for the Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation, version 11/27/97.

Mylar was overlayed on the base maps. Elders and active hunters and fishermen were asked to draw the extent of their lifetime use area for walrus, seals, whales and fish based on a common set of questions. The questions were used as a guide to generate information that could be aggregated with other villages’ data.

Interviewers sought perspective from elders and active hunters on areas that are not necessarily used for harvesting but are ecologically important to the species harvested. Experts discussed migration and other observations. These data were applied to the habitat maps along with scientific information.

The hand drawn map overlays were digitized. Notes and transcriptions from the interviews were used to clarify the shapes drawn on the mylar overlays. GIS shapefiles were created using ArcEditor 9.3.1 and stored in a geodatabase. Interview data were given codes according to the individual or group interviewed and the village where the interview took place. Although data were stored according to the individual or group that was interviewed, the data were later aggregated by village and by species so that individual hunting or fishing areas could not be distinguished from the maps or from the digital files.

Each participating tribe had the opportunity to review and correct the information that was digitized. The first review session took place in Bethel in November 2009 when 25 elders from the Yukon-Kuskokwim region gathered for a summit and spent a full day reviewing maps that showed data aggregated from all of the villages in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region. After additions from the summit were made, aggregated maps were sent to each individual tribe for additional review. St. Lawrence Island tribes were sent draft maps that contained aggregated data from the Gambell and Savoonga interviews. These maps were reviewed by teams in each village and updated with their suggested changes. The Norton Sound villages of Unalakleet, King Island and Stebbins were sent draft maps that contained only the data from interviews done in those individual villages. (The data was not aggregated with other villages.) The GIS technician was present during the interviews done in Shaktoolik, Koyuk and Elim, and these maps were reviewed the day after each group interview by designated experts.

Intellectual Property

The mapping program was carried out with permission of the participating tribes. Each interview participant was fully informed about the program and why information was being collected. The name of each person interviewed was coded so that specific information mapped was not attributed to individuals.

The information shared in the interviews belongs to the participating tribes. Tribes provided final review and approved the use of quotes selected from interviews for the report. 

Project Team

The mapping project was carried out by a team at Alaska Marine Conservation Council ( on behalf of the Bering Sea Elders Group:

  • Muriel Morse (tribal member of the Native Village of Koyuk) – Western Alaska Outreach Coordinator and Interviews
  • Dorothy Childers – Editor
  • Julia Beaty – GIS Services

The project could not have been done without many helping hands including tribal administrators and coordinators, tribal office staff, translators, map reviewers, the elders, hunters and fishermen who were interviewed, and the kind hospitality of our hosts in the villages we visited.

Last Updated: 
Thu, 01/21/2016