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This fishing captain combines Inuit knowledge with scientific expertise in order to combat climate change in the Far North

This fishing captain combines Inuit knowledge with scientific expertise in order to combat climate change in the Far North

In 2022, the sea ice starts to break off Labrador’s coast.


Joey Angnatok holds a harpoon in his hand and pierces the ice. He thrusts the spear twice, three times, and creates a hole. The fourth jab pierces the seawater. The tool is an ancient means of measuring the thickness of the ocean’s frozen surface here in Nunatsiavut, a sprawling Inuit territory on the northeastern edge of Labrador. He is equally comfortable using modern ice sensors but he insists that the older methods are still reliable.

Joey Angnatok takes a break from his snowmobile ride to capture a selfie with his ice-covered face, winter 2022Joey Angnatok/Handout

His mastery in sensor and spear and his ability to combine and interpret the data that they yielded have made him an indispensable member of both the local community as well as the global effort for monitoring the effects of climate change on the Far North, which has been more adversely affected than the rest by rising temperatures.

“We’re all crazy Inuit from a little small town and we’re doing a big thing every day,” said Mr. Angnatok, a burly man with a sense of humour to match. In the spring, he skippers a fully Inuit-owned-and-operated longliner, the MV What’s Happening. The catch Mr. Angnatok and his crew land (which includes snow crab, northern shrimp and turbot) props up the local fish plant, a fixture in the economy of the town of Nain, Labrador’s northernmost permanent settlement.

But it’s what Mr. Angnatok and his crew do in the off-season that is arguably even more crucial to the future of life for Nunatsiavut Inuit, as well as the animal species that populate their lands and waterways.

When he’s not fishing, he operates his 60-footer as a marine research vessel, working with scientists to collect data that help with long-term tracking of sea ice and wildlife trends. He also uses his snowmobile to perform ice reconnaissance using his harpoon.

“Joey has an incredible combination of Inuit knowledge and science skills all in one human being, who also happens to own a fishing vessel where he can deploy research equipment,” said Rodd Laing, the director of environment with the Nunatsiavut government in Nain. “During COVID-19, a lot of research projects that would have otherwise not been able to continue, those projects were able to go on because of Joey’s skills and incredible knowledge.”

Mr. Angnatok views himself as having an urgent mission. “Climate change is impacting northern Labrador faster and more furiously than other parts of Atlantic Canada,” he said. The poor condition of the sea-ice is proof, he said. – critical infrastructure in a part of the world where roads are scarce and residents must often travel over the frozen ocean by snowmobile.

Nunatsiavut, the Inuit homeland, is one of four regions. The Inuvialuit Settlement Region (in Canada’s Northwest Territories), Nunavik, and Nunavut round out the three other regions. Collectively, they make up roughly 35 per cent of Canada’s landmass and half its coastline. These regions are experiencing three times more climate change than the south. The Arctic marine ecosystems have also been warming twice as fast the global average. Researchers predict that the Arctic summers will be completely free from sea ice by 2030.

According to Mr. Angnatok, last year’s ice season was particularly short. Nain’s sea ice was only 83 cm thick. This was approximately half its thickness ten years earlier. There are 40 fewer days of snow in Nain today than there were in late 1950s, which further complicates the ice travel process.

The inconvenience of rapidly shifting ice conditions can be disruptive to travel and cut off access to hunting ground and firewood. At worst, a lack of sea ice can interrupt vital supply lines by choking off a community’s ability to transport goods over solid ground. Although Nain does have an airstrip, it is not usable after dark. It can only hold small passenger aircraft. Inclement weather can cause flight delays and cancellations.

Mr. Angnatok maintains and positions ice sensors. These sensors are placed on the surface ice and monitor air and water temperature.Joey Angnatok/Handout

Food shortages are a particular concern. According to PROOF, a group comprising food-policy researchers from many universities, 60% of Nunatsiavut’s households reported experiencing food shortages. Comparable to 12 percent in the general Canadian population, this is a difference of 12% between 2017-2018

“The ice is forming, but not like it should,” Mr. Angnatok said. He frequently positions and checks the area’s ice sensors, which are operated by the Nunatsiavut government in partnership with the Canadian Ice Service. Each sensor is housed inside a white plastic tube measuring a metre long, which is placed in the surface ice in shallow bays near Nain.

Mr. Angnatok monitors the ice thickness, air temperature, and water temperature from his home computer. He also uses satellite imagery to show the extent of ice coverage. Year-over-year data show Nain’s ice season is starting later, which means a shorter season and weaker ice overall.

“This is expected with global warming. All the models are saying that sea ice area is declining and will continue to decline,” said Frédéric Cyr, a research scientist with the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Centre at Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) in St. John’s.

Mr. Cyr is responsible for DFO’s Newfoundland and Labrador Climate Index, which describes the environmental conditions in the Northwest Atlantic Ocean, including the Newfoundland and Labrador shelf (the continental shelf that extends from Labrador to the east coast of Newfoundland). The index has been collected time series data since 1969. It shows sea ice degrading, especially over the past 30 year. Three of the worst sea ice season were recorded in the last decade.

“These kinds of extreme years will happen more and more,” Mr. Cyr said, “That’s the way I interpret climate change. There will be cold years in between, but the extremes will happen more often.”

Both the temperature in the atmosphere as well as at the bottom of sea level have been increasing, and this has led to ice loss. Since the late 1990s, sub-Arctic Ocean floor near Newfoundland-Labrador has been trending warmer. In 2021 it recorded its second warmest temperature in almost 50 years (the warmest being in 2011). The trend in warming is also evident in air temperature data.

Expect temperatures to rise. The average annual air temperature in Nain, and the surrounding areas, is expected to rise by four degrees between 2050 and 2050. The greatest increases are anticipated in the winter months.

“If those numbers seem extreme, they are,” said Mr. Laing, who noted that the Paris Agreement commits Canada and other countries to working toward preventing global temperatures from rising more than two degrees above pre-industrial levels.

Already, you can see the changes in the land and ice. Some of these changes have been observed by Mr. Angnatok from his boat.

“The ocean’s getting warmer and the cold-water species are getting tougher and tougher to find,” he said.

Research has shown that subarctic species are moving northward and changing the distribution of Arctic fish communities. This “borealization,” as boreal marine species invade the warming Arctic Ocean, is well documented.

The crew of the MV What’s Happening in the fish hold after a haul of snow crab in 2021. From left to right: Dion Voisey (left), Edward John Flowers (right), Christian (Ephraim), Merkuratsuk (right) and Leo Angnatok.

Joey Angnatok/handout

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Installation view, "COAL + ICE" at the Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture in San Francisco.

When he’s not fishing on the MV What’s Happening, Angnatok he operates the 60-foot ship as a marine research vessel.

Joey Angnatok/handout

On the other shore of the Atlantic, cod and haddock, for instance, have migrated from Barents Sea, Europe, to the European Arctic. Walleye pollock and chinook salmon have moved northward from Canada’s Chukchi and Beaufort Seas to the Pacific coast. Although these types of changes may be less noticeable on the Atlantic side the Canadian Arctic, observational research has shown a trend in the same direction.

“This region is probably one of the last areas where species will start moving north, because we have this influx of cold water from the Labrador Current,” said Maxime Geoffroy, a marine ecosystem researcher at Memorial University who studies sub-Arctic and Arctic regions.

The Labrador Current is what Mr. Geoffroy describes as a masking effect. This happens because cold Arctic waters flow through it. Along the Labrador coast. However, research has shown that there are signs of species in the area expanding north. This includes capelin, which is a small, foraging fish that provides food to other fish and seabirds. Scientists have examined the stomach contents of Arctic fish and sea birds have reported a greater-than-normal abundance of capelin in those species’ diets.

The Arctic and subarctic environments have already changed dramatically in our lifetimes, said Robert Way, a Queen’s University physical geographer who specializes in understanding the impacts of climate change in the north.

“We’re dependent on people on the ground and their observations,” he said. Many communities in Labrador, and across the north, lack weather stations or other scientific means to track weather and environmental conditions.

“They are reliant on their own ways of knowing,” Mr. Way said. People in the north know that the climate is changing. “Here, you don’t meet a lot of people who don’t see it for themselves. The perception that things have changed quite a lot is very widespread, whereas if you asked me that 10-15 years ago, I’d have said it wasn’t.”

Mr. Way gave an example of locals working with sciens by citing the residents of Mud Lake in central Labrador. This small community is not accessible by road. Data collected by the community about the timing of each year’s first and last snowmobile ice crossing show that the annual period of safe ice travel in the area has been decreasing by about 4 days per decade since the 1970s.

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the national representative organization of 65,000 Inuit across Canada, calls for community action in its 2019 national climate change strategy. “We continue to dispel stereotypes that portray us solely as passive witnesses to climate change, or as an early warning of the changes the rest of the world will increasingly experience, or a source of knowledge to be mined for use in research and policy-making that affects us but does not include us,” the document says.

Collaboration with people like Mr. Angnatok has increased as environmental change accelerates. They combine Inuit knowledge with scientific expertise. “There’s been a fundamental shift, especially in the last five years, to respecting Inuit knowledge and putting it at an equitable level to science,” Mr. Laing said. “People live in the Arctic. This is their homeland. This is where they’ve lived for thousands of years. They have intimate understanding of the environment, of species, of ice.”

“Any time a southern researcher comes up, the first thing they do to figure out what they want to do – whether it’s sample a fish or put an instrument out – is they talk to someone, because they know that local people know.”

Mr. Angnatok stated that those who live and work near a resource are most interested in its success.

“I’m like a doctor who gets up every morning and deals with the stresses that today is going to take on, but is blinded by the fact that he’s going to help people,” he added. “If I can turn around and help somebody not fall through the sea ice, it was a good season.”

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