Moki Kokoris,  “Duck Down and Thermostats in an Interconnected World”

It was in 1913 that American filmmaker and explorer Robert Joseph Flaherty first landed on the Belcher Islands in what is now the Qikiqtaaluk Region of Nunavut, Canada. Though most of the 30,000 feet of footage he took with his hand-cranked motion picture camera was lost in a fire, the Inuit culture he encountered in the Belchers intrigued him deeply enough that he was inspired to make a new film that would document the life of a traditional Inuit family. The dramatic interpretation Nanook of the North (1922) went on to become the first commercially successful feature-length documentary, for which Robert J. Flaherty is known as the father of the documentary film.

When viewed on a satellite image, the archipelago of 1,500 separate islands that comprise the Belcher Island chain gives an appearance of marbled paper. Composed of folded meta-sedimentary rock, the grouping collectively covers an area of 5,000 square miles in southeastern Hudson Bay, approximately 1,160 of which are dry land. The archipelago’s 800 residents reside in the hamlet of Sanikiluaq on the northern coast of Flaherty Island, one of the four larger islands.

As in many regions across the Arctic, there is no agriculture or farming on the chain due to the lack of arable soil. Therefore, the residents of Sanikiluaq rely mainly on subsistence hunting, following age-old Inuit traditions. Hunters supply food not only for their own families but for the entire community. The waters around the islands support a wide variety of fish including Arctic char, capelin, lumpfish, and cod. Predominant wildlife that provides food, clothing and other necessities consists of beluga whales, ringed and harbor seals, walrus, and large populations of the Common Eider duck. Even today, the Inuit depend heavily on the fish and seals, but it is with the Eider that these indigenous people have the strongest historic relationship.

Many of the low-lying islets provide prime nesting grounds for the Eiders. The strong water currents around the islands in the winter create ice-free areas, called polynyas. Because these areas of open water allow the sea-ducks to dive for urchins and mussels on the sea floor throughout the year, the Eiders remain in the Belchers through the winter instead of migrating south. They are an important resource for the Inuit who continue to rely on the ducks for their livelihood. Eiders are harvested for their meat to this day, and until only one generation ago did the Belcher Inuit still use their feathered skins to make their coats. Traditionally, men wore anoraks made only from Eider drakes (mainly black with white accents), and women wore amautiit constructed exclusively from Eider hen skins (speckled brown). More recently, along with a few eggs that are collected for personal sustenance, small clumps of down are sustainably gathered from the Eiders’ nests during nesting season with which the Inuit fill contemporary fabric parkas.

Seriously troubled by major die-offs of thousands of Eider ducks during typical winters during the 1990s, the Belcher Island community contacted the Canadian Wildlife Service. It was eventually determined that the large-scale hydroelectric projects built near James and Hudson Bays in the 1970s were the root cause. Little was known at the time about the impacts these dams would have on the surrounding ecosystem. Initially deemed to be a “green” alternative to coal-fired and diesel power generation, hydroelectric plants require the damming of rivers and collection of spring run-off. To power the turbines, the water from these reservoirs is released during the winter months when energy demand is highest in the regions using the electricity. Research now shows that as it enters the saltwater, the released freshwater decreases salinity in the bay, causing the bay to freeze up more quickly over a much larger area, often catching wildlife by surprise. These freshwater plumes result in frequent entrapments and mass die-offs of not only Eider ducks but also belugas.

Moreover, because most species of phytoplankton are adapted to narrowly specific marine environments and conditions, even minor changes in salinity levels, currents and sea ice conditions can create major disruptions in the food chain. One of the unexpected biological effects is that hunters report that carcasses of the seals and belugas they dispatch sink before they can be retrieved. This phenomenon is a principal example of the cumulative impact the hydroelectric dams can have on animal development. The food sources of seals and belugas determine the composition of their body fat. Seals, for example, have different buoyancy in freshwater than they do in seawater. The bodies of the killed seals sink and come to rest several meters below the surface in the water column beneath the freshwater plume. Belugas that have a thinner layer of blubber due to the imbalance in their food supply simply drown and are lost altogether. Additionally, thinning sea ice and increasingly unpredictable weather patterns render hunting too dangerous, and therefore make the Eider a relatively easier-to-obtain quarry.

As a direct consequence of hydroelectric industry practices, the plight of the Common Eider population has been no less grave. In an attempt to remedy the growing problems, a group of Inuit and Cree leaders traveled to New York in 1996, to lobby against further hydro-development. Their monumental First Nations rights achievements at the time have now become tenuous as energy demand and pressures to establish new hydro projects increase.

In collaboration with the Canadian Wildlife Service, Canadian ecologist Joel Heath came to Sanikiluaq in 2002, to study the ducks and create a community-based monitoring program that would combine the collected scientific data with traditional knowledge. Not only would such a process empower the community, but it could help the Inuit people who are directly impacted to address the environmental changes in a more comprehensive way.

While researching the ducks and their habits, Joel developed new time-lapse monitoring technology and an underwater camera system that captured the first ever images of Eiders diving below the sea ice. During this time, he also compiled a series of stories in which the local Inuit shared their concerns about the troubled future living with the hydroelectric dams that power eastern North America in such close proximity. This seven-year effort became Joel Heath’s first feature documentary film called People of a Feather.

To better understand the environmental impacts, the Flaherty Island hamlet formed the Sanikiluaq Environment Committee, which in the early 1990s conducted a three-year survey to record what indigenous hunters and elders knew about Hudson Bay, and what changes they were observing. Their observations were published in the book Voices from the Bay: Traditional Ecological Knowledge of Inuit and Cree in the Hudson Bay Bioregion. Joel Heath’s People of a Feather film and the subsequently established Arctic Eider Society support and further build on their predecessors’ objectives.

In the director and filmmaker’s own statement, “Motivated by deep personal relationships and intimate first hand experience, the film presents an engaging story of life in the Arctic through the eyes of Inuit. Dialogue among characters establishes context, creating an open discussion of critical socio-environmental issues with limited voiceover. Versatile cinematography (Canon 7D) and unprecedented access provide stunning visuals, capturing uninhibited moments, reflecting modern life while maintaining deep roots in the Flaherty tradition. The drama is carried by the unique rhythm of the Arctic seasons, juxtaposing past and present revealing increasing discord as we travel through the seasons that are ultimately being disrupted.”

Evidence shows that the simple act of turning on a light switch in Quebec or adjusting a thermostat in a New York City apartment creates a cascade of cumulative consequences on the ecology of Hudson Bay, its sea ice and currents, salinity levels, and ultimately on the complex dynamics of the Gulf Stream and thermohaline circulation that controls climate patterns around the globe.

It may not be possible to halt expansion of the hydropower industry, but “the eyes of a remote subsistence culture challenge the world to find energy solutions that work with the seasons.” The future of the changing environments and economies depend on it, and the fate of the Common Eider and its feather-clad human partners will be much less uncertain…

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