Using traditional Inuit knowledge and Western science to study Arctic marine life

Since leaving Nunavut to study marine biology at the University of Guelph, Ph.D. student Enooyaq Sudlovenick has sought to better understand the life that roams beneath the surface of the Arctic Ocean.

Growing up on Baffin Island, Enooyaq Sudlovenick often ventured out on the water with her parents, leaning over the side of their boat to pick up and marvel at schools of sea angels. When the ocean level dropped, she sought out shallow tidal pools for eels and northern krill. Year-round, she also participated in Inuit traditions of hunting, gathering and fishing. All of this, she says, opened her eyes to an abundant aquatic ecosystem that has supported her community for millennia.

“The Arctic is not as arid as people think. It’s rich with life,” she says. “Being on the water feels like home. It’s calm, it’s peaceful and familiar. But there’s still so much we still don’t know.

Since leaving the North for university, this Nunavut-born student has sought to learn more about the life that lives beneath the surface of the region’s oceans. Her post-secondary journey began in 2013 at the University of Guelph, where she earned a Bachelor of Science in Marine and Freshwater Biology. She then enrolled at the University of Prince Edward Island, where she completed her thesis on the Iqaluit ringed seal and earned a Master of Science in Veterinary Medicine, Pathology and Microbiology.

READ: Inside Nunavut Sivuniksavut, a unique post-secondary option for young Inuit

These days, she’s president of the ArcticNet student association while completing a doctorate. at the University of Manitoba. His research compares and assesses the health of beluga whales in western Hudson Bay and the eastern Beaufort Sea, while trying to understand how to better characterize their health. His work has received national recognition; she is the 2021 recipient of the Weston Family Award in Northern Research.

Sudlovenick uses both Western science and traditional Inuit knowledge in his research. Using a scientific lens, she could look at trends in bacteria, contaminants, pathogens and genetic biomarkers present in certain parts of the whale. At the same time, she consults with local Inuit about their whale sightings, such as differences in taste, physical appearance, or changes in birth or migration rates over time. She interviews hunters, elders and other Inuit who deal with the animals to hear their observations and concerns and to understand how they monitor the health of regional whale populations. The participation of the inhabitants also facilitates the unfolding of the days in the field. For example, when Sudlovenick takes samples of beluga skin, blubber, blood, muscle and organs, she does so with hunters skilled at spearing whales.

The Arctic region is warming, so she says it’s important to monitor and fully understand how wildlife and Inuit staple foods like beluga whales are affected.

“It’s work that touches me on a very personal level. I have a foot in both worlds, but I also eat these whales,” she says. “Access to traditional food nourishes your body, your mind, your everything. It’s like soul food. Its very important for us.

“It’s work that touches me on a very personal level,” says the Nunavut-born student (Courtesy of Enooyaq Sudlovenick)

Academics, environmentalists and Indigenous organizations are calling for more Indigenous-led research that includes traditional knowledge, not only as a step towards reconciliation, but also to strengthen solutions to climate change. Lisa Loseto, Ph.D. of Sudlovenick. supervisor and associate professor of environment and geography at the University of Manitoba, has seen scientific research in the Arctic slowly evolve to incorporate the expertise of Inuit people over the past two decades, but says there are a need for more collaborative research, like that of Sudlovenick.

“The North is the canary in the coal mine,” says Loseto. “There are changes being seen so rapidly there, and we need to listen.”

Loseto is confident that Sudlovenick will help advance the current trajectory in the natural sciences that values ​​Indigenous knowledge. “I respect her for standing in the middle of complex and uncomfortable places,” Loseto says. “Being the only Inuit person representing a southern people’s organization to work in her garden, but encouraging people to improve, and then speaking to people in her garden to say ‘trust us’, she is very courageous. »

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For decades, scientists from the southern regions flew north to do their work and then left again, failing to consult or work with the locals, or using their findings for the sole benefit of themselves and their institutions. Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the national organization representing Inuit in Canada, released its National Inuit Research Strategy in 2018 to encourage changing approaches in the North. The plan calls for more Inuit-led work and increased local participation in research projects. According to Natan Obed, president of the organization, a more collaborative approach will help mend relationships and influence effective policy decisions, including climate change adaptations.

“Having researchers like Enooyaq shows that we are capable and that the results will benefit our communities in a more nuanced way than ever before,” Obed says. ” There is very little [researchers] who have already been able to connect at the family level, at the community level, and also who live and have family in the communities where the research is taking place. All of that matters, and it’s also important from the point of view of seeing what’s possible.

Sudlovenick, meanwhile, says she plans to complete her doctorate. within two years and hopes to return to the North and work in his community. As she seeks to wrap up her student journey, she has a message for those interested in academic science, especially young Indigenous people: “It seems daunting at times, but there is so much support, so much space and so many opportunities to do good. Go for it.


This article appears in print in the 2022 University Rankings issue of Maclean’s magazine with the title “How to get closer to seals and whales”.

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