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The Arctic is an Ecosystem
by Bill Heal
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The Ultimate Predator
  The food webs outlined so far are a gross simplification of the real world. Many more species are involved. Species change their habits and habitats at different stages in their lives, at different times of year, and in different parts of the Arctic. A truer picture is drawn by the Inuit and Cree of the Hudson Bay food web. Here the marine, freshwater and terrestrial systems are interlinked, from the primary vegetation source in the outer ring, through the herbivores and predators in successive rings, to the Inuit and Cree in the centre. The links are multiple and overlapping, and the food sources change from season to season.
  Mans position as Top Predator in the food web has unfortunate consequences, particularly for Indigenous peoples. An important physiological adaptation of many Arctic animals is the accumulation of fat as an insulator and as a food reserve. This feature, combined with the solubility of persistent organic pollutants in fat, has meant that this contaminant, although present in minute amounts in the environment, is accumulated up the food chain and is now present in Indigenous peoples in significant amounts.
  Indigenous peoples have sustained their use of natural resources for millennia. In recent centuries, whalers, hunters, trappers and fishermen from lower latitudes have increasingly exploited the northern resources. The effects have been direct in that populations are significantly reduced, e.g. through overfishing, or indirect when a predator switches to a new prey because its usual food has been overfished. Populations fluctuate greatly. Cod, herring and capelin have been major targets for centuries and the exploitation of cod in particular has influenced the fortunes and culture of many nations. But even the exceptionally productive cod, a key prey and predator for other species, has been reduced to a shadow of its former strength by Man - the ultimate predator!
  Man is not only the ultimate predator. Man is an integral part of the Arctic Ecosystem with a pervasive influence, directly or indirectly, in a continuum from the immediate effects of hunting or fishing to the diffuse and distant effects of pollution, emission of greenhouse gases or the global economy. Many of the adaptations adopted by Man reflect those of other animals ranging from insulation through clothing to migration when prey populations are depleted. We tend to view Man as unique, but this anthropocentric view underestimates our continuity with the rest of nature. It also artificially distinguishes between natural and Man-made ecosystems when all ecosystems are influenced by Man; it is just a question of degree and mechanism. So we, all of us, are part of the Arctic Ecosystem. Or is it that the Arctic is actually part of an even bigger ecosystem - the Global Ecosystem - Gaia - the self regulating Earth postulated by James Lovelock. But that is another story!
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The Arctic is an Ecosystem, by Bill Heal.
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