Alaska's Uncertain Food Future

Climate change in the Far North puts traditional food sources at risk.

  • Men butcher a bowhead whale in Kaktovik, on Alaska's Northern Slope. Across Alaska, climate change is disrupting traditional hunting and fishing.

    Loren Holmes/Alaska Dispatch News
  • An Inupiaq subsistence hunter pulls in a ringed seal outside the village of Point Hope, along the Arctic Coast of Alaska, Chukchi Sea.

    Steven J. Kazlowski /Aurora/GHG
  • Men butcher a bowhead whale in Kaktovik, on Alaska's Northern Slope. Across Alaska, climate change is disrupting traditional hunting and fishing.

    Loren Holmes/Alaska Dispatch News
  • Wild foods are central to Native Alaskan cultures. In rural villages, residents rely on hunting, fishing and gathering to supply much of their food, including salmon from the Kuskokwim River.

    Bob Hallinen/Alaska Dispatch News
  • Wild foods are central to Native Alaskan cultures. In rural villages where incomes are lower and store food prices much higher than in the Lower 48, residents rely on hunting, fishing and gathering to supply much of their food, including walrus in Gambell.

    Loren Holmes/Alaska Dispatch News
  • In rural villages where incomes are lower and store food prices much higher than in the Lower 48, residents rely on hunting, fishing and gathering to supply much of their food, including lowbush cranberries in Lake Clark National Park.

    Carl Johnson
  • A successful hunt is cause for the whole village to celebrate, as in Kaktovik, a northern Alaskan village.

    Loren Holmes/Alaska Dispatch News
  • Rural stores like this one in Savoonga, on St. Lawrence Island, right, offer a limited selection of expensive, processed food choices.

    Loren Holmes/Alaska Dispatch News
 

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Although subsistence hunters across the Arctic still head out after fish and game as eagerly as always, and Native family meals continue to center on traditional foods like salmon, caribou, seal, walrus and whale, the harvest is becoming increasingly difficult. Empty nets, empty boats, spent fuel and energy are taking a toll economically and psychologically. "Food security existed. It doesn't now," says Clarence Alexander, former Gwich'in grand chief and founder of the Yukon River Intertribal Watershed Council.

Yet despite the anxiety and pessimism, there is also a strong sense of determination that the traditions connecting Native communities to the land will continue. "Communities are adapting," says Alisa Kelly, a family practitioner at Fort Yukon's Yukon Flats Health Center. "They always have."

Precisely how this will play out remains to be seen. Along with the direct impacts of climate change on wildlife and habitat, the warming temperatures are facilitating increased Arctic ship traffic, mining and oil and gas development. These will bring noise, pollution, and degrade wildlife habitat, all impacts of great concern to Alaska's Native communities.

Yet as they work to maintain their traditions, families in and around Kotzebue and Fort Yukon are also experimenting, planting herbs and vegetables in garden boxes and "high tunnel" greenhouses. Extensive efforts are underway within Native communities across Alaska to document environmental changes – for example, mapping populations of key plant and animal species – so residents can respond more strategically to protect precious resources. From the pre-school to the college level, educators are working to bolster language and cultural programs. In Gambell and Fort Yukon, Head Start program teachers are encouraging children to learn their Native languages and enjoy traditional foods. Maintaining connections to local wild food sources plays an important role in all of this.

It's hard to fully understand the visceral connection to the landscape that comes with eating wild foods unless you've tasted them. On my last day in Alaska, I am offered muktuk – whale blubber served nearly frozen – dried caribou, bear fat with berries and moose roast with muskox fat. The bear fat tastes like finely smoked fish, as does the muktuk. The meat is rich and satisfyingly salty. After several weeks of eating crackers, peanut butter and powdered soup mix, my tongue tingles with excitement. At lower latitudes and in urban communities, we are far less connected to our food sources, but they too are already being impacted by climate change. "Maybe if we looked at these changes through the lens of food," says Carolina Behe, "it would be easier to make better decisions."

Back on St. Lawrence Island, Savoonga's crews have already caught their first bowhead of the season. In Gambell, the day's bowhead hunt is just ending. Toward sunset, community elder Clement Ungott sits atop his ATV on the high ridge above the snow-covered beach and trains his binoculars west, watching for the whaling crews' return. Beyond the dark calm open water, the horizon is a wide band of white ice. The lowering sun casts long cobalt shadows. The Bering Sea has supplied this island with food for thousands of years. "It was only four years ago the last boats with skin sails went out and caught a whale," Ungott says from under his fur-rimmed parka hood. As we speak, at the far end of town, a school basketball tournament is underway and families in the bleachers are snacking on frozen pizza.

We are too far away to hear them, but the boats appear from the expanse of water. As the crews haul their empty boats up on shore and begin loading sleds and revving snow machine engines, the men say they saw a few whales, none close enough to catch. But Gambell's whalers will be out again as soon as weather permits.

Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry and High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health. Her work has appeared in many publications including Scientific American, The Washington Post and Mother Jones.

Research travel for this story was made possible, in part, by a grant from the Society of Environmental Journalists' Fund for Environmental Journalism. Additional funding came from reader donations to the High Country News Research Fund.