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Know the West

Alaska's Uncertain Food Future

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


On a blindingly bright, frigid April morning, the first whale hunt of the year gets underway in the village of Gambell, Alaska, on the westernmost edge of St. Lawrence Island. Between boulder-sized chunks of ice piled well over eight feet high along the shoreline, crews of three or four men, wearing boots, heavy jackets and insulated pants, launch small metal skiffs. A half-dozen snow machines and cargo sleds are parked above the frozen, snow-covered beach. Others arrive with boat crews and families, bringing supplies – fuel cans, rope, floats, cargo boxes and other gear. The small motorboats, loaded with harpoons and rifles, slip into the calm indigo water of the Bering Sea, their motors thudding softly, and thread their way through floating ice that has just begun its spring break-up. A few dogs scamper between the water and high ground, barking with excitement.

The 2014 hunting season is being anticipated with particular eagerness on St. Lawrence Island.  The residents, almost all St. Lawrence Island Yup'ik, rely on the annual bowhead whale hunt and the walrus hunt that follows – along with fishing – for the mainstay of their food supply. But last year, unusual weather patterns brought powerful winds that pushed offshore ice into huge pressure ridges that reached all the way to the sea floor along the coast, blocking access to the water. By the time the ice receded enough for boats to launch, most of the walrus had moved on, and only about one-third of the typical number were captured. The hardship prompted Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell to declare the island's two villages, Gambell and Savoonga, each with a population of about 700, economic disaster areas.

Successful hunting and fishing in the Bering Sea have always depended on weather and ice conditions. Island hunters have honed their ability to manage these variables through generations of experience. But climate change is now disrupting the seasonal patterns and threatening the food sources – and cultural traditions – St. Lawrence Islanders and other Native Alaskans have relied on for millennia. Over the past 50 years, average air temperatures have increased by 4 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit. Sea ice has been shrinking, sometimes by as much as 30 percent by the end of summer, and only gets about half as thick as it used to. Permafrost is thawing, and conifers have spread north into what was once tundra. In the Arctic, where climate change is progressing faster and more dramatically than almost anywhere else on earth, the resulting uncertainties are playing out not only in coastal communities but in inland Native villages as well.

A short walk across the frozen snow from the beach is the Gambell school, a one-story building at the inland end of the village. It's one of the newer buildings in the village, whose modest wooden houses, some weathered gray with age, are arrayed in unnamed streets. A display case inside the school features both student projects and traditional Native art and crafts. Dolly Silook is one of the school's cooks. Dark-haired, smiling, wearing an apron over her jeans, she and her two colleagues welcome me into the kitchen. "Everyone relies on native food," she says. "Store food is so expensive."

Here, as in many small, remote villages across Arctic Alaska, any food not harvested locally must be flown or shipped in at great expense. But it's not just a question of cost. Wild foods are also the mainstay of Native Alaskan cultures, which celebrate their connections to the landscape and environment. Passing on these food traditions is key to maintaining these customs. Standing by the stove where she's putting the finishing touches on a pan of macaroni and cheese for the students' lunch, Silook and her two co-workers rattle off a list of their favorite foods: Whale, walrus, baby walrus, seal, seal oil, greens, berries, and, Silook says, "the seafood that washes up after a storm," which includes clams, kelp and "sea peaches," a type of tunicate.

A typical Gambell dinner would be walrus or seal, boiled with sea veggies, says Silook. Dried fish and seal meat are also staples. But last year's unusual weather not only ruined the walrus hunt, it also spoiled the summer drying season, when villagers air-dry fish – salmon, cod and halibut – and meat on outdoor racks. "It was wet and rained, so the fish couldn't dry," Silook says. "It's a good thing I had food left over from the last year, because last spring, I didn't put anything away," she says. "If you put us back a hundred years, we would have starved. Hopefully it will be a better summer this year."

Before the advent of freezers, St. Lawrence islanders, like others in rural Arctic Alaska, cached food – often balls of walrus meat and blubber – in small storage dens dug into the permafrost. Some still do so. But thawing tundra and storm surges are literally undermining this practice.

Other local food sources include reindeer, descended from animals introduced in the 1900s and hunted primarily near Savoonga. There are also spidery king crabs, caught this spring by young men who drop baited lines through the ice not far off shore.

Silook and other islanders prefer these traditional foods. Store food, which often fills a gap now, falls short both in taste and satisfaction. "Non-native food is not as heavy," Silook says, "and makes you hungry again in a matter of hours."

While modern technology is nearly omnipresent and many households no longer support themselves solely by living off the land, tribal language, customs, art and crafts continue to be rooted in landscape and wildlife. Local geography is described by the location of family fishing and hunting camps; the year is defined by wildlife harvest seasons. Traditional foods such as walrus, whale, seal, fish – and for inland communities, caribou and moose – supply at least a third of daily calories for most Native Alaskans, and remain important to residents' health and well-being. "We live off the Bering Sea," says islander Gloria James. "We don't have chickens."

"Food security" alone doesn't adequately explain everything that access to wild foods means for Native Alaskan communities, says Carolina Behe, Inuit Circumpolar Council-Alaska traditional knowledge and science advisor. "Food security is everything around your life."

Thirty-nine miles east of Gambell sits the village of Savoonga. On a Sunday afternoon in mid-April, ATVs and snow machines zip around the snowy village, many towing sleds piled with children bundled in bright parkas. Children are sledding onto the frozen sea. Savoonga's one-story wooden homes are more closely clustered than the ones in Gambell, but here, too, the community is too small for street names. Each village has just one commercial store. Near many houses, snow machines sit parked near frames of the traditional wooden boats known as umiak.

A visit to the Savoonga store illustrates why a failed walrus hunt matters so much. Two-pound packages of frozen stew beef or pork run about $15, and two pounds of hamburger patties cost more than $11. Roasts and hams are over $40. A pint jar of peanut butter is more than $6. A half-gallon of fresh milk or apple juice costs about $10. The best-stocked cases contain frozen foods like pizza, chicken nuggets and microwaveable burritos. Most of the groceries are highly processed, long-shelf-life foods. Produce, even canned or frozen, is scarce.

About 10 minutes' walk from the store is City Hall, a two-story wooden building in the middle of town. The hallway outside Mayor Myron Kingeekuk's office upstairs is lined with cartons of canned salmon. On some boxes, family names are written in red marker. The room next door is stacked with packages of instant noodle soups and the large round crackers known as pilot bread. All are donations for village households, sent by organizations on the Alaskan mainland to make up for the failed 2013 walrus hunt. Kingeekuk, slim and soft-spoken but with a sharp glint in his eye, explains that the poor hunt meant not only less meat but also reduced incomes. St. Lawrence Island's Yup'ik community is famous for its ivory carving – museum-quality renditions of wildlife and village life that command high prices from collectors. "If we don't hunt walrus, we don't get ivory, and that is a major source of income for the island," he says. There are few local businesses, and the island's unemployment rate is nearly 30 percent.

Climate change in the Arctic is especially hard on the travel required for hunting and fishing. On St. Lawrence Island, family fishing and hunting camps are located at some distance from the village. Melting permafrost, rain and storms undercut shorelines  and threaten the integrity of the island's dirt roads. "Erosion is happening along the coastline, so you have to be careful where you ride the Hondas (ATVs) along the shore road," says Kingeekuk. "This has also made it hard to bring boats up on shore," he says.

Thinning ice also threatens the safety of offshore hunts. Hunters butcher seals and walrus out on the sea ice. If the ice is too thin, they have to take their catch to thicker, safer sections – running their motors longer and using up precious fuel. Prematurely softening ice also makes spring ice fishing hazardous and, in some cases, impossible.

"If we don't have winter, we lose who we are," says Seth Kantner, a writer and photographer who was raised in Alaska's interior. "Everything to do with life here used to do with being out on the land, which in winter means the ice."

Now that snowmobiles, ATVs and gas-powered boats have replaced sled dogs and sailboats, the cost of vehicle fuel has also become a great concern. In April, it was almost $7 a gallon. "It uses five gallons of fuel to get to camp and another five to get back. Close to $70, roundtrip," says Savoonga resident and Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission Chairman George Noongwook. A full whaling crew might need 10 or 11 times that for a single hunting trip – about $700 worth of fuel, he explains. "A lot of people think we get our food for free," Kingeekuk says. "It's not free."

Alaskan Natives – Yup'ik, Gwich'in, Inupiat, Aleut, Tlingit and other tribal groups – make up about 20 percent of the state's population. About two-thirds of these roughly 150,000 people live in rural communities of less than 1,000. Most villages lack roads to major urban centers, and many coastal communities, like Gambell and Savoonga, lack harbors, ports or docks. And though median incomes are much lower here than elsewhere in the U.S.– a 2010 state survey found median household income in Gambell to be about $24,000, and just over $30,000 in Savoonga (compared to $51,000 nationwide) – food prices are far higher. Groceries in remote Alaskan villages can cost 600 to 1,000 percent more than in the Lower 48 states.

According to state government estimates, wild foods supply rural Alaskans with the equivalent of 185 percent of the recommended daily protein requirement. That amounts to about 354 pounds of fish and meat per person annually, compared to about 255 pounds per year of domestic fish and meat consumed in the Lower 48.

Relying on hunting and fishing to feed a household in rural Alaska has never been easy, and the policies that govern Alaskan subsistence harvest – the legal term for the noncommercial traditional gathering of wild foods – have always been complex. These challenges are now being compounded as Native Alaskans and subsistence management policies struggle to adapt to ecological conditions out of sync with historical norms.

Both state and federal agencies have a role in regulating subsistence hunting and fishing. For example, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages walrus hunting, while the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) National Marine Fisheries Service regulates whale hunting. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game manages in-river salmon fishing, but NOAA and the North Pacific Fishery Management Council manage ocean salmon fishing.

Under the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), most Alaska Native communities ceded their tribal land to the federal government in exchange for cash and a future share of oil and mineral revenues. The settlement act also promised that both the state and the Department of Interior would protect Natives' subsistence harvest of fish, game and other wild foods. A subsequent state law gave subsistence uses priority over commercial and recreational fishing and hunting, but did not specify which residents had this privilege. In practice, all Alaska residents now have subsistence fishing and hunting rights, thus potentially increasing competition for resources that Native communities rely on (except for marine mammals, which can legally be harvested only by Natives living on the coast). This has also resulted in legal disputes over access to fish and game (such as Katie John v. Norton, a case involving Native fishing rights that was resolved in favor of federal law and Alaskan Natives). An additional federal law, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, gave "subsistence harvest" priority to rural Alaskans "in times of scarcity."

Both Gambell and Savoonga opted out of ANCSA. The villages and their tribal governments own St. Lawrence Island, and while this gives them control over their land, it also means residents don't receive the cash payments other Alaskan Natives do. That means St. Lawrence Islanders are arguably even more reliant on subsistence harvest than other Native communities.

As economic realities change, many families have less time to hunt and fish, so that if conditions are not as historically expected, harvests can plummet. This may also mean less game and wild fish for elders and others who can't hunt for themselves. In Kotzebue, tribal council member Cyrus Harris has established a program to supply harvested meat and fish to community elders and to the local hospital's elder care program.

Losing reliable access to wild food also poses a risk to Native Alaskans' health. Traditional meats like seal, whale and walrus are rich in protein, vitamins and fats, a diet that has kept Arctic Natives healthy without many fruits or vegetables. Now, the high fat and sugar content of most village store-bought food is introducing health problems. Eating these highly processed foods has led to a prevalence of obesity, diabetes and hypertension, and associated neurological and psychological problems. Such health issues are a concern for both children and adults. Meanwhile, elders complain of gastrointestinal upset caused by the new foods.

In addition to providing food, many local animals, among them caribou and seal, yield materials for clothing and shelter. Skin and fur hats and mukluks are still central to tribal art and craft and can often outperform gear from the sporting-goods store. Handmade mittens and headbands are worn with great pride by teenagers who are as absorbed in texting friends as any of their compatriots in the Lower 48. "We're now living two ways," a Savoonga elder named Harriet Penaya tells me. "Our way and your way."

It's not only coastal villages that are being affected by shifts in seasonal weather patterns. The warming temperatures that have caused record-low Arctic Sea ice also contribute to storms that have brought unusual winds and rain to Arctic Alaska over the past couple of years. Inland river flooding has endangered villages and damaged fish habitat. Exceptionally warm summers are drying wetlands and lakes and fueling destructive forest fires, like those raging this summer in Canada's Northwest Territories.

Such shifts are creating difficulties for hunting, fishing and wild-food preservation in Fort Yukon, deep in Alaska's interior. The village of about 600 residents – mostly Gwich'in tribal members – is nestled among spruce and willow trees along the Yukon River at its confluence with the Porcupine River, about 145 miles northeast of Fairbanks. Many of the modest-sized log-timber houses are decorated with caribou and moose antlers.

Caribou and king salmon are essential local foods and central to Gwich'in culture. The Porcupine caribou herd migrates through the Yukon Flats here. But this year, rare winter rains have left ice beneath the snow that could injure caribou and moose if their legs break through the crust. The ice also harms the low-growing plants, such as lichen, essential to the Arctic food web, and seals them off from hungry grazers. Summer wildfires have also been damaging vital caribou habitat.

The salmon aren't faring well either. Yukon River kings are prized as the richest of all salmon species for the muscle and oil they build up during their migration to the ocean and back – the longest of any salmon. Since an all-time high return in 1980, Yukon king or chinook have been declining.  Their management has also become more contentious, with an increasingly shortened state-permitted window for subsistence fishing, particularly upriver. This year, fish numbers are expected to be so low that for the first time ever, there may be no king salmon on Fort Yukon drying racks.

For Yukon kings to survive, a certain number of fish need to return to their spawning grounds to foster the next generation. In an attempt to ensure this, "escapement" goals have been set by estimating and modeling fish populations and return numbers. To meet the 2013 escapement goal, the state-permitted season for Fort Yukon's subsistence king fishery was reduced to a single day, resulting in "the lowest subsistence harvest on record," said Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Stephanie Schmidt, speaking at the 2014 pre-season salmon fishery management meeting in Fairbanks.

This year's forecast looks worse. In early May, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced that to meet the 2014 escapement goal, no intentional catch will be allowed, including by Native subsistence fishers.

The reasons for the decline are not entirely clear. "Some things point to the ocean and some things point to freshwater conditions and to the coastal zone," says Schmidt. Factors affecting habitat include low water, high river temperatures, tundra and bank erosion, and ocean conditions influenced by high atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Fort Yukon winters used to be much colder than they are now. "Elders used to see 70 to 80 below. We didn't see minus 50 this winter," says Fort Yukon Natural Resources Department staff member Walter Peter.

"The permafrost banks along the river are starting to drop," says James Kelly, natural resource director of the Council of Athabascan Tribal Governments in Fort Yukon. "There are now big cut banks – 20-foot cut banks where there used to be permafrost down to the sandbars." The eroding silt disrupts gravel bottoms where fish eggs are laid and destroys the fragile eggs. The river's water is also not as cold as it used to be, says Kelly. "Glaciers keep the water temperature really good for fish and there's less of that now as the glaciers recede."

At the April fisheries meeting, discussion focused on king salmon numbers, in-river fishing-gear restrictions designed to reduce salmon catch, and alternative fisheries – fishing for chum/keta salmon, sheefish, whitefish and other species instead. Many in upriver fishing communities feel that management decisions that favor Alaska's lucrative commercial fisheries, such as for pollock, are taking a toll on Yukon River kings. NOAA estimates that the 2012 Bering Sea pollock catch was worth more than $343 million, and that products made from pollock, like fish sticks, earned $1 billion. While NOAA says bycatch numbers are minimal, Yukon kings do get swept up accidentally by pollock trawlers. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council has placed "hard caps" on the number of bycatch salmon. On-board observers and salmon "excluder" devices are also used to minimize bycatch. Even so, the allowable total bycatch numbers have begun to equal or exceed the number of kings expected to return to the river in a single season.

At the same time, decreasing ice cover, particularly near shore, may harm Yukon salmon development at key stages, says salmon biologist Jim Lichatowich, who has served on scientific review panels in the Pacific Northwest and California. NOAA researchers are also beginning to investigate how ocean acidification may be influencing salmon health. While it's too early to know anything definitive about impacts on salmon, cold Pacific Ocean waters are becoming increasingly acidic as atmospheric CO2 dissolves in the ocean and forms carbonic acid that harms the shell-producing organisms on which salmon feed.

Between impacts upriver and those in the ocean, Lichatowich describes what's happening to Yukon River salmon habitat as "burning the candle at both ends." When management "focuses on numbers, it focuses on the symptoms, not the underlying problems," he says. "If you're going to close the fishery, there should be a parallel effort to protect the habitat." Thus far, there is not.

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.