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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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."

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