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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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.

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