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Disaster declared for subsistence walrus hunt on St. Lawrence Island

Suzanna Caldwell
Tightly packed sea ice lead to a disastrous walrus hunt for St. Lawrence, and an economic disaster has been declared, but can the true economic and cultural impact of subsistence resources ever be determined? Loren Holmes photo

Last month, St. Lawrence Island communities of Gambell and Savoonga found themselves looking for help. The annual walrus hunt was a disaster. Unusually wet and cold weather, coupled with sea ice that packed in so tightly around the island it kept hunters from getting to the giant marine mammals that serve as both the literal and economic lifeblood of the communities. Only 340 walruses were harvested between the two communities this year, during a season that runs roughly from November to May. This year's haul amounted to a paltry 36 percent of the average yearly harvest over the past 10 years, about 1,200 animals.

The hundreds of pounds of meat on each walrus provides sustenance for the Yup'ik people, who have inhabited the region for thousands of years. The ivory from the walrus tusks is vital in supplying the communities with the base material needed to carve the art that injects cash into the local economy. St. Lawrence carvers are well-known for their skill, and their craft is one of the only opportunities for income on the island.

But with only a few hundred walruses caught this year, the communities -- each village is home to about 670 people -- have asked for government assistance in the form of an economic disaster declaration, which was granted by the governor Thursday.

The disaster declaration opens the region up to funds from the state, through either the Legislature appropriating assistance grants, or the governor recommending acceleration of capital projects planned for the area and funding of new projects.

But ask someone how much a walrus is really worth, and you'll get widely different answers, though generally it boils down to this: priceless.

“We've been living off these resources for centuries,” Eskimo Walrus Commission Executive Director Vera Metcalfe said in an interview earlier this month. “It's not just part of our cultural lifestyle, but we're dependent on these for our livelihood.”

So how does the state quantify such a resource? It's complicated, ultimately coming down to a best guess.

Resistant to analysis

Based on an analysis by the state Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development, the estimated 2013 income for the village of Gambell will be $5,883,754 -- down over half a million dollars from the baseline income. Savoonga is expected to have a total income of $6,309,226, almost $400,000 less than the base yearly average.

Both communities fall well below the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service's federal poverty guidelines.

Glenn Haight, development manager for state department, is in charge of trying to figure out how much aid will go to the region. By his own admission, it's been a challenge.

“I won't profess that it's an easy analysis to do,” he said.

Haight looked at surveys from both the Kawerak native corporation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to try to get a better idea of what the actual losses from the animals would be. The Kawerak study looked at the total poundage of walrus meat the hunt brought into the communities – close to 800 pounds per person. That's a much higher value than the 220 pounds of protein most Americans eat every year. Even if you take away a third of that, it's significant, Haight said.

“Most people are already below the federal poverty threshold in a high-cost environment, and then you pull away a significant chunk of their diets? It's going to have impact,” he said.

Haight said estimated the total loss of the walrus meat by calculating how much it would cost to replace the walrus protein through other commercially available food -- like beef.

“It's not really comparable, but it's something to cling to,” Haight said. The cost of beef on St. Lawrence Island is so high it would seem outlandish to anyone but rural Alaskans.

Loss of cash

Gloria James, marine mammal program manager for the native village of Gambell said a 3-pound pack of frozen, pre-pattied beef hamburger goes for $20 in Gambell, but that cost is irrelevant if people don't have money to pay for it.

“Nobody can buy that stuff,” she said from Gambell Friday. “Nobody has a job.”

For some on the remote island, ivory from the walruses are a major source of income and one of the few consistent sources of cash.

Haight admitted that the value of the ivory is much more challenging to deduce. While the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has numbers on the amount of walruses harvested, which gives a good indicator for how many tusks are harvested, how the ivory plays into the economy is murky. Haight said it's hard to calculate the worth based on the raw value at harvest or at a retail market.

“You can sort of draw estimates,” he said. “But it's more a baseline.”

Cultural implications

But the implications for the value of the subsistence harvest go far beyond the economic value of the resource. Jim Fall, Alaska Department of Fish and Game program manager for the division of subsistence, said that's a value that's impossible to calculate.

“If people over the long term don't have access to a key resources, it has implications far beyond food,” he said. “You risk losing the transmission of skills, knowledge and social relationships (the activities impart.)”

He noted that after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, Alaska Natives sued over the loss of resources. The judge ultimately found that while the resources could be quantified, it was impossible to figure out a dollar figure for the loss of culture.

“We're talking about replacing foods that cannot be replaced,” Fall said.

Things are moving forward, at least somewhat, on St. Lawrence Island in recent days. School started Aug. 23, giving students at least one lunch every day. The next week the community of Gambell was given 2,000 pounds of chum salmon and halibut from the Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation.

That's about three 1-gallon Ziploc bags of fish for each family in the region, according to James. It's a help, but she noted that the community is still looking for relief.

“Everybody is hurting right now” she said.

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna@alaskadispatch.com