As recently as a few years ago, the village of Gambell on St. Lawrence Island could expect to harvest 600 or more walruses during the spring hunt. This year, the community hauled in just 30, the third year in a row that the harvest fell well short of expectations.
With a vital source of food and a key to the local economy in continued decline, residents increasingly point to climate change as the underlying cause of a problem with no easy remedies and are wondering what their next steps might be.
The Native Village of Gambell, the city and Kawerak Inc., the local Native corporation, are drafting a proposal seeking disaster relief. In 2013, a total of only 340 walruses were harvested by the Bering Sea villages of Gambell and Savoonga, and in 2014 only 299 were harvested.
They aren't the only communities trying to figure out what to do next in the face of low walrus harvests. The tiny island community of Diomede, in the Bering Strait 140 miles north of Gambell, recently submitted a joint resolution by the city and Native village asking for disaster relief after only one walrus was harvested in the last three years.
The Northwest Alaska village of Wales is also considering such a resolution, according to Vera Metcalf, director of the Eskimo Walrus Commission, which represents walrus hunters and co-manages the harvest with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Residents of Gambell blame the poor hunts on shifting sea ice, often far from shore and thinner than usual, coupled with storms and surging seas that forced hunters to remain onshore as the migration of Pacific walruses passed by the remote island that's closer to mainland Russia than Alaska.
National Weather Service Sea Ice Program lead Becki Heim said sea ice levels in the Bering Sea were average this winter, though the thaw came early.
But the ice near St. Lawrence Island was thinner and more mobile than in typical years, she said, as above-average sea temperatures and warmer weather in the region never allowed the ice to properly set up on the island's shore. When it did set, storms would dislodge secure ice from the shoreline.
Sea ice never stabilized near Diomede either, leaving residents without their winter ice runway.
Locals are attributing the years of weird weather and thin ice to climate change, a problem with no easy solution and no end in sight.
"Hunters have been hampered with the ice conditions, wind direction, weather -- it all played a role in that," said Native Village of Gambell President Eddie Ungott. "I guess global warming and climate change are the ones to blame."
The village of Savoonga, 40 miles northeast of Gambell and the only other community on St. Lawrence Island, brought in only 160 walruses this season but has no plans to appeal for disaster aid, according to Mayor Myron Kingeekuk.
Kingeekuk said despite the low harvest, residents have gathered other food and have resources to make it through winter. They decided in a meeting with village leaders last week not to pursue additional aid.
Kingeekuk said Savoonga plans to support Gambell in any request for a disaster declaration.
In 2013, the St. Lawrence Island communities appealed for and received an economic disaster declaration from then-Gov. Sean Parnell. The declaration said that the lack of walrus, which provides food and is one of the communities' few sources of income through the sale of carved ivory, constituted an economic disaster.
That declaration allowed the state to coordinate on relief efforts, allowing multiple nonprofit agencies to deliver additional food to the region. Supplies of salmon and halibut made their way to the island, but not cash.
That's because funds are available only to those affected by disaster as designated under the Alaska Disaster Act, which outlines a long list of events -- including flooding, fires, earthquakes, landslides, explosions, riots and even epidemics -- that qualify for disaster aid.
With no lives in immediate danger, the failed subsistence hunt does not qualify under the Alaska Disaster Act, according to Melissa Taylor, operations manager for the Alaska Division of Community and Regional Affairs. Villagers could apply for an economic disaster declaration as in 2013, which allows certain agencies to expedite things like food stamps, heating fuel vouchers and allocated grants, but no emergency funds would be available under such a declaration.
She said when a noneconomic disaster declaration is issued, communities have access to "unlimited" resources, including the Alaska National Guard and emergency funds at the state and federal levels. Taylor said that neither the state nor federal governments recognize failed subsistence hunts for disaster declarations, which is something she suggested lawmakers might want to reconsider.
"The Legislature needs to start thinking about this," she said. "This isn't going to go away."
Some say lives are in danger. Gambell resident Edythe Tungiyan said that with another low walrus harvest, her family is hurting. The $852 her family of four gets in food stamps each month doesn't go very far when milk on the island is $15 a gallon and a 4-pound package of frozen steaks costs $50, she said.
"Right now we just don't have anything," she said.
Metcalf, with the walrus commission, is working with the St. Lawrence Island communities and others along Alaska's western coast dealing with similar situations for a long-term solution to the walrus downturn.
"We're going to be facing this every spring and right now we don't have a plan they can go to at the local level," Metcalf said. "If they don't have a plan, we're going to be facing this crisis mode every year."
Gambell City Clerk Michael James said his community was still trying to regroup over the low harvest, holding meetings to decide what to do and working with Kawerak and other organizations to form next steps, even considering a major change in how residents approach the annual hunt.
"Maybe there's a sort of a shift to go out more in the winter, knowing the spring isn't as reliable as in the past," he said "I see that starting to happen."