On a blindingly bright, frigid April morning, the first whale hunt of the year gets underway in the village of Gambell on the westernmost edge of St. Lawrence Island. Between boulder-sized chunks of ice piled well over 8 feet high along the shore, crews of three or four men, wearing boots, heavy jackets and insulated pants, launch small metal skiffs.
A half-dozen snowmachines 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, threading their way through floating ice that has just begun its spring breakup. 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 Yupik, rely on the annual bowhead whale hunt and the walrus hunt that follows – along with fishing – for most of their food.
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 a third of the typical number were killed. 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 honed their skill through generations of experience. But climate change is now disrupting the seasonal patterns and threatening the food sources – and cultural traditions – that St. Lawrence Islanders and other Natives have relied on for millennia. Over the past 50 years, average air temperatures have increased. 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 once did. 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 villages as well.
A short walk across the frozen snow on 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 along 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 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 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 coworkers 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 (it) 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."
Store food falls short
Before the advent of freezers, St. Lawrence Islanders, like others in rural Arctic Alaska, cached food in small storage dens dug into the permafrost. Some still do so. But thawing tundra and storm surges are 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 Alaska Natives 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 rural 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 snowmachines 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, snowmachines sit parked near the frames of traditional wooden umiaks.
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 more than $40. A pint jar of peanut butter is about $6. A half-gallon of fresh milk or apple juice can cost nearly $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. The room next door is stacked with packages of instant noodle soups and pilot bread. All are donations for village households, sent by organizations on the Alaska mainland to help 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 Yupik 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 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 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 lives in the northwest village of Ambler. "Everything to do with life here used to do with being out on the land, which in winter means the ice."
Now that snowmachines, 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, round-trip," 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."
Relying on subsistence
Alaska Natives – Yup'ik, Gwich'in, Inupiat, Aleut, Tlingit and other tribal groups – make up about 20 percent of the state's population. Some two-thirds of these people live in rural communities of fewer than 1,000 residents. 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 the 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.
According to state 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 harvesting – the legal term for the noncommercial traditional gathering of wild foods – have always been complex. These challenges have been compounded as Alaska Native and subsistence management policies adapt to ecological conditions out of sync with historical norms.
State and federal agencies both play 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), the state and the Department of Interior said they would protect Natives' subsistence harvesting 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 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 resolved in favor of federal law and Alaska 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 from Native regional corporations that other Natives do. That means St. Lawrence Islanders are arguably more reliant on the subsistence harvest than most Alaskans.
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 can pose a risk to Alaska Natives' 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 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 crafts and can often outperform gear from sporting-goods stores. 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," Savoonga elder Harriet Penaya said. "Our way and your way."
From Savoonga to Fort Yukon
Coastal villages aren't the only communities being affected by shifts in seasonal weather. The warming temperatures have diminished Arctic Sea ice while bringing unusual winds and rain to Arctic Alaska in recent years. Warm summers can dry wetlands, 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 log-timber houses are decorated with caribou and moose antlers.
Caribou and king salmon are essential local foods central to Gwich'in culture. The Porcupine caribou herd migrates through the Yukon Flats. But earlier this year, winter rains left ice beneath the snow that could injure caribou and moose. The ice also harms the low-growing plants, such as lichen, essential to the Arctic food web, and seals them off from hungry grazers.
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 slumped. This summer, just 66,000 kings made it upriver to Eagle, according to a state-run sonar. Though down from the 1980s, the return was more than double the 31,000 kings of 2013.
To meet the escapement goal that year, 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.
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, too. "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.
"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 cutbanks – 20-foot cutbanks 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.
At the April fisheries meeting, discussion focused on king salmon numbers, in-river fishing gear restrictions designed to reduce salmon catch, and fishing for other species, such as chum salmon, sheefish, and whitefish. Many in upriver fishing communities feel that management decisions in favor of Alaska's lucrative commercial fisheries, such as for pollock, take 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. Onboard observers and salmon "excluder" devices are also used to minimize bycatch.
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, Pacific Ocean waters are becoming increasingly acidic as atmospheric carbon dioxide 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."
Adapting to change
Although subsistence hunters across the Arctic still head out after fish and game, 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."
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, all developments of 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.
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 musk ox 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.
"Maybe if we looked at these (climate) 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 on shore and begin loading sleds and revving snowmachine engines, the men say they saw a few whales, none close enough to catch.
Gambell's whalers will be out again as soon as weather permits.
This article originally appeared in the Aug. 18 edition of High Country News. 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.