Climate Change and Alaska Natives: Food

Wild foods are important to Alaskans, and especially to rural residents, but subsistence users and scientists say climate change is affecting wildlife populations, access to subsistence resources, and food preservation.

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On its website, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game says subsistence hunting and fishing make up a large share of the food supply in rural Alaska – about 375 pounds per person, compared to 22 pounds per person in urban areas.

Stanley Hawley, tribal administrator for Kivalina in Northwest Alaska, said subsistence involves more than putting food on the table.

“Once we get exposed to that livelihood, that way of living, it gets ingrained in our spirit, and in our soul, and in our psyche,” said Hawley.

Leroy Adams is the Housing Coordinator for Kivalina, where one bowhead whale would feed the village for a year.

“And that’s one good thing about Kivalina is the sharing of the food,” said Adams.

According to a health assessment of Kivalina by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, or ANTHC, the ice there in years past was as much as 12 feet thick and provided a stable surface for travel and hunting. But in recent years, the ice has been thinner and sometimes isn’t there when the whales are passing by, headed to rich feeding grounds farther north. Adams said it takes more gasoline, and it’s more dangerous, to travel the distance to the whales in small boats.

“The migration pattern is about 60 to 90 miles out,” said Adams. “Although they haven’t landed a bowhead whale in 10 or 12 years, they still haven’t given up.”

Mike Williams of the Native village of Akiak said access to subsistence foods is changing in western Alaska too. For instance, when the Kuskokwim River froze, then thawed in November, Williams said fishermen were left with no way to empty their fish traps, and his were damaged.

“They busted open,” said Williams. “It’s just not regular checking every day. We just had to wait for a freeze so it could be safe enough to get to our traps.”

Williams said [hunters’] reports of walrus with empty stomachs at a time of year when they need to be piling on the blubber, and salmon runs that don’t meet escapement goals for spawning – also raise concerns about wildlife populations. He said some years when they did catch fish, wet, warm spring weather interfered with food preservation.

“We can’t even dry our fish when it’s raining all the time and it’s moist,” said Williams. “The fish can’t dry after we cut them up, and they spoil.”

Mike Brubaker, director for the ANTHC Center for Climate Change and Health, is launching a program to give hunters in the Bering Strait region test strips to check for germs, viruses and parasites that cause disease in humans. He said one of the pathogens they’re checking for is the parasite toxoplasmosis, which can cause birth defects, and eye and brain damage in vulnerable populations. He said it once occurred only in land mammals, including domestic cats, but that’s changing.

“It’s in about ten percent of caribou that’s been sampled and also in about 50 percent of harbor seals that have been sampled,” said Brubaker. “So somehow these pathogens are moving around the wildlife population  and they’re moving into new sectors of wildlife, like from land mammals to sea mammals.”

Brubaker said the program will allow hunters to check food safety, and provide baseline data on the prevalence of pathogens in wildlife, as well as any changes that may occur as temperatures continue to rise.

Brubaker’s shop has completed health assessments in 20 Northern and Northwest Alaska communities. He said the reports document the effects of thawing permafrost, melting sea ice, and changing river and lake conditions on wildlife populations, access to subsistence resources, and food preservation throughout those regions.