From rotten ice to wildfires: hunting and fishing becomes complicated in a changing Alaska

Screenshot from the video Silavut Atlannuraqtuq, Our Changing Weather, about climate change in Northwest Alaska. (Image courtesy of the Maniilaq Association and ANTHC)
Screenshot from the video Silavut Atlannuraqtuq, Our Changing Weather, about climate change in Northwest Alaska. (Image courtesy of the Maniilaq Association and ANTHC)

Alaskans have heard stories for years about how climate change is affecting subsistence hunting and fishing. Now researchers are trying to quantify that impact– and they’re finding the biggest problem is access.

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This summer, Maija Lukin set out to document changes around her home community of Kotzebue.

For Lukin, the impacts of climate change are personal. She said her six-year-old niece is learning different rules for hunting and fishing than she did growing up.

“She’s going to grow up learning, oh, we (always) have to check the ice,” Lukin said. “I never had to check the ice, ever.”

Lukin heard similar stories all over the region, when she visited several villages this year with a videographer in tow.

Lukin was the tribal environmental manager for the Maniilaq Association, the regional nonprofit. She’s now moved on to the National Park Service. She didn’t tell people she was making a video about climate change. She just asked, how has the weather changed in your lifetime?

And, Lukin said, people talked. And talked. And talked.

Iditarod musher John Baker told her, when he started running dogs 20 years ago, he could train year-round.

“This year, I started running first of September,” Baker said. “And I’m having to run them only early in the morning because it’s so warm.”

Carl Thomas of Deering said unreliable ice has made it difficult to hunt bearded seals, or oogruk.

“This year, me and my friend actually shot an oogruk, and we tried to walk to it, but we couldn’t get to it because the ice was so rotten,” Thomas said.

Their stories and more were captured in Lukin’s video, Silavut Atlannuraqtuq, or Our Changing Weather.

Above all, people talked about how unpredictable the weather is now, and how that makes it harder to get out on the land.

Those are exactly the kinds of issues University of Alaska Fairbanks biologist Todd Brinkman and his team found when they set out to assess the impact of climate change on subsistence use.

“Our take-home finding was relatively surprising, in that we found that climate effects on the environment are having the largest impact on people’s ability to travel across landscapes and access these resources,” Brinkman said.

In other words, the biggest effects right now aren’t on, say, the populations of caribou or seals. The biggest effects are on people’s ability to get to those animals.

Brinkman and his colleagues conducted interviews in four villages — Wainwright and Kaktovik on the Arctic coast; and Venetie and Fort Yukon in the Interior — for a paper published this fall.

Residents told them ice is thinner. Rivers are shallower. Permafrost is deteriorating. The biggest problem is just getting places.

Brinkman said that’s a surprise for wildlife biologists, who are used to focusing on a species’ population size.

“We make this assumption that if there’s an abundance of fish or game, hunting opportunities will follow suit, and they’ll be just fine,” Brinkman said. “But we found despite abundant resources, people were having trouble accessing them because of how the climate was changing the local environment.”

One example of this: Bowhead whales. The bowhead population is growing. But harvests have been uncertain because of thinner sea ice and unpredictable weather.

“Whalers have to be much more careful when they’re spring whaling, which occurs on sea ice — getting out to their whaling location, and finding a landing that’s stable enough to actually get the whale back onto after they harvest it,” Brinkman said. “So they may just be spending more time looking for ways to get out to their whaling area.”

The question is, how big a deal is all of this? Are these changes just inconveniences — or something more?

That’s what Brinkman’s newest research is focused on.

“Are people not able to meet their needs?” Brinkman said. “Are they forced to make serous sacrifices? Are they forced to abandon hunting areas altogether?”

To answer those questions, Brinkman and his colleagues have distributed GPS-equipped cameras in nine villages. As residents travel around the region, they’re asked to take photos of the kind of landscape changes that get in the way — from open water on rivers to fallen trees from recent wildfires.

Researchers will then cross-reference that data with satellite and aerial images from NASA dating back to the 1980s, to determine whether these kinds of disturbances are happening more frequently than in the past.

Another big question is how communities are adapting to these changes, whether through new technology or new approaches.

Maija Lukin has one answer: Facebook.

“Because it’s real time,” Lukin said. “If you have enough friends who are hunters, berry pickers or fishers, then you know where the safe ice is, and so you can see them posting pictures, and you can say, hey, Onion Portage, tons of caribou, go right now!”