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Subsistence Hunting in Alaska in an Age of Climate Change

Sea ice loss is changing the migration patterns of marine mammals – and is hampering hunters’ access to them. Mammals and hunters may be adapting to the changing climate conditions already, but it’s not clear if they’ll keep pace as the sea ice continues to shrink.

Written by Gloria Dickie Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
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A view of Gambell, located on Alaska's St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea.NOAA

As Arctic sea ice extent diminishes off the northern coast of Alaska, scientists have questioned what kind of impacts this will have on the marine mammals that call the region home – and the subsistence hunters who depend on them.

In a study published Wednesday in Biology Letters, researchers interviewed hunters from 11 coastal villages from the northern Bering Sea to the Beaufort Sea to gain an understanding of the challenges they faced, and their potential for adaptation.

While hunters reported extensive changes in the ice and weather, marine mammal migrations and efficacy of traditional hunting methods, they also showed surprising innovation and resiliency – from taking advantage of new hunting windows to making use of better technology, like powerful and fuel-efficient boat engines.

Moreover, the animals were adapting, too. Not only are there more bowhead whales now than in previous decades, they also exhibit better body conditions. Walruses are hauling out on land. And ringed and bearded seals in the Chukchi Sea region are abundant and healthy.

Henry Huntington, a polar scientist and the paper’s lead author, spoke to Arctic Deeply from Eagle River, Alaska, ahead of the study’s release.

Arctic Deeply: In what ways does Indigenous knowledge further our understanding of environmental changes beyond what’s written in scientific studies?

Henry Huntington: One is to provide a depth of context that is often very hard for someone who has not lived in an area. If you’re an elder in Wainwright, Alaska, you’ve lived in the same place your parents, grandparents and great-grandparents lived. You can put the changes you’re seeing in a much deeper context than is possible for someone like me.

The other thing is they’re there year-round. These days it’s hard to have a scientific field campaign last for more than a few weeks. In the example we provide in the paper, if the received wisdom of the 1980s was still current, then we would believe bearded seals never haul out on land. But the locals are seeing a lot more of the coast a lot more of the time, and they’re telling us that bearded seals are, in fact, hauling out on land. Now we have a very different picture of what’s happening.

Arctic Deeply: It might surprise some people just how much these hunters rely on the utility of sea ice as a hunting platform. Did subsistence hunters seem more concerned about the availability of animals, or their ability to continue using traditional hunting methods?

Huntington: To me, that was perhaps a little bit of a surprise, too. By and large the animals seem to be doing okay – there are spotted seals and walrus around. They seem to be in pretty good health. This is somewhat contrary to some of the expectations that all this change would lead to big impacts on the animals. I’m not saying it won’t head there, but so far it doesn’t seem to have been a lock-step progression of less sea ice equals less fat on a seal.

The question of access is a very big one. Will the ice continue to be a useful surface for traveling and hunting? Will ice be present in an area long enough, and navigable enough, where [hunters] can go boating, find the animals and hunt in the conditions [they’re] used to? For a lot of communities, that’s becoming a real bottleneck. In the case of Kivalina, they’ve seen what used to be an eight-week-long hunting season boating in broken pack ice reduced to a week-long window.

Henry Huntington (pink shirt) interviews people from the community of Savoonga, Alaska about the subsistence hunt. (Henry Huntington)

Henry Huntington (pink shirt) interviews people from the community of Savoonga, Alaska about the subsistence hunt. (Henry Huntington)

Arctic Deeply: As these windows have changed, have government regulations and policy kept pace? Is it hard for people to follow the laws of when, where and how to hunt?

Huntington: Fortunately for the hunters, marine mammals are governed by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which leaves hunters alone to do as they see fit, provided the population is not depleted and the hunting is not wasteful. In some ways, it’s a great policy for the hunters. If they want to hunt a seal, they can go hunt a seal.

It’s also had the inadvertent effect of creating an opening for adaptation and response. Take the case of St. Lawrence Island in the northern Bering Sea. Traditionally, they’ve hunted whales in the spring. Well, because the ice has been freezing later, the whales are still coming south in November and December. Without the ice forming yet, the St. Lawrence Islanders have been able to hunt whales in November and December, and that’s helped to make up for changing conditions in the spring.

It’s easy to see that somebody could have said, “You guys are spring whalers. We’ll give you a very generous March to June hunting season. That should take care of you.” That would have looked like it was a good thing, except it would have prevented them from coming up with the innovation of a fall hunt.

Arctic Deeply: Are some communities struggling to adapt more than others?

Huntington: It is very difficult in some cases, like that of Kivalina. There, the whales migrate by in the spring, and they don’t really come by in the fall. They don’t have the St. Lawrence [Island] second-season option. Meanwhile the sea ice is unreliable in spring. They have to go quite a ways offshore on the shorefast sea ice, which is just too risky. They have not taken a whale since 1995. Other communities like Wainwright are talking about trying to go whale hunting in the fall, but there the whales tend to be farther offshore. One of the questions is, Do Wainwright hunters have adequate boats for going that much farther offshore in the fall when there can be winds, waves and other hazards?

Arctic Deeply: Did you find any reorientation towards terrestrial resources for food when marine mammals weren’t available or accessible?

Huntington: This is a question I’ve been pursuing on another project. If your access to Species X is declining, how do you make up for it? Often it’s a mix. In any given year, you have fish, birds, land mammals, marine mammals, and you take advantage of what’s available. From one year to the next it may be a shift in emphasis depending on environmental conditions. As far as a long-term shift, if you talk to people, it’s difficult for them to envision switching completely from a mixed terrestrial and marine hunting system to having just one or the other. So far I have not had the impression that many places are really struggling to find the animals every year. But St. Lawrence Island has had some real shortages with the walrus hunt that’s put them into disaster-relief territory because they’ve gotten so few animals.

The U.S. Geological Survey walrus research team walks towards walrus across the northern Bering Sea ice in this 2006 photo. (USGS)

The U.S. Geological Survey walrus research team walks towards walrus across the northern Bering Sea ice in this 2006 photo. (USGS)

Arctic Deeply: You mention hunters also expressed concerns about disturbances like oil and gas operations. Were these a higher priority for people?

Huntington: Oil and gas operations are certainly a concern for many people. Animals may be deflected farther offshore if there’s a drilling operation or a rig. Communities have expressed concern that it puts them in a higher risk path because they then have to travel even farther offshore in the fall to get the whales. But I’d say it’s a short-term problem, as well as something that, at least in principle, is more readily addressed. Solving climate change is a global effort, and we seem to be struggling with that. Coming up with a regulation on commercial shipping vessels around the Point Lay walrus haulouts seems like a far more tractable problem.

Arctic Deeply: What was your overall takeaway message from the interviews?

Huntington: The initial assessments of what’s going to happen with climate change, not surprisingly, focused on the expected simple impacts. What we’re seeing is a more complicated story. The animals are responding in ways that we didn’t necessarily expect. The people are responding in ways that were hard to predict. And so we get a much more nuanced story. To my mind, it’s a more interesting one, but I think it’s a good lesson for understanding all of the intricacies in the ways that the natural world and the human world work separately and together.

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