Pacific Walrus and Coastal Alaska native subsistence hunting: considering vulnerabilities from ocean acidification

An Ocean Way of Life

Life in Alaska Native coastal communities revolves around the ocean and all that it provides. For thousands of years, Iñupiaq, Central Yup’ik, Cup’ik, St. Lawrence Island Yupik, and Aleut communities along Alaska’s Bering and Chukchi seas have depended on marine resources to meet their physical, nutritional, spiritual, and cultural needs. This dependence is the foundation of a reciprocal relationship between the people and the ocean that has been maintained since time immemorial.

Now, however, Alaska Native hunting and fishing communities face cumulative pressures from ocean changes. Sea ice is diminishing and becoming increasingly unpredictable, fisheries are declining, and culturally important species such as the Pacific walrus are under threat. These changes upset travel routes and subsistence strategies of hunters, make the seas less safe, impact animal migrations, and undermine food security.

From Barrow to Bristol Bay, Alaska Native communities depend on the Pacific walrus as an important source of food, as well as materials for skin boats and ivory to support practical and artistic traditions of carving that also provide small amounts of money in an otherwise cash-limited environment. Pacific walrus are integral to the way of life, cultural identity, and community health of the indigenous people of the Bering and Chukchi seas.

Impacts to Walrus

The impact of deteriorating sea ice, which walrus depend on for resting, calving, nursing, and other uses, is becoming more widely recognized. Now a new sea change threatens the walrus, and Alaska Natives. The main food source for walrus — clams and other benthic calcifying organisms — is vulnerable to ocean acidification. Lower pH levels in ocean waters can impede shell formation, weakening and killing clams and other seafloor invertebrates. The same factor that is causing the sea ice to shrink (carbon dioxide emissions) also is driving down pH in the Bering and Chukchi seas, whose cold waters are already particularly vulnerable to acidification.

Alaska Native subsistence hunters view ocean ecosystems as interconnected and recognize that negative impacts on a prey species reverberate up the food chain. People are part of this food chain. There is considerable uncertainty about how various species will fare under more acidic sea water conditions, and if walrus will be able to find alternative prey, particularly if diminishing ice forces walrus to rely on coastal haul-outs, constraining their foraging to smaller areas. Cumulative threats to walrus and clams are expected, however, presenting cause for concern for Alaska Native subsistence communities and their cultural continuity.

Impacts to Communities

Respect, reciprocity, and avoiding waste are traditional ecological principles of ocean stewardship for Alaska Native communities of the Bering and Chukchi seas. Communities limit their harvests and take only what they need each year. Respect and thanks are given to the walrus through song and dance and other gestures of a spiritual nature to ensure balance. Food sharing and gifts to elders and families in need strengthen community cohesion and well-being. Walrus hunting is one of the ways through which older family members impart ocean knowledge, subsistence skills, and stewardship principles to younger generations, beginning with family hunting trips in childhood.

If practicing stewardship and minimizing the waste of ocean resources were purely local actions, Alaska Native communities might exert greater influence through their traditional institutions and co-management roles. But the vast majority of ocean resource consumption is global, and the pollution from fossil-fuel burning thousands of miles away is already manifesting in climate and ocean changes that affect small-scale subsistence communities along the Bering and Chukchi seas.

The Bering Sea communities most dependent on Pacific walrus, Gambell and Savoonga on St. Lawrence Island and Little Diomede in the middle of the Bering Strait, have suffered severe food shortages in the past two years. Unusual sea ice and weather conditions have blocked their hunters’ access to the walrus, causing record low harvests and forcing them to declare walrus harvest disasters in order to obtain food aid.

For now, the Pacific walrus population remains healthy despite rapid habitat change. The communities of Gambell, Savoonga, and Diomede are hopeful that favorable hunting conditions will return in coming seasons, but their experience gives a taste of the perils looming as carbon dioxide emissions rise. These changes threaten not only food resources and community resilience, but cultural survival and physical and psychological well-being. Subsistence cannot be separated from culture, and the possibility of unavailable marine resources hangs heavy on the hearts and minds of Alaska Natives.

The Future for Walrus and Walrus-Reliant Communities

Alaska Native rights to marine mammal subsistence harvests are recognized specifically in the Marine Mammal Protection Act and more broadly in other patterns of federal law. The Eskimo Walrus Commission represents the interests of 19 Alaska Native subsistence hunting communities in the co-management of the Pacific walrus population. Although the Pacific walrus population is currently stable and subsistence harvests remain within sustainable ranges, scientists from the Eskimo Walrus Commission’s co-management partner, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, have indicated that restricting subsistence walrus hunting is a likely mitigation approach if diminishing sea ice and ocean acidification result in declining walrus populations. The Fish and Wildlife Service is reviewing the Pacific walrus’ status for potential listing under the Endangered Species Act, not because of overharvesting or any other current population impacts but because of the anticipated effects of environmental changes in the next 100 years.

The Eskimo Walrus Commission sees this type of management strategy as one that neglects the larger and more dangerous threats: carbon dioxide emissions, increased Arctic shipping, and other industrial pressures. If subsistence harvesting is not the issue, can harvest reductions be an effective solution? Hunting restrictions will not improve the condition of the sea ice or the pH of the ocean, so the threats to the walrus population will continue to exist whether subsistence harvests are reduced or not. Furthermore, under this harvest reduction scenario, Alaska Native subsistence hunters would be left to bear the burden for the consumption behavior of people thousands of miles away. If an Endangered Species Act listing doesn’t protect walrus from loss of habitat and prey species, how might ecosystem approaches to management better protect these marine mammals for both biological and cultural well-being?

Going Forward

Protecting the Pacific walrus from the future impacts of climate change and ocean acidification is a top priority for the Eskimo Walrus Commission. In December 2014, the Commission issued a resolution urging the U.S. government and state of Alaska to reduce carbon dioxide emissions; invest in ocean acidification research to better anticipate and mitigate its impact on marine ecosystems, including people; and invest in renewable energy. These actions appeal to the governments’ responsibilities to protect the well-being of citizens, fulfill trust responsibilities to Native American tribes, and to protect Alaska Native subsistence needs. These management actions also take an ecosystem approach that focuses on integrated and dynamic environment and human interactions at multiple scales. This includes strategies that are preventative in nature, focusing on understanding and addressing system threats, rather than only reacting to single species concerns.

Walrus play a significant part in Alaska Native coastal communities’ connections with their environment. An entire way of life, together with cultural identity, food and economic security, self-determination, social cohesion, traditional knowledge, and community health, depend on these connections. Anthropogenic ocean acidification could mark a turning point for the food web of clams-walrus-people in the near future. Alaska Native hunters face these concerns every day, but for people living elsewhere, or living in the same part of the world but with different lifestyles, these issues are not so apparent or pressing. The Eskimo Walrus Commission will continue advocating for reductions in carbon dioxide emissions to protect the Pacific walrus population that Alaska Native people depend on. The scale of the challenge will make progress, let alone success, difficult, but too much is at stake to let this effort fail.

Katya Wassillie & Melissa Poe, Earthzine, 24 April 2015. Article.

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