Climate Change and Impacts to Subsistence in Alaska
by Jacqueline Dailey
The Alaska Native population that once so effectively fed itself is now caught up in a changing physical environment. Flooding, bad ice, ocean warming, invasive plants, fish and other ocean species are making it difficult for families to harvest traditional foods. Subsistence hunting, fishing and berry picking is central to spiritual life. Collaborating to feed themselves and their neighbors brings family members into common purpose.
According to the report, Climate-Induced Displacement of Alaska Native Communities by Robin Bronen, Alaska has warmed twice as fast as the global average during the past half-century. Less sea ice covers the Arctic Ocean today than at any time in recent geologic history. These environmental changes are resulting in accelerated rates of erosion and flooding which damage infrastructure and threaten the livelihoods and well-being of people throughout Alaska. Changes in the abundance and distribution of wildlife and marine life are predicted to occur due to changing climatic conditions. Changing vegetation patterns will impact the migration patterns of animal and bird life, which will affect the ability of Alaska Native people to gather their traditional subsistence foods.
Recently, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of genetically modified salmon for human consumption. This sparked immediate outrage among consumers and policymakers in Alaska. Often referred to as “frankenfish,” this fast-growing creation is a combination of genes from Pacific Chinook salmon and an eel-like fish called ocean pout which is injected into Atlantic salmon eggs. “Frankenfish” will be ready to enter the marketplace in a few years. Many have condemned the FDA for not mandating a genetically modified label. A Massachusetts-based company, AquaBounty Technologies, is planning to raise salmon in land-based tanks on Prince Edward Island in Canada before exporting them to Panama to be grown. Many fisheries biologists are concerned about the possibility of the genetically modified salmon mixing with wild stocks. For decades, Alaska’s salmon industry has battled with lower-priced Atlantic-farmed-salmon and this new development presents new challenges.
Alaska’s ecosystems and subsistence lifestyles are also at risk from invasive plants because they displace native plant and wildlife populations, reduce habitat quality, and alter ecosystem functions. Currently, Knapweed, Purple Loosestrife and White Sweet Clover pose the highest threats throughout Alaska. While some of these plants have beautiful flowers, they are among Alaska’s most unwanted plants. Invasive plants threaten access to valued resources. They also affect the quantity and quality of resources local people depend upon to sustain their culture and livelihoods. On-going advocacy and action is needed to control invasive plant species or they will become increasingly difficult and costly to manage in the future.
One way to enhance subsistence is to expand co-management on the state’s public lands to include Alaska tribes and Native organizations in an effort to bring Native people into the decision-making process directly. While subsistence resources are governed by a complex set of relationships involving local, state, federal, and international stakeholders, local leaders have longstanding interests and knowledge to help create solutions. Federal, state and tribal relationships need to be strengthened to sustain our way of life for our future generations.