Temps push walrus north, Alaskans without food
Anna Oxereok grew up eating walrus in the western Alaska village of Wales. Today it’s such a rare treat she can’t bring herself to part with the plastic bag of meat in her freezer.
“I have to save special,” she says.
It’s become increasingly difficult to land a walrus. Remote communities at the edge of the Bering Sea are seeing a steep decline in walrus harvested the past several years as temperatures warm and the ocean ice used by the animals to dive and rest recedes farther north.
Walrus, described by some as having a taste between veal and beef, is highly prized by Alaska Na-
it for something tives as a subsistence food to store for winter. The sale of carved ivory from the tusks, legal only for Alaska Natives, also brings in supplemental income to communities with high unemployment rates.
Hunters and scientists say walrus migration patterns are veering from historical hunting grounds.
“I think one of the biggest issues is that things have gotten so variable. It’s hard to really predict what’s going to happen,” said Jim MacCracken, Alaska walrus program supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Iver Campbell and other Yup’ik Eskimo hunters from two St. Lawrence Island communities harvested more than 1,100 walrus in 2003. But a decade later, hunters managed to take only 555 — a fraction of the ideal of one walrus per resident, per year.
In these communities, a subsistence lifestyle is a necessity. People rely on the region’s resources for up to 80 percent of their diets.
Costly store-bought food is not an affordable solution. At village stores, pantry staples quickly add up — nearly US$7 for a dozen eggs, US$15 for milk and US$6.25 for a loaf of basic white bread.
Local hunting practices are closely monitored by federal authorities to ensure the animals that are killed are not going to waste. Generally, such hunts don’t cause a public outcry in Alaska.
“A decline in the subsistence harvest really creates an economic di- saster that threatens the health and welfare of the people in the communities,” said Vera Metcalf, director of the Eskimo Walrus Commission. “So we are concerned about the impacts of climate change and the ability for our hunters to harvest marine mammals.”
Some Native communities can search for other animals, like domestic reindeer or caribou. But opportunities aren’t as bountiful for Diomede on the western coast of Little Diomede Island, only a few miles from Russia. The community of 120 harvested one walrus in 2014, prompting city and Native leaders to seek assistance from the state.
This year, 10 walrus were harvested, according to Diomede hunter Robert Soolook. There’s no shortage of walrus, he said, but they’re migrating sooner. No one has initiated any long-range planning to address the shift, but Soolook believes hunters eventually will need to change their practices, even going out earlier.
“Now that we’ve seen this, we have to start adapting,” he said.
No federal assistance is available, and state aid is minimal, at best. State Sen. Sen. Donny Olson, a member of Alaska’s opposition Democratic Party, said he might introduce legislation to allow failed subsistence hunts to qualify for state disaster funds.
Moving from her ancestral lands is not an option, according to Oxereok, an Inupiat Eskimo. Relocating would mean displacing everything she knows.
This April 17, 2004 photo provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shows two walrus cows on ice off the west coast of Alaska.