Temps push wal­rus north, Alaskans with­out food

The China Post - - LIFE - BY RACHEL D’ORO

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.

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