Pacific Walrus and Coastal Alaska Native Subsistence Hunting: Considering Vulnerabilities from Ocean Acidification

Ocean acidification linked to climate change is rapidly changing Pacific walrus habitat and population, which in turn is impacting Alaska Native people dependent on the animals for food and cultural identity.

By Katya Wassillie
Eskimo Walrus Commission

Melissa Poe
University of Washington

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.

Walrus will always be part of our lives. It always has been part of our lives. […] The food, the way we talk about our stories, how we interact with people, how we respect people for doing this and doing that. That is basically how I think all the subsistence hunting does for us … it bonds us together and that is why we live here in this community […] we are subsistence hunters. It will always be strong in the community. – John Sinnok – Shishmaref [1]

A skin boat covered with the split hides of female walruses is ready to be launched for a hunting trip in Little Diomede, Alaska. Image Credit: Gay Sheffield

A skin boat covered with the split hides of female walruses is ready to be launched for a hunting trip in Little Diomede, Alaska. Image Credit: Gay Sheffield

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 [2].

Impacts to Walrus

A group of walruses hauled out on an ice floe at Cape Seniavin, Alaska. Image Credit: Joel Garlich-Miller, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

A group of walruses hauled out on an ice floe at Cape Seniavin, Alaska. Image Credit: Joel Garlich-Miller, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The impact of deteriorating sea ice, which walrus depend on for resting, calving, nursing, and other uses, is becoming more widely recognized [3]. 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.

Clams gathered from the stomachs of harvested walrus are a delicacy in coastal Alaska Native subsistence communities. Image Credit: Gay Sheffield and Kawerak Inc. Eskimo Heritage Program

Clams gathered from the stomachs of harvested walrus are a delicacy in coastal Alaska Native subsistence communities. Image Credit: Gay Sheffield and Kawerak Inc. Eskimo Heritage Program

Alaska Native subsistence hunters view ocean ecosystems as interconnected and recognize that negative impacts on a prey species reverberate up the food chain [4].  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 [3, 5]. Cumulative threats to walrus and clams are expected, however, presenting cause for concern for Alaska Native subsistence communities and their cultural continuity.

Our walrus hunting is from a very long time ago … For the future, neqkaghput panineng (it is still our food). One hundred years from now I’d like to see our community still hunting walrus. More than ever we need to help each other, let us work together. – Jason Papuuki Nowpakahok – Gambell [1]

Impacts to Communities

A family’s walrus meat rack is full during a normal harvest season in Gambell, Alaska, in the spring of 2012. Image Credit: Martin Robards, Wildlife Conservation Society

A family’s walrus meat rack is full during a normal harvest season in Gambell, Alaska, in the spring of 2012. Image Credit: Martin Robards, Wildlife Conservation Society

Respect, reciprocity, and avoiding waste are traditional ecological principles of ocean stewardship for Alaska Native communities of the Bering and Chukchi seas [6]. 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.

The same meat rack is nearly empty during the walrus harvest disaster in the spring of 2013. Image Credit: Martin Robards, Wildlife Conservation Society

The same meat rack is nearly empty during the walrus harvest disaster in the spring of 2013. Image Credit: Martin Robards, Wildlife Conservation Society

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 [7] 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 [8]. 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 [9, 10, 11]. 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 [12]. 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 [13]. 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.

Contributing Authors

Katya Wassillie is Iñupiaq/Yup’ik from the villages of White Mountain and Pilot Station, Alaska, and is an active participant in the subsistence lifestyle. Katya is a staff member for the Eskimo Walrus Commission in Nome, Alaska, and a graduate student at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

Melissa R. Poe is an environmental anthropologist at Washington Sea Grant Program (University of Washington) and social science liaison at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Northwest Fisheries Science Center. Melissa studies cultural dimensions of coastal environments, including impacts of ocean acidification to Pacific Northwest communities dependent on clams, oysters and other marine species.

DISCLAIMER: The scientific results and conclusions, as well as any views or opinions expressed herein, are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) or the Department of Commerce.

REFERENCES

[1] Eskimo Walrus Commission, Kawerak, Inc. (2003). Pacific Walrus: Conserving Our Culture Through Traditional Management. Unpublished report.

[2] Gadamus, L. (2013). Linkages between human health and ocean health: a participatory climate change vulnerability assessment for marine mammal harvesters. International Journal of Circumpolar Health, 72: 20715.  http://www.kawerak.org/forms/nr/Gadamus article.pdf

[3] Jay, C. V., & Fischbach, A. S. (2008). Pacific walrus response to Arctic sea ice losses. US Department of the Interior, US Geological Survey. http://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/2008/3041/

[4] Oceana and Kawerak. (2014). Bering Strait Marine Life and Subsistence Synthesis. Oceana and Kawerak, Juneau, AK.

http://oceana.org/publications/reports/the-bering-strait-marine-life-and-subsistence-data-synthesis 

[5] Schonberg, S. V., Clarke, J. T., & Dunton, K. H. (2014). Distribution, abundance, biomass and diversity of benthic infauna in the Northeast Chukchi Sea, Alaska: Relation to environmental variables and marine mammals. Deep Sea Research Part II: Topical Studies in Oceanography, 102, 144-163.

[6] Kawerak Social Science Program. (2013).  Traditions of Respect: Traditional Knowledge from Kawerak’s Ice Seal and Walrus Project.  Nome, AK.     http://www.kawerak.org/forms/nr/Kawerak Respect Book web.pdf

  [7] U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. (2014). Subsistence Harvested Walrus Tagging Statistics by Location and Year, Updated September 26, 2014.

[8] Case, D. S., & Voluck, D. A. (2012). Alaska Natives and American Laws. University of Alaska Press.

[9] U.S. Fish and Wildlife. (2014). PACIFIC WALRUS (Odobenus rosmarus divergens): Alaska Stock Assessment update 2014. http://www.fws.gov/alaska/fisheries/mmm/stock/Revised_April_2014_Pacific_Walrus_SAR.pdf;

[10]Garlich-Miller, J., MacCracken, J. G., Snyder, J., Meehan, R., Myers, M., Wilder, J. M., … & Matz, A. (2011). Status review of the Pacific walrus (Odobenus rosmarus divergens). US Fish and Wildlife Service. http://www.fws.gov/alaska/fisheries/mmm/walrus/pdf/review_2011.pdf

[11] MacCracken, James. (2012). Pacific Walrus and climate change: observations and predictions. Ecology and Evolution, 2(8), 2072-2090.

[12] Eskimo Walrus Commission. (2014). EWC Resolution 2014-01: A Resolution Urging the United States Government and the State of Alaska to Take Immediate Action to Reduce Carbon Dioxide Emissions and  Urging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to Revise Its Approach to Pacific Walrus Conservation. On file at the Eskimo Walrus Commission, Nome AK.

[13] Poe, M. R., Norman, K. C., & Levin, P. S. (2014). Cultural dimensions of socioecological systems: key connections and guiding principles for conservation in coastal environments. Conservation Letters, 7(3), 166-175.

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