By John Tetpon
A serious subsistence food shortage has hit some coastal villages in the high Arctic regions in Alaska leaving villagers to wonder how they will respond to a brand new challenge – the fast disappearance of their hunting grounds by a lack of sea ice.
“It’s getting scary,” one tribal leader said.
One of the villages is Ignaluk, the most remote aboriginal village in America. It is located on Little Diomede, only three miles from the Russian Federation’s Big Diomede, but it might as well be time to worry and worry some more. The once thick, solid ice used to provide a landing field for small aircraft to fly in supplies and food from the mainland is now gone.
“We have to get a helicopter to fly out here now,” Native Store manager Steven Ahkinga said in a telephone interview last week. Ignaluk has a Native population of 80 to 90 locals. Ahkinga added that the only meat they can get now is to have it flown in by chopper when weather allows. “You get tired real quick of canned food, but that’s all we have.”
Hunting out on the sea ice for seals and other sea mammals, he said, has provided little to nothing lately.
“The ice went out way too early this year — maybe a month or two ago; like last year, too,” he said. “Ice around the island used to be 15-20 feet thick all winter. Now, it’s about 3-feet to 5-feet thick at the most. There’s no heavy ice like there used to be when I was small.”
Asked what the villagers will do, Ahkinga said, “We’ll do the best we can. I can’t get meat and the store has no freezer. We asked Sen. Lisa Murkowski to help us on that but nothing’s been done yet.”
The store is owned by ANICA, Alaska Native Industries Cooperative Association, located in the Seattle area.
“We haven’t gone out crabbing due to thin ice or no ice at all,” Ahkinga added.
Under normal conditions, Alaska Native hunters of all three villages would be out on the ice daily searching for seals, walrus, and beluga whales, and for their most prized game animal from the sea, the bearded seal, or oogruk, a local elder said this week.
A floating buoy dubbed ‘Peggy’ has been recording and documenting ice changes in the Arctic and Bering Seas for several years now. Peggy monitors water temperatures, saltiness, and other signs up to a depth of 230 feet below the water surface. It is anchored to the sea floor west of Alaska.
Peggy’s research data is alarming, scientists say. In 2018, data from Peggy said Arctic water was warming at a rate that could spell trouble for sea life that exist from the sea floor to fish, crab, and humans on top. In their website publication, Weather and Climate, researchers said: “There were early signs that conditions in the winter of 2017 to 2018 were going to be different. By November 2017, the sea ice was already late.”
Delbert Pungowiyi, Tribal Council President of the village of Savoonga on St. Lawrence Island, said last Thursday they are worried about the scarcity of food for the villagers, about 300 in all. “It’s getting scary. We need immediate mitigation, we need help,” he said on a telephone call. “Our voices need to be heard. Our story needs to get out,” Pungowiyi added. Savoonga is about 200 air miles from Nome, the regional center.
Pungowiyi also said the village has been working with Alaska Sen. Murkowski to bring a reindeer herding project to the island. “We have asked her to expedite that,” he said. “We have to have another source of food. Otherwise we are going to suffer.”
“We also need to get an assessment done out here on food security, that’s the most imminent threat,” Pungowiyi added.
Pungowiyi was on his way to attend an emergency meeting of the tribal council to discuss how they will respond to the lack of subsistence food when this reporter caught up with him by cell phone.
Percy Nayokpuk, the owner of a local store in Shishmaref, which is located on the mainland, has lived in the village all of his life said, “It’s different, and unprecedented. We’ll have to hunt in a different way, but we have to figure that out,” he said. Shishmaref is located on the shores of the Chukchi Sea and all of its 300 residents depend on subsistence hunting of sea mammals and land game year-round.
“Oogruk, they need ice. “Walrus, they need ice, too. I don’t know how we’re going to do it. We’re always concerned about the lack of ice. For 100-miles, there’s no ice. We’ve never seen this before,” Nayokpuk said.
Villagers in coastal villages in the region are troubled and worried now more than ever. And this is just the beginning. Native people who have depended on good ice conditions since time immemorial are in for a hard time. And it’s because of climate change and global warming, the stuff of things that are out of their control and beyond their ability to do anything about.
They are the first in line to feel the impact of big changes in Alaska’s weather, ice conditions, and food supply.
“It’s open water, and if there’s ice, it’s too thin to be out on to hunt for food,” Nayokpuk said.
Climate change experts have long warned that food from the land and sea will not always be available when seawater warms up from the sea floor to the top and it is happening now.
Scientists from the United Nations reported recently that the Arctic is now the lead barometer on climate change. Catastrophe for some villages is at the front door. The Arctic is thawing at twice the rate of any other location in the world, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said on the results of a recent study.
The University of Alaska’s Climate Change office in Fairbanks notes that the Bering Sea and some parts of the Chukchi Sea further north have never had ice conditions that sparse. “You could sail from Dillingham in Bristol Bay to Little Diomede two miles from Russia and never sea ice larger than an ice cube,” one researcher said.
There are sightings of seals and walrus but they’re far out in open water. “They’re showing up way offshore,” Nayokpuk said.
Oogruk and walrus can weigh a 1,000 pounds and more and are too large to haul into a small boat. Hunters have always tried to keep sea mammals on an ice pack in order to dress them out for the trip back home.
Nayokpuk added that local hunters have traveled as far north as Point Hope, about 100 miles, but he also said it’s a long way to get there, especially when the oogruk and walrus are as scarce as they are now because of the lack of ice.
Also troubling to villagers is the dismantling of the State’s Climate Change Commission by the new Republican governor Mike Dunleavy. Dunleavy, under fire and harsh criticism from tribal groups across the state, also offered a new budget proposal that promises to take away tens of millions of dollars from programs that once served rural villagers and their residents. The administration of President Donald Trump is also targeting huge cuts in much needed food stamp programs rural villagers have depended upon for decades.
Alaska is the largest state in the U.S., covering more than 663,000 square miles with 6,600 miles of coastline, with many villages located in low-lying regions vulnerable to flooding and storm surges when hit by high winds and harsh weather.
There are 227 tribes in Alaska, with about 150,000 members total. Alaska Native people makes up for about one-fifth of the state’s population. Many live in regions with high unemployment rates, some as much as 80 percent.
Meanwhile in New York, thousands of miles from Little Diomede, Mayor Bill DeBlasio announced this week that the city has begun mitigation plans to protect Lower Manhattan from the impacts of climate change.
The global warming phenomenon will affect the entire world, climate change experts say.