Nov 12 2019

Vulnerability of Subsistence Systems in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, Alaska

Aerial photograph of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, Alaska (Public Domain)

Aerial photograph of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, Alaska (Public Domain)

This story was originally published on the National CASC website.

newly-published article, by USGS lead author Nicole Herman-Mercer, focuses on the impacts that social and environmental changes may have on subsistence practices in Alaska’s Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. The Alaska Climate Adaptation Science Center’s Ryan Toohey is a co-author on the study.

The State of Alaska has warmed twice as fast as the rest of the United States over the past 60 years. As a result, the vast and marshy Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta (YKD) on the west coast of Alaska has become susceptible to the negative impacts of thawing permafrost, seasonal flooding, and sea-level rise. Importantly, the YKD has supported numerous Indigenous communities, such as the Cup’ik village of Chevak and Yup’ik village of Kotlik, for thousands of years. Subsistence harvesting in the YKD, which is based on the seasonal availability of resources, is an important piece of Cup’ik and Yup’ik culture. Arctic Indigenous communities are extremely innovative and resilient at least partially due to subsistence practices that have been refined over thousands of years. These practices were built upon the utilization of a portfolio of resources, food sharing practices, and community resource pooling that have enabled these communities to thrive in the sometimes harsh and variable Arctic.

Despite this capacity for resiliency, rapid cultural changes combined with recent and sustained shifts in seasonal weather patterns and climate can challenge Arctic community adaptation. This study, authored by USGS Social Scientist Nicole Herman-Mercer, Alaska Climate Adaptation Science Center’s Ryan Toohey, and partners from the US Forest Service, Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council, and Colorado State University explored the vulnerability of subsistence practices in the Cup’ik village of Chevak and the Yup’ik village of Kotlik.  Exposure of local resources to climate change impacts, the sensitivity of these communities to those impacts, and the ability of historical subsistence institutions to absorb those impacts were analyzed. Compiled from a series of interviews and workshops, the results highlight similarities and differences in how the two communities use subsistence resources, and how these resources and communities have been impacted by changes to their environment over their lifetime. For example, similarities between communities were found, with birds, seals, bird eggs, salmon, and berries all being harvested during the same season by the two communities. However, while participants in both Chevak and Kotlik identified moose as a prominent subsistence resource, the community of Chevak hunt moose in the winter while the community of Kotlik hunt moose primarily in the fall. Because moose populations are found closer to Kotlik, along with good river access, Kotlik hunters are able to access moose via boat in the fall. Members of the community of Chevak, on the other hand, must travel five to 10 times as far to access moose and rely on snowmobiles for longer-distance travel. Lack of snow and poor ice conditions can increase the danger and cost of this travel to access this food resource. 

Instances of observed environmental changes impacting the availability of subsistence resources included low tides in the fall and increased winter flooding impacting access to moose hunting grounds. A late thaw in the spring of 2014 also impacted the ability of Chevak fishers to procure herring and Kotlik hunters to procure birds. Community sensitivity to these impacts is complex, and depends in part on the degree to which each household relies on subsistence harvesting. A diverse resource base and the ability to substitute resources - such as increasing the harvest of one fish species to compensate for the loss of another - could help Arctic communities adapt. However, restricted access to important resources due to lack of snow and other aspects of a changing climate could have long-term implications for community health and well-being in the YKD.

The work presented in this case study is part of a larger National Science Foundation funded project, Strategic Needs of Water on the Yukon (SNOWY), which was reviewed by the University of Alaska, Anchorage Institutional Review Board and approved by the participating communities and Tribal Councils. The data and results of SNOWY have been shared with the participating villages in a variety of formats, including in-person presentations in the communities, as well as online and paper reports that serve to both store and share data and information with the communities.

For a copy of the PDF version of this article, please email lead author Nicole Herman-Mercer at nhmercer [at] usgs.gov.