Alaska’s Climate-Driven Fisheries Collapse Is Devastating Indigenous Communities | Civil Eats

Alaska’s Climate-Driven Fisheries Collapse Is Devastating Indigenous Communities

The state’s salmon, king crab, and snow crab populations crashed last year, disrupting Native food supplies and traditions—and sending a warning for what’s to come for the Lower 48.

An Alaskan king crab trap and fishing vessel.

“Fishing is more than simply having means to fill the pantry with my favorite food,” says U.S. Representative Mary Peltola (D-AK), the first Alaska Native (Yup’ik) in Congress.

Like so many Alaska Natives, Peltola grew up fishing for salmon with her family for subsistence.

“On the Kuskokwim, babies teethe on dried salmon strips,” she said. “People eat salmon just about any way you can think of—dried, smoked, jarred, frozen. It’s heartbreaking to witness the crash of salmon populations in river systems we’ve been able to rely on as long as I can remember.”

So when king crab, snow crab, and Yukon River salmon fisheries all collapsed last year, it hit Peltola’s community, and all Indigenous communities in Alaska, hard. And while these climate-related catastrophes might seem a world away from the Lower 48, they serve as a harrowing harbinger of what’s to come.

“The entire world is connected by oceans, and with more coastline than all the other states combined—more than 46,600 miles—Alaska’s oceans are in many ways America’s oceans,” says Peltola. “Marine ecosystems are the bedrock of our food supply, whether you eat fish or not. But if you do, around 60 percent of seafood harvested in this country comes from Alaska’s waters.”

“The entire world is connected by oceans, and with more coastline than all the other states combined, Alaska’s oceans are in many ways America’s oceans.”

The trouble started in late 2013, when a massive patch of warm ocean water dubbed “the Blob” developed in the Gulf of Alaska, increasing sea surface temperatures by as much as 7° F. Within two years, it had enveloped the entire West Coast, stretching more than 4 million square kilometers from Alaska to Mexico before ultimately splitting into three distinct masses.

The impacts to Alaska’s fisheries were colossal. Toxic algae blooms formed. Krill populations plummeted, causing ripple effects for pollock and other fish dependent on this food source. Gulf of Alaska pink salmon and Pacific cod fisheries collapsed, with cod biomass down 79 percent from 2013 to 2017. Fish migration patterns changed, with some shifting hundreds of miles north while uncharacteristic warm-water species, like skipjack tuna, moved into Alaskan waters. All the upheaval is being felt by the state’s residents, who rely on this work and indeed this food for their livelihoods.

But like so many climate emergencies, the consequences have been far from straightforward. Where some species suffered, others have thrived. For example, Bristol Bay sockeye salmon production has recently hit record highs, helping keep the state’s fisheries afloat during a time of massive disruption.

While for climate scientists and fisheries managers, the ongoing effects are hard to predict—they are poised to forever change Alaska’s foodways, industries, and way of life.

Disruptions and Their Impacts

Scientists are confident the warming of Alaskan ecosystems will continue and advise the people involved in Alaskan fisheries—and those consuming their products—to expect many more disruptions, says Mike Litzow, a program manager at NOAA Alaska Fisheries Science Center and a director at Kodiak Lab.

“Pretty much any fishery in Alaska should consider itself on notice in terms of potential vulnerabilities to climate change,” Litzow said. “The difficulty is knowing when and how those impacts are going to play out.”

“Pretty much any fishery in Alaska should consider itself on notice in terms of potential vulnerabilities to climate change.”

The issues go beyond just the Blob and vary greatly across Alaska’s 663,300 square miles. “The very rapidly changing ocean environment, and in turn the thinning and changing seasonality of sea ice, is a big problem for all of Western and Northern Alaska,” explains Rick Thoman, climate specialist at the University of Alaska–Fairbanks’ Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy.

“For mainland Alaska, thawing permafrost is going to cause major issues, particularly related to infrastructure like roads and buildings,” he continued.

“Then in Southeast Alaska, the warming ocean waters have extended the season and prompted the presence of an invasive crab species, which could have a big impact on the marine ecosystem there,” he says. This highly competitive predator poses a threat to native species and habitats, according to NOAA, including possibly decimating shellfish populations, outcompeting native crabs, and reducing eelgrass and salt marsh habitats.

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“In this area,” he continued, “we’re also seeing the transition of more precipitation to rain, higher snow levels, and less mountain snow cover, which means that places like Wrangell and Petersburg could become much more Seattle-like later this century.” This is already proving problematic in these areas that are so dependent on snowpack-driven hydroelectric power.

Native Communities at Risk

Detailed in the recent Arctic Report Card (which Thoman co-authored), these crises stand to reshape—or even wipe out—small coastal communities whose entire economies are built on harvesting and processing fish, like Unalaska/Port of Dutch Harbor and St. Paul in the Pribilof Islands. And in many cases, Alaska Natives/Native Americans—who make up 21.9 percent of the state’s population—are disproportionately affected.

“So many Indigenous communities in Alaska rely on salmon to get us through the winter,” says Peltola. “Otherwise, we have to purchase expensive foods at the few grocery stores with money that many of us don’t have. It just doesn’t sit right with me that underrepresented people in remote villages are being asked to take a huge share of the conservation burden on our shoulders.”

“Native villages like Shishmaref and Kivalina are imminently threatened, meaning they are one storm away from losing everything,” adds Thoman, pointing to how tropical storm Merbok spurred on the Newtok Native community’s long-coming relocation to a new village, Mertarvik.

“But Newtok is the exception; they were able to move nearby in an area that’s not on permafrost, whereas there’s no such spot near Shishmaref or Kivalina. My fear is that for these imminently threatened communities, when that big storm happens, there’s no relocation plan and instead people just get dispersed, causing a whole raft of cultural disruption issues.”

King Island serves as one such example of lost cultural heritage due to displacement. This Bering Sea village located 90 miles northwest of Nome was once the winter home to some 200 Inupiat but today sits abandoned, with dilapidated dwellings clinging to its cliffs. In 1959, the Bureau of Indian Affairs closed the isle’s school, effectively requiring families to stay on the mainland year-round. By the early seventies, all King Islanders had relocated. And as the elders with memories of this remote place pass away, those cultural experiences stand to be lost, a problem countless Indigenous groups currently face.

In addition to the loss of cultural identity, Native communities, who largely rely on the state’s natural bounty for sustenance, are experiencing serious food insecurity. The many tribes situated along the nearly 2,000-mile-long Yukon River have been hit hard by the historic collapse of both king and chum salmon, forced to find other protein sources that require more cost and effort.

Moreover, residents’ use of basic tools like ice cellars to store these subsistence foods is threatened in rural areas reliant on power systems that are highly susceptible to climate issues like stronger storms and melting permafrost.

Peltola puts it plainly: “Protecting our fish is critical to preserving our Alaskan way of life,” she says. “We need to take a holistic approach to understanding the causes of current fisheries declines, how those causes interact, and what can be done in response. That starts with a robust scientific approach that combines the best and brightest in marine studies, new technology for surveying, sampling and bycatch avoidance, and grounding all of it with traditional knowledge from Indigenous leaders who have been studying and managing our fisheries for thousands of years.”

The Way Forward

For her part, Peltola is pushing to update and reauthorize the Magnuson–Stevens Act, the 1976 law governing marine fisheries management in U.S. federal waters, as part of the Sustaining America’s Fisheries for the Future Act. It’s a key factor in federal fishery disaster assistance, which Litzow explains can be “notoriously slow.” Case in point: Fishers, processors, and towns affected by the 2016 pink salmon collapse didn’t receive federal relief—some $56 million totaluntil 2020.

The work to mitigate the impact of climate change on Alaska’s fisheries and foodways is well underway, with experts like Litzow and Thoman leading the charge in their respective fields. But those efforts are hindered by ever-changing, unpredictable hurdles, including those caused by the damage that has already been done.

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“The best time to take action was 30 years ago; the second best time is today,” says Thoman. “A lot of damage has already occurred, but everything we can do from here on out will make it less bad for the future. From carbon removal to green energy sources to better diets—every effort matters.”

“A lot of damage has already occurred, but everything we can do from here on out will make it less bad for the future.”

The warming and sea level rise is on track to continue, regardless of how quickly the United States and other wealthy nations move to reduce emissions. “Let’s say that tomorrow we were able to get down to net zero greenhouse gas concentrations, which would bring warming to a halt within a decade or so,” Thoman continues. “There’s already enough heat stored, mostly in the oceans, that it would take millennia to cool off. We need to acknowledge that a lot of damage has been done, and a lot of it is not reversible on human timescales. But every little thing we can do is going to make it that much less bad for our children and grandchildren.”

That includes forward-looking policies from fisheries management, like the proposed 10-year plan to rebuild the Bering Sea snow crab population, which experienced a nearly 90 percent drop—an estimated 1 billion crabs—in two years.

“We certainly are facing big challenges, and the onus is on all of us to rise to those challenges,” says Litzow. “When the Alaska Department of Fish and Game looked at the snow crab stock levels last year, they made the very painful decision that conservation needs outweighed the value of having a small fishery.” That resulted in the closure of the fishery, which was hard on the industry, but, he adds “everyone acknowledges that this situation is very real and that we have to respond.”

Yet as Litzow explains, it’s not all doom and gloom. “There are still a lot of healthy fisheries in the Alaskan economy, and the state’s ability to provide marine food is still robust,” he says. “Alaska’s fisheries—these productive ecosystems that can support communities and economies and provide food in such a sustainable way—are truly a national treasure.”

An Alaska Native Tlingit tribal member, Nelson is an award-winning writer and editor living in Minneapolis. She's currently the editor-in-chief of Artful Living, a top U.S. boutique lifestyle magazine. She's interviewed such luminaries as Padma Lakshmi, Andrew Zimmern, and chef Sean Sherman, and written for publications including ELLE, Esquire, Architectural Digest, Teen Vogue, Bustle, Andscape, and more. Read more >

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  1. Paula Mackrow
    With due respect to Rep Peltola, we must not continue to develop fossil fuels on federal land. The willow project which she supports is an irresponsible disaster to Alaskan fisheries.

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