Evaluating the Effects of Climate Change on Indigenous Marine Mammal Hunting in Northern and Western Alaska Using Traditional Knowledge
Iñupiaq, Yup'ik, and Cup'ik hunters in 14 Alaska Native communities described a rapidly changing marine environment in qualitative traditional knowledge interviews conducted over the course of a decade with 110 individuals. Based on their observations, sea ice conditions are the most notable change, with later freeze-up, thinner and less reliable ice, and earlier and more rapid break-up. Marine mammal populations in northern and western Alaska have been affected by changes in the physical environment, with alterations to migratory timing and routes, distribution, abundance, health, and behavior. Despite these changes, marine mammal populations in the region remain generally healthy and abundant. For hunters, access is the biggest challenge posed by changing conditions. Sea ice is less safe for travel, particularly for more southerly communities, making hunting more dangerous or impossible. Rapid break-up has reduced the time available for hunting amid broken ice in spring, formerly a dependable and preferred season. Social change also affects the ways in which hunting patterns change. Increased industrial development, for example, can also alter marine mammal distribution and reduce hunting opportunity. Reduced use of animal skins for clothing and other purposes has reduced demand. More powerful and reliable engines make day trips easier, reducing the time spent camping. An essential component of adjustment and adaptation to changing conditions is the retention of traditional values and the acquisition of new information to supplement traditional knowledge. Our findings are consistent with, and add detail to, what is known from previous traditional knowledge and scientific studies. The ways in which hunters gather new information and incorporate it into their existing understanding of the marine environment deserves further attention, both as a means of monitoring change and as a key aspect of adaptation. While the changes to date have been largely manageable, future prospects are unclear, as the effects of climate change are expected to continue in the region, and ecological change may accelerate. Social and regulatory change will continue to play a role in fostering or constraining the ability of hunters to adapt to the effects of climate change.
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