6.2.2 Survey Results for All Communities

A. Changing Environmental Conditions

Environmental and climatic changes in the Bering Sea can have direct impacts on major food webs that result in disturbances for subsistence dependent communities (Grebmeier, 2006). By examining environmental changes from the perspective of residents we can gather clues about local changes that may indirectly affect subsistence through changes in the food web and examine changes directly impacting subsistence activity. Changes directly impacting subsistence may include an increase in storm frequency that restricts travel, or thinner ice that results in difficulties butchering whale. These changes are likely to be understood at an intuitive level by the harvester who relies on certain conditions to obtain food.


Figure 6 displays the percent of participants that noticed some change in environmental conditions across all communities. Some trends are apparent. Respondents in Gambell noticed more environmental changes than any other community. A large majority (84%) noticed some change in ice condition. Residents may be especially aware of changing ice conditions due to the ice-dependant nature of the harvest. Hunting for seal, walrus and whale is directly affected by sea ice. Satellite data from the National Snow and Ice Data Center confirm sea ice has changed drastically in the past 50 years (Fetterer et al. 2009, NSIDS) (see Figure 7).

Figure 8 presents trends in air temperature change from the ACIA and BSSN communities. When percentages of all environmental observations among communities are compared to trends in ambient temperature change, some correlations are evident. In Gambell the highest average percentage noticed changes (50%) and relative to other sites Gambell showed the greatest change in air temperature (Figure 8. Observed surface air temperature changes: 1954-2003). The average percent of people noticing change in Togiak and Kanchalan were both 44%, followed by Sand Point (33%), Nikolskoye (25%) and Tymlat (20%). Interestingly Tymlat observed the fewest changes in environmental conditions and real data confirms that Tymlat is not experiencing a change in air temperature.

The previous two examples represent the calibration of local knowledge with Western scientific data. Although sample size was small, there were significant, positive correlations observed in the pilot phase, and these trends need further examination.

B. Importance of Subsistence Harvest

Subsistence harvests are an important traditional and community food resource for the respondents. When asked, “What was your last harvest used for?” the overwhelmingly response was that it was used for traditional or personal use (see Figure 9). Sharing with friends and family also stand out as a predominant use in most communities. Supporting other community members through food sharing was a commonly discussed theme in open-ended responses for all communities.

  • “Да, хватало рыбы. Взаимосвязь стариков и молодежи всегда. Старики смотрели, где сколько всего нужно. Передавали опыт молодым постоянно. Если много рыбы, раздавали.”
  • “Yes, there was enough fish. There was always interconnection between elders and youth. Elders were watching where what is needed. They transferred their knowledge to the younger ones all the time. If there were a lot of fish they gave them away.”
  • “Как всегда. Раздаем всем, кто пришел на пирс встречать бот.”
  • “Like always. We share with all those who came to the pier to meet the boat.”
  • “(The catch was used) to eat and for others that can’t go fishing- sick and elders at home.”

In Gambell, approximately 26% reported using their catch for ‘generating cash or bartering’ and 7% reported using it for ‘commercial or business activity’. Two respondents elaborated saying this was done by carving and selling ivory.

In Sand Point, harvests are frequently used for generating cash, which is probably a result of the commercial fishing activity in the area. Harvests were used for generating cash or bartering by 16%, and another 37% report using the catches for commercial or business activity.

In Nikolskoye, very little of the harvest is used for generating cash or commercial activity. This could be due to the permit system in place there, which in open-ended responses 12% reported difficulties with (mostly in terms of the small size of the limit).

  • “Но лимит очень маленький, продавать нечего” 
  • “The limit is really small. There’s nothing [left over] to sell.”

In both Togiak and Tymlat, many respondents agreed that at least a portion of the harvest was used for feeding dogs.

Recreational hunting/fishing were important in Togiak and Nikolskoye, with many open-ended responses discussing the importance of subsistence to ones well being and as a connection culture.

  • “Вполне, без рыбы не сидели. С детства и вообще из поколения в поколение привычны рыбой питаться.”
  • “Entirely, we have never been without fish. From childhood and generally from generation to generation fish is the customary food.” 
  • “ Близко находится море, забываются бытовые проблемы, внутренне отдыхаешь.”
  • “The sea is nearby. Our everyday petty troubles are forgotten, and we can rest.”

When asked about the reasons for the timing of the next harvest many replied that it was driven by the family’s need for food. In all communities but Sand Point the family’s need for food was the most frequently mentioned reason for the timing of the next trip. This is likely due to the influence of commercial fishing in Sand Point. Respondents are likely to combine subsistence activities with commercial fishing. Weather was also a significant factor determining the timing of the next trip, which is interesting because of the frequent reports of increasing storms with greater intensity.

The legal season opening was not a major factor in Gambell because only the whale hunt is confined by seasonal regulations. Subsistence in Togiak is not subject to regulated seasons, while in other villages a regulated season for at least one species harvested is in place.

C. Disease in all Communities

When asked, ‘During your last hunting/fishing trip, did you catch any (species harvested) with visible disease?’ Russian communities stand out as more likely to report catching at least one fish/animal with visible disease (see Figure 10). The most significant observations point to a high rate of disease in red salmon and pacific cod in Nikolskoye, whitefish and chum salmon in Kanchalan, and pink salmon in Tymlat. Reasons for this need further investigation, but participants frequently cited pollutants associated with mining and military activity as the cause.

D. Access to Harvest Location

Access to hunting and fishing locations probably affects the ability of harvesters to secure food for themselves and others. Thus it is important to examine distances traveled to harvest locations and any difficulties encountered during travel, especially as changing environmental conditions may affect travel routes. 3 to 15 kilometers (2 to 10 miles) was the most frequently cited distance traveled in all Alaskan communities (see Figure 11).

Gambell stands out in that respondents traveled farther, with 31% traveling over 65 kilometers (40 miles). In Russia, people tended to stay closer to home, with the exception being Nikolskoye where 15 to 30 kilometers (10 to 20 miles) was the most frequently cited distance traveled. There are some issues with interpretation here because Russian respondents were given multiple choice answers in kilometers and in Alaska they were given in miles, and they don’t translate directly (3 km = 1.9 mi), thus these trends need further examination.

In Gambell, when asked if it was easier, more difficult or about the same to get to the location of the previous harvest trip, 47% replied it was about the same, while equal percentages (26%) reported it was either more difficult or easier to get to the location. Of those reporting that it was more difficult to get to the location 77% attributed the difficulty to poor environmental conditions (ice, bad weather). The second most frequently cited reason was economic (62%) including high gas prices and equipment.

In Sand Point 0% reported that the location was more difficult to get to than in other years; 6% reported it was easier, while 94% said it was about the same as usual.

Travel to the harvest location was reported as more difficult than usual by 7% of Togiak respondents. Poor environmental conditions were most frequently cited as the reason for the difficulty. Poor road conditions followed by economics were also mentioned. In Kanchalan, difficulties getting to the location were reported by 33% of the respondents. Of those reporting difficulty, the most common reasons cited were economics (including fuel and equipment), followed equally by poor road conditions and poor environmental conditions.

Difficulties getting to the location of the previous trip were reported by 15% in Nikolskoye. Of those reporting difficulties a majority (77%) blamed poor road conditions. Lack of transportation followed with 33% citing this as a problem.

In Tymlat 24% encountered difficulties getting to the location of their previous harvest. Economics was the most frequently cited reason, followed by poor environmental conditions.

  • “То вездеход на ремонте, то топлива на него нет, дорого. То погода плохая. Весной половодье, реки становятся – большие, глубокие.”
  • “Sometimes the all-terrain vehicle needs repair, sometimes there is no fuel for it. It is expensive. Sometimes the weather is bad. In spring there are floods, rivers become big, deep.”

The most frequent hardship cited for travel to the harvest location for Alaskan villages was environmental conditions, while in Russia it was economic followed by poor road conditions.

E. Time Spent to Harvest

The amount of time spent to harvest compared to previous years may indicate change in environmental conditions, animal populations and dynamics. Gambell and Kanchalan stand out as communities where the time spent to harvest may be increasing (see Figure 12). Of the respondents in Gambell, 41% reported that more time was spent in harvesting. According to harvesters, the size of the harvest, the amount of time it took to catch and their resulting level of satisfaction were often affected by the amount of available game and changes in animals’ migration patterns.

  • “Some game is going farther out because of the sound of snow machines – Honda. And probably the light affects [them too]. They go farther out.”
  • “I know that some [game] are off season – left behind due to the lack of ice.”

F. Needs Satisfaction and Expectations

When discussing the previous harvest the survey inquires, “On your last hunting/fishing trip, did you catch enough to satisfy all your needs?”

Gambell, the community that observed the most environmental changes, stands out as the community where needs are least likely to be met (48%) (see Figure 13). This may be due to greater variability in hunting success for marine mammals than fish. Sand Point, a fishing community, follows as the second most likely place where needs were not met. The participants in Gambell harvest the greatest proportion of marine mammals (71%) compared to the other community in which marine mammals are harvested (Togiak 5%).

In response to open-ended questions Gambell residents discussed what needs were not met. They included:

  • “Need more meat. Not enough walrus around. Seal was primary catch.”
  • “Didn’t catch enough to feed my family for a year.”
  • “Because I could of used more for the family.”

What an experienced subsistence harvester hopes to harvest in a trip and how that compares with the actual outcome of the trip is likely to tell us a little about how harvests now compare to harvests in the past. This can also tell us about some of the challenges facing subsistence users in the Bering Sea.

In Gambell respondents were more likely to report they harvested less than they had hoped for (48%) (see Figure 14). Sand Point follows with 32% of respondents reporting less then they had hoped for. Togiak residents are particularly satisfied, with 24% harvesting more than they had hoped for. In Nikolskoye and Tymlat, expectations and actual outcomes matched up better than the other communities.

G. Note on Natural Variability

Natural variability in the environment was frequently brought up by respondents. An attempt was made to focus participants on long term changes by inquiring about changes in environmental conditions in the previous 10 to 25 years, but many seemed to accept changes as natural. In Tymlat, responses included 33 references to the idea of a ‘fish year’ where fish are abundant, and a ‘non-fish year’ where fish are scarce. The variability in fish runs from year to year seems to be a common understanding. There were many other references to natural variability.

  • “But this year is a non-fish year. There are few fish. There’s no run. Next year there will be.”
  • “This year is not a fish year. Fish years vary.”
  • “Этот год нерыбный. Год рыбный, по -разному идет.”
  • “(There is) different weather every year.”
  • “Everything changes, even land…as our land is very old.”
  • “Weather is always changing, no matter which way the wind is blowing, we go fishing.”
  • “The river didn’t freeze right away, but every year is different with weather.”
  • “The weather is always different each year.”

Based on this acceptance of change in the environment it can be difficult to define ‘the norm’. What are normal environmental conditions in an environment that is always changing? This is likely to add an element of personal variability in what is considered ‘unusual’, or changing.

The natural variability present in the system has shaped past generations and residents into adaptable people. For generations people in these areas have adapted to changing conditions. This acceptance of change and strong community ties in these communities are evidence of great adaptive capacity.