Researchers say climate change is impacting food security for Indigenous Alaskans – seal hunting season is shortening in some areas
The study, led by Indigenous hunters, Native Village of Kotzebue and scientists at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, shows that the seal hunting season shrank by about one day a year.
“We used to hunt ugruk into July when I was growing up back in the 1950s,” said Bobby Schaeffer, a Kotzebue elder, hunter and co-author of the new paper.
“People would be out there during Fourth of July celebration because there was so much ice. Now sometimes we’re done before June comes around.”
“Now sometimes we’re done before June comes around.”
This decline is majorly driven by loss of sea ice, as the planet increases in temperature. In the past, the Earth was able to rebalance itself – but now, as the IPCC report pointed out, human influence has pushed the planet to be hotter than it has been for the last 3 million years.
Donna Hauser, marine mammal biologist at the UAF International Arctic Research Center and co-leader of the research, said: “Kotzebue Sound provides important spring habitat for bearded seals, with ice floes as platforms for seals to rest on between foraging bouts.
“We learned from our Kotzebue research partners that hunting ugruk is actually like hunting the right kind of ice.”
In the past, hunters found ugruk on these ice floe resting platforms.
The study combined hunter knowledge of the ice conditions needed for ugruk hunting with data from satellite images. The results showed that the necessary ice floes now melt from the Kotzebue Sound roughly 22 days earlier than they did in 2003, the first year of the study.
“In some years there is only a good weekend or two”
While the hunting season is pushed to a close about 26 days earlier on average than in the past, hunters are not necessarily able to begin hunting any earlier. The season’s start timing is driven by the arrival of seals and a hunter’s ability to launch boats through a channel in the ice that opens in front of Kotzebue.
Alex Whiting, director of the Native Village of Kotzebue’s Environmental Program and co-leader of the research, said: “Now in some years there is only a good weekend or two, and, if people want to maximize their opportunity, they have to prepare before the season even starts.”