Shoreline Change Impacts on Traditional Gathering Patterns

Southeast and southcentral
Alaska’s extensive coastline has been supporting Tlingit,
Haida, Tsimshian, Eyak, and Alutiiq Native cultures for
more than 10,000 years. ♪♪♪ Coastal communities have
adapted to advancing and and retreating glaciers,
sea level changes,
tsunamis, fire, colonialism, and
forced relocation. In the 1700s,
the Hoonah community relocated due to
advancing glaciers. And as recently as 1964, the Chenega community
was evacuated and relocated following an
earthquake and tsunami. The coast of southeast Alaska
is still changing today. Sea level rise is drowning
some coastal areas, while other areas are emerging
as the glaciers retreat and the land rebounds upward. In these island Alaskan
communities not connected to road systems, more than 80% of people rely on
locally-collected resources. Alteration of resources
disproportionately impacts
rural communities. I, along with 21 other
student interns, held discussions with members
of 14 communities in southeast and
southcentral Alaska to talk about local
foods collected. In total, we had
223 discussions with fellow community members. 60% of discussions included
people who considered themselves Indigenous
Alaska Natives. On average, people reported
collecting or harvesting natural resources 45 days
out of the year, but 10% reported
collecting or harvesting on more than 100 days
of the year. Together, we summarized
over 100 species of plants and animals that
are gathered and harvested, supporting community,
food security and cultural way of life. 80% of the community members
we contacted described the seasonal nature
of collecting and harvesting. For example,
cockles and clams in the winter, halibut and crab in the spring, berries and sockeye salmon
in the summer, and deer and coho salmon
in the fall. 26% of people in our
discussions were concerned that climate change was
affecting their harvests and noticed changes
in the timing of their collections
and harvests. 90% of people reported that
they harvested salmon, 83% harvested halibut,
and 47% harvested herring and herring eggs,
among other species. In this study, 83% of the
herring eggs harvested were by Natives who sometimes
travel great distances to place hemlock boughs
close to shores where herring are likely
to spawn. The most common community
concerns about salmon, halibut, herring, and seal were
possible population declines, but, for sea otters,
communities were concerned about increasing populations
that have impacts on resources like clams. Community members also
mentioned concerns about possible pollution, overfishing,
and stream habitat degradation. Along coastlines,
66% of participants reported collecting cockles, 58% collected gumboots,
a type of chiton, and 52% collected butter clams
and black seaweed,
among other species. Nearly 90% of
black seaweed and gumboots were collected by
indigenous peoples. Concern about toxic shellfish
poisoning was shared by over 30% of clam, cockle, and steamer collectors who participated in this study. This concern kept some
community members from collecting at all. The Sitka Tribe of Alaska
Environmental Research Lab and Southeast Alaska Tribal
Ocean Research partnership regularly tests for shellfish
toxins at some popular community harvesting beaches
and has found toxins year-round at some sites. Other shoreline concerns
include possible pollution, sea otter predation,
overharvest by both humans
and otters, and impacts of ocean
acidification. Modified harvesting methods for
resources like beach asparagus, such as cutting instead of
pulling the plant, were suggested to
address concerns with possible plant damage. We found that participants
collected 13 berry species with 85% of people collecting
salmonberries, 81% collecting blueberries,
66% collecting strawberries, and 60% collecting
huckleberries. Fewer than 10% of berry
harvesters in our study shared concerns including
possible pollution, reduced numbers,
invasive species, and the effects of urbanization. Transportation to harvesting
sites effects both the cost and safety of harvesting
and collecting resources. People from coastal communities
often relied on boats because road access was limited, and this can be a significant
concern. Communities shared concerns
about current harvest regulations and a lack of
communication between communities and regulators. People expressed a desire
for regulations more focused on sustainability instead of
profitability, and want more recognition that
cultural community collection practices are often
fundamentally at odds with regulations based on individual
quotas and inaccurate consumption rates. Suggestions were made to limit
commercial activities near important cultural
harvesting areas. Over 40% of discussions
encouraged youth to learn more about traditional and cultural
harvesting from their elders. This education sustains mindful
practices that not only provide healthy food
to communities, but also teach youth about their local
environment and foster future caretakers
of the land. By conducting these discussions,
we as students were able to engage with our elders and
learn firsthand the importance of our local resources for
supporting strong, healthy communities. Southeast and southcentral
Alaska is home to resilient peoples that have generations
of important observations and knowledge to share. This knowledge can help guide
relevant, timely research that will better enable
everyone to deal with future change. Indigenous Alaskans, who have
always had intricate relationship with the land,
are sensitive to habitat and harvest alterations
and can help everyone understand the consequences of
environmental change both locally and globally. To the elders and other
community members who generously participated in
these discussions, we say “Gunalchéesh” (Tlingit), “Háw’aa” (Haida), “Way dankoo” (Tsminshian), and “Quyanaa” (Alutiiq). ♪♪♪