Arctic Athabaskan Council (AAC)
Our changing home
We are especially concerned about the climate crisis that affects us globally. It is obvious with the forest fires, flooding, melting permafrost and ice, and the low number of caribou to rely on for sustenance.
Chief Bill Erasmus, Reykjavik Ministerial statement
With climate change a lot of things are shifting. Fish stocks are moving into the Arctic Ocean and away from the other places. If you combine that with all the litter that is going into the ocean, all the plastics and toxic waste, it makes us concerned – not only about the fish and marine life. If you don’t have clean oceans, you are not going to have clean food. This is not only important to us but to much of the rest of the world as our salmon is eaten in many places.
A friend of mine has been talking about how the fish stocks are shifting from the Bering Sea to the Arctic Ocean and fish stocks from other places are also shifting their distribution in the North because of climate change. In addition, some of the fish are not as firm as they should be and they are having more and more parasites. So, generally, they do not come back in a very good shape.1
We have so many different kinds of fish in Alaska, we have so many different kinds of animals, all has been affected in many, many ways through climate change. One thing I know about the salmon, too, it really has changed with the climate. The climate has really changed, the river temperature has changed.
– Faye Ewan
Faye Ewan comes from Kluti Kaah village – a region of Alaska that her family has lived in since time memorial. She comes from the caribou tribe, which is a clan and matriarch system. In an interview, Faye Ewan speaks about the importance of salmon for her people. The history of the Ahtna is closely linked to the history of salmon. As she says: “It has a spirituality, it has social well-being - it’s part of us, it’s our blood. We never disrespect salmon.”
Learn more about the role salmon plays for food security and with which ceremonies the Ahtna welcome the fish very year.
Yet, where the salmon was once plentiful, its population has now decreased significantly, tells Faye Ewan. Climate change is also opening up the market to commercial fisheries, she says, has made the salmon stocks crash. For the Ahtna, the land is sacred and so are its resources. In years when the fish wheels would overfill with salmon, they would shut the wheels down and stop fishing – because for Ahtna this is a sign, it means that you will lose family members. “Everything tells us something, tells a story,” says Faye Ewan.
This year, Faye Ewan and her people have hardly caught any fish. Listen to her as she tells about the dwindling salmon stock, how Ahtna leave the salmon population to recover and how Indigenous Peoples across Alaska take care of each other during these times.
The Arctic Biodiversity Assessment 2013 by the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna Working Group (CAFF) stated that Arctic freshwater and diadromous fishes (fish that migrate between fresh and salt water, such as salmon) are of particular importance to humans both inside the Arctic and elsewhere. And that food fisheries by Indigenous Peoples (i.e. subsistence fisheries) are extensive throughout the Arctic and historically always have been.
However, the report also notes that pervasive stressors such as climate change result in significant and rapid habitat alterations (indirect effects) as well as direct effects (e.g. thermal stresses) which challenge these fishes. In addition, localized stressors (e.g. fisheries, hydrocarbon development, industrial activities, mining, water withdrawals, hydroelectric dams) affect populations either directly (fisheries) or through habitat impacts.2
Arctic river systems, whose waters flow both to and from the Arctic Ocean, have and continue to be a source of food for Indigenous Peoples. As part of their food security, harvesting and activities related to salmon are part of Indigenous Peoples’ identities: many Indigenous communities are “Salmon Peoples” of the Arctic, a term that recognizes the inextricable bond between human and non-human species in the Indigenous worldview.
The Salmon Peoples of Arctic Rivers is a project of the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna Working Group (CAFF) and the Arctic Athabaskan Council is one of its co-leads. This multi-phase project involves both Indigenous Knowledge holders and scientists of academia and resource agencies in designing an assessment of freshwater river systems based on the Indigneous Knowledge of Indigenous Peoples. The holistic approach will focus on “Salmon peoples” as a measure of ecosystem health, and also outline future data needs that could contribute to the resilience and adaptation of these peoples and the salmon populations upon which they depend.
Learn more about the project on CAFF's site or the Salmon Peoples of Arctic Rivers Progress report: 2017-2019
“Climate change is the overwhelming driver of change in terrestrial Arctic ecosystems, causing diverse, unpredictable, and significant impacts that are expected to intensify.”
This is one key finding of CAFF’s State of the Arctic Terrestrial Biodiversity Report 2021 – and one that will likely impact food security and traditional subsistence activities of Athabaskans. Already the 2013 Arctic Biodiversity Assessment stated that there were several indications that overall harvest levels are declining around Alaska – due to many factors – but that thus trend varied spatially and temporally, making it difficult to confirm any patterns in the limited data that existed. The abundance and availability of species and populations, the report further stresses, has a direct impact on the consumptive use of biodiversity. One example is declining populations of caribou herds across northern Canada and Alaska, a trend confirmed by the 2021 State of the Arctic Terrestrial Biodiversity Report, which indicated that “mammal species show various trends with the exception of Rangifers (Reindeer/Caribou) whose populations are mostly declining”.
But climate change and other stressors do not only impact Athabaskan’s hunting and fishing. Berry picking is another important activity of their traditional subsistence activities. “Changes in pollinator activities have potential implications for Arctic food systems and culturally important species, such as berries. Indigenous Knowledge in some regions indicates increasing interannual variability in berry abundance which may be particularly pronounced for plants with specialist pollinators in the context of climate-driven unpredictable weather events and uncertain abiotic conditions. Berries are also important to foraging tundra birds”, finds the 2021 State of the Arctic Terrestrial Biodiversity Report.
Listen to Faye Ewan as she speaks about how climate change has affected not only the salmon population but also berry harvests and the fauna.