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Total Environment of Change: Impacts of Climate Change and Social Transitions on Subsistence Fisheries in Northwest Alaska

Katie J Moerlein, School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences University of Alaska Fairbanks
Courtney Carothers, School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences University of Alaska Fairbanks


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Arctic ecosystems are undergoing rapid changes as a result of global climate change, with significant implications for the livelihoods of Arctic peoples. In this paper, based on ethnographic research conducted with the I˝upiaq communities of Noatak and Selawik in northwestern Alaska, we detail prominent environmental changes observed over the past twenty to thirty years and their impacts on subsistence-based lifestyles. However, we suggest that it is ultimately insufficient to try to understand how Arctic communities are experiencing and responding to climate change in isolation from other stressors. During interviews and participant observation documenting local observations of climatic and related environmental shifts and impacts to subsistence fishing practices, we find the inseparability of environmental, social, economic, cultural, and political realms for community residents. Many of our informants, who live in a mixed economy based on various forms of income and widespread subsistence harvesting of fish and game, perceive and experience climate change as embedded among numerous other factors affecting subsistence patterns and practices. Changing lifestyles, decreasing interest by younger generations in pursuing subsistence livelihoods, and economic challenges are greatly affecting contemporary subsistence patterns and practices in rural Alaska. Observations of climate change are perceived, experienced, and articulated to researchers through a broader lens of these linked lifestyle and cultural shifts. Therefore, we argue that to properly assess and understand the impacts of climate change on the subsistence practices in Arctic communities, we must also consider the total environment of change that is dramatically shaping the relationship between people, communities, and their surrounding environments.

Key words

Arctic; climate change; environmental anthropology; fisheries; human dimensions; local knowledge; social-ecological systems; subsistence; traditional ecological knowledge

Copyright © 2012 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087