Subsistence Harvest and Indigenous Knowledge in Alaska

Liliana Naves

Linked paper: Shorebird subsistence harvest and indigenous knowledge in Alaska: Informing harvest management and engaging users in shorebird conservation by L.C. Naves, J.M. Keating, T.L. Tibbitts, and D.R. Ruthrauff, The Condor: Ornithological Applications.

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Sharing a meal of wild foods with the James family at the community of Platinum, after an indigenous knowledge interview. Photo by Lili Naves, ADF&G Division of Subsistence.

Many shorebirds migrate across continents and oceans, relying on key areas to rest, eat, and refuel. Habitat loss, climate change, and other factors are affecting these birds at their breeding, migration, and wintering grounds. Numbers of long-distance migrating shorebirds that breed in North America are down by about 50% since the mid-1970s.

Biologists and social scientists joined forces in this interdisciplinary study to quantify shorebird harvest and document indigenous knowledge in Alaska. We wanted to learn about the importance of shorebirds as food and cultural resources, what Yup’ik people know about shorebirds, and how they could join in conservation efforts. We worked within the Harvest Assessment Program of the Alaska Migratory Bird Co-Management Council.

Twelve million shorebirds converge in Alaska every summer to breed, then migrate to winter in the Americas, the Pacific, and Asia. The Yukon-Kuskokwim delta in western Alaska provides critical habitat and food for these shorebirds. The delta is also the homeland of the indigenous Yup’ik people. For thousands of years, Yup’ik people have shared this vast wetland with shorebirds. Shorebirds represent only 1% of the subsistence bird harvest in Alaska, but this harvest includes species of conservation concern, in particular the Bar-tailed Godwit. These birds’ population size and adult survival have been declining, and some annual harvest estimates seemed high.

We generated Alaska-wide harvest estimates using a large dataset (775 community-years!) including surveys conducted between 1990 and 2015. The total harvest was about 2,800 shorebirds per year. Godwits were about 1,100 birds per year, and based on species distribution, these were all most likely Bar-tailed Godwits. The egg harvest was about 4,700 eggs per year.

The indigenous knowledge research for this study focused on the Yup’ik culture of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Working with tribal councils, we interviewed 80 respondents in 5 communities in 2017. We asked about shorebird ethnotaxonomy (how local people name birds and categorize species), importance for subsistence, place names, ecology, and concerns. Traditional knowledge is based on observation and experience accumulated over generations by people living in close contact with nature. We learned that shorebirds are known mostly by specialists. Yup’ik people name shorebirds in their Native language, so we worked with a translator. We learned 24 Yup’ik shorebird names, 7 of which were more widely known among our respondents. Most names are multi-species categories. Some names are onomatopoeic. For instance, the Yup’ik name for Wilson’s Snipe is Kukukuaq, after the sound made during their distinctive winnow display. Place names may tell about sites important for birds: Tevatevaaq Bay is a shallow, protected bay that indeed looks like a gathering place for the Tevatevaaq (Bar-tailed Godwit).

Shorebirds and their eggs are not primary food sources, but are harvested in times of scarcity. Traditionally, children learning to hunt focus on small birds, including shorebirds. Shorebirds are a joyful part of nature and connect people with their environment, traditional culture, and language. Yup’ik people have noticed a decline in local shorebird numbers in recent decades. Based on traditional knowledge, they understand that animals, people, and the land are interconnected. If populations of shorebirds or other animals are not doing well, something is out of balance in nature, and that thing may finally also affect people.

Whether a harvest is sustainable depends on both harvest levels and on the status of the bird populations being harvested. Data gaps still prevent robust assessments of shorebird harvest sustainability, but Bar-tailed Godwit populations currently have low harvest potential, and recent sharp declines in shorebird populations mean that we need to account for uncertainty in harvest sustainability in our conservation efforts. Shorebirds now depend on citizens, biologists, and managers to protect and restore their habitats. It is important to include indigenous peoples and other stakeholders in shorebird conservation along flyways. This study is already the basis for culture-focused conservation outreach efforts in western Alaska. As a next step, we want to collaboratively develop conservation approaches that benefit shorebirds as well as the well-being of these subsistence communities. We all play a role in our relationships with nature!