ANCHORAGE — Two native villages on Alaska’s remote St. Lawrence Island are reporting their smallest harvests of walrus in memory.
People are hurting not just in the lack of walrus meat but also in the lack of walrus tusks, according to residents of Gambell and Savoonga.
With few employment opportunities, many in the two Yup’ik Eskimo communities rely on subsistence hunting for much of the food on local tables. Many also are carvers who rely on money from the sales of ivory artwork.
“Our bills are piling up,” said Gambell tribal president Eddie Ungott.
According to locals, the typical annual harvest of walrus, based on a 10-year average, is 675 animals for Gambell and 578 for Savoonga. This year, Gambell residents harvested 108 walrus with another 76 taken by Savoonga.
Savoonga Mayor Myron Kingeekuk said the problem this year is that the ice went out to quickly, so hunters had few opportunities to go out. Fog and winds also stymied some hunters. Many families didn’t get any walrus this year.
“The weather got us pretty bad,” Kingeekuk said.
Savoonga residents landed several bowhead whales and are hoping to make up some of the loss of walrus meat by catching more halibut and other fish, Kingeekuk said. It’s the loss of profits from ivory carvings that worries him.
“That’s the whole community’s income right there,” he said.
Ungott said the two villages are working together on issuing a disaster declaration.
Two Democratic state lawmakers are asking Gov. Sean Parnell to monitor the situation in Gambell and Savoonga, each with a population of about 700.
“This has been a historical low harvest of walrus this year — less than 20 percent of the 10-year average,” Sen. Donny Olson of Golovin and Rep. Neal Foster of Nome wrote, noting that walrus is a staple food for the two villages ivory is vital for the local economies. “Utility bills are paid with the proceeds of the ivory trade.”
St. Lawrence Island is located in the Bering Sea southeast of the Russia-U.S. border.