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Subsistence Hunting in Alaska’s Frontier: What to Know

Many centuries have passed since humankind’s collective hunting and gathering days. While some still wield weapons in the wild or grow greens and grains, most food is mass-produced, creating several levels of distance between a hot meal and its source.

This distance, while convenient, can also perpetuate wasteful and inhumane attitudes toward consumption. But those who practice subsistence hunting, as many rural Alaskans do, have maintained an intimacy with their food that others lack, among other benefits.

Though practiced across the globe, subsistence hunting is limited to Alaska in the United States. Much of this region is sparsely populated and characterized by harsh landscapes unsuitable for crops; this makes hunting and fishing not just popular, but central to the culture of many Alaskans, native and otherwise.

Here’s what you should know about subsistence hunting in Alaska:

Subsistence hunting is not for sport:

Subsistence is defined in Alaska state laws as the “noncommercial customary and traditional uses” of fish and wildlife. In a world in which endangered species are rapidly facing extinction, it’s useful to draw a distinction between hunting for sport and for survival. The difference is economical: subsistence hunters hunts to live off the land; sports hunters choose to hunt as a pastime.

In other words, subsistence hunters have less interest in prestige or pleasure than they have a need to obtain and making food, clothes, tools and other goods that contribute to basic livelihood. And instead of targeting rarer species, as some trophy hunters do, Alaskans hunt among abundant populations under principles of respect and sustained yield.

The conflation of these two distinct types of hunting can be problematic for those that rely on it, as well as the laws that protect and regulate it.

Subsistence hunting has guiding principles:

According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, most subsistence communities have customary rules for treating the land and the ecosystem. The most common principles are:

  • Do not waste
  • Take only what is needed
  • Treat the animals with respect
  • Do not damage the land without cause

Because of these rules, subsistence hunters are known to use all parts of an animal from its meat to its blubber, bones, skin and fur. Maintaining undamaged land and ecosystems is to the advantage of those that practice subsistence hunting. As a result, it is a practice largely compatible with wider conservation efforts.

Alaskans hunt whale, caribou, and birds—but mostly fish:

Research shows that the main subsistence food in Alaska is fish at about 60% of subsistence harvest by weight. Land mammals, alternatively, represent about 20% of the state’s harvest, with marine mammals clocking in at 14%, and birds, shellfish, and wild plants at 2% each.

This breakdown does differ by region. In more coastal areas of Alaska with more extreme Arctic climate, caribou, seals, whales and walrus are major resources for hunters. Subsistence whaling is permitted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act despite a commercial whaling ban in North America. The bowhead whale in particular is central to the Iñupiat in Barrow, Alaska, with culture, diet, and spirit centered around it.

Any Alaskan with residence exceeding a year may qualify to subsistence hunt, but because of their specific role in certain communities, marine mammals are limited to Alaska natives. Rarer species, like the bowhead whale, are permitted in quotas, which depend on whale population as and the nutritional and cultural needs of the people.

The future of subsistence hunting in Alaska:

It’s true that principles alone cannot guide practices of this nature, especially as resource exploitation and factory farming become the rule and subsistence hunting, the exception. Regulations play an important role in dictating where and how much subsistence hunting may occur.

Most federally managed public lands in Alaska can be used for subsistence hunting, including 34 “conservation system units” which include parks, forests, wildlife refuges, national reserves, conservation area, and scenic rivers. In places including Glacier Bay National Park, the Kenai Fjords, and other national parks, however, it is prohibited.

Sometimes these regulations, which are complex in nature, may strain rural Alaskans that rely on subsistence hunting. Older villagers that cannot read and write, for instance, may be hesitant to participate despite their familiarity with the tradition, simply because they are unsure of its legality.

As the livelihood of local communities and ecosystems hang in the balance, it is important that laws take Alaskan traditions into account and vice versa for a cooperative, protected, and bountiful future. It may be impossible for us all to return to hunter-gatherer days, but we can and should stand for the integrity and endurance of those that peacefully maintain these customs.