Utilization of Biotic Resources

Aquatic Animals

Village life in the Northwest Region still revolves around hunting and fishing for marine animals along the coast and for freshwater fish along inland rivers, particularly the Noatak, Kobuk, and Selawik.


Invertebrates and Fish—Subsistence use of invertebrates and fish in this region has declined in recent years for a number of reasons. The shift from sled dogs to snow machines has reduced the number of salmon required for dog food. Increasing year-round employment in the cash economy during the salmon season has decreased both the ability to fish and the necessity of large subsistence harvests. In addition, many areas have recently developed substantial commercial fisheries, and there has been a shift from reliance on subsistence to participation in the commercial fishery. The five species of Pacific salmon are the major subsistence fish in the region, and the total take of these species for the period 1963-72 is shown in Figure 143.

In the Norton Sound district (Alaska Department of Fish and Game designation) most subsistence fishing is done in the lower portion of rivers emptying into salt water. Generally, short gill nets are fished in these rivers, although a few beach seines may also be used. Fish may supply up to 40 percent of the year's food requirements for a typical household in this district with salmon the most important, recently up to 200,000 taken annually for subsistence. Chum and pink salmon provide the majority of the harvest, although in the Unalakleet subdistrict silvers and kings are taken in significant numbers. Very few red salmon are caught for subsistence here. This harvest is supplemented by Arctic grayling, herring, smelt, burbot, Arctic char, and whitefish.

In the Port Clarence district, residents of Teller and Brevig Mission fish Grantley Harbor and Tuksuk Channel. Nome residents travel to this district to fish Pilgrim River and Salmon Lake. Chum, red, and pink salmon are the most important species harvested. A small number of silver salmon are irregularly taken, and very few kings are ever harvested. Total annual subsistence harvest of salmon in recent years has averaged slightly under 5,000 fish.

In the Kotzebue district a salmon spear and nets dating to 1250 A.D. have been found near the Kobuk River, documenting a long history of subsistence use. Chum salmon are the most abundant fish harvested for subsistence in this region today. A fair harvest of pink salmon is taken on the Noatak River and a few king, silver, and red salmon may be taken incidentally. At Noatak, the pink salmon arrive in early to mid-July when they are the major species fished. Later in August, the chum run begins and reaches a peak during the second or third week of September, after which it continues to decline through freezeup of the river. High water tends to reduce the salmon subsistence harvest, and if the salmon catch is low, fishermen may shift their attention to other areas or to other species. They may fish for Arctic char in the Noatak system or inconnu in the Hotham Inlet-Selawik Lake area during winter and early spring (Foote and Williamson 1966). Noatak residents may also fish the Wulik River for char. In recent years the total subsistence harvest of chum salmon in this district has averaged slightly over 20,000 fish.

lnconnu are harvested in the Kobuk delta-Hotham Inlet-Selawik Lake area. These fish are taken by gill net in the upper Kobuk River and by jigging through the ice on Hotham Inlet in winter and early spring. The Arctic char is an important subsistence fish for several villages. These fish may be caught any time during the year except in late July and early August when they are in offshore marine areas.

Figure 143. Total Subsistence Harvest of Salmon, 1963-1972

A large, well-studied, subsistence fishery for Arctic char is conducted by the residents of Kivalina on the Wulik River. In spring, these fish are caught during their out-migration to the ocean with gill nets and by angling. In late August to mid-September, the in-migrating adults are intercepted on their return to fresh water, again by means of gill nets in the coastal lagoons and lower Wulik River and seines in the lower and upper Wulik River. Arctic char are caught as they migrate in schools along the coast past Point Hope. In some years, significant numbers of whitefish are also taken from rivers in this district.

Other minor freshwater species caught are smelt, Arctic grayling, burbot, and northern pike. Offshore subsistence fishing, usually by angling through the ice in winter, yields a harvest of herring, crab, and Arctic cod. In some years, Arctic cod may be abundant in lagoons where they are caught by beach seine in early July and late August. The extent of dependence on these species for subsistence is indicated by the 1959 catches of 85,600 pounds of Arctic char and 12,000 pounds of whitefish recorded by Saario and Kessel (1966) in Kivalina.

Bottom Left: Inconnu and other whitefish are harvested at Ambler on the Kobuk River.

Right: Many chum salmon are harvested annually in the Kotzebue area for subsistence. These fish are gutted, split, and hung to air dry on racks along the shores of Kotzebue Sound and Hotham Inlet. Inconnu are prepared in a similar manner.

Bottom right: Winter diets are often supplemented by catches of smaller fish taken through the ice from nearshore waters.



Marine Mammals and Birds—Marine mammals are important to subsistence for many residents of the region. The people of Point Hope, Wales, Diomede, King Island, Gambell, and Savoonga are strategically located to intercept marine mammals of various species during their migration and have developed life-styles and economies accordingly.

Point Hope, Gambell, and Savoonga normally take baleen whales, usually bowheads. Kivalina sometimes takes whales, but residents of that and other nearby villages more often join Point Hope whaling crews. Not only do the whales taken (usually four or more a season at Point Hope) provide a substantial amount of food, but whaling is a major focal point of the annual community cycle of activity, and status in the village depends to a large extent on whaling. Presently, fewer whales are taken at Gambell and Savoonga. Belugas are taken in large numbers and with less ceremony at coastal communities in Kotzebue Sound from Point Hope to Deering and in Norton Sound from Nome to Stebbins. Walrus, bearded seals, and the smaller ringed and harbor seals are the mainstay of subsistence in the Bering Strait-St. Lawrence Island area. Fewer walrus are taken in the Point Hope-Kivalina area, but residents there use many seals. The umiak, a skin-covered boat used in both subregions, is normally covered with walrus hide in the Norton Sound and bearded seal skins in Kotzebue Sound.

Polar bears may be taken incidentally to other hunting at Point Hope, Kivalina, and the Bering Strait-St. Lawrence Island area. Although these bears are not a major item of subsistence, they have become more available to residents of the coastal communities following the ban on hunting them from aircraft.

Aquatic birds are also important for subsistence. Sea ducks, mainly eiders, are taken at most of the coastal communities, often in connection with marine mammal hunting. Brant are also important to several communities that lie on their migration route. Murres, puffins, auklets, and their eggs are a common subsistence resource mainly at Point Hope, Kivalina, and Bering Strait villages.

Freshwater birds, mainly geese, ducks, and cranes, are most important to communities adjacent to extensive marsh lands and villages along the Kobuk River. Beaver, muskrat, mink, and river otters are also used for subsistence where they occur.

[insert picture from p. 174] Little Diomede. Proceeds of the walrus hunt are often divided up on a nearby shore or ice floe.
[insert picture from p. 174]

Above: Inflated seal skin "poke" is used as float and marker and is attached to dead whale.

Left: Gambell boys eat muktuk while standing on whale baleen.



Fish—Salmon have been the mainstay of the small commercial fishery of the Northwest Region, although other species are taken. Salmon harvests for recent years are shown in Figure 144. Commercial fishing began initially in the Norton Sound district in 1917 when the Arctic Fish Company operated a scow in Golovin Bay (Cobb 1931). Some salted salmon was produced early in this century at Nome and St. Michael. Little additional development occurred until 1961 when the Alaska Department of Fish and Game opened the Shaktoolik and Unalakleet subdistricts to salmon fishing. Early catches were composed of king and silver salmon which were dressed and flown to Anchorage. In 1961 a freezer ship was available locally to process chum and pink salmon. In 1962 the additional subdistricts of Norton Bay, Moses Point, and Golovin Bay were opened to commercial fishing, and two floating cannery ships operated in the area. In 1964 the Nome subdistrict was opened to commercial fishing.

Recent commercial fishing activity in this district has been sporadic due to a lack of processors and buyers and inadequate tendering service to collect fish from fisherman. Processing is minimal—a few shore-based freezing and salting plants. Most fishing occurs in Norton Sound near stream mouths. Normally, the first salmon landings are in mid-June, and fishing continues until processors terminate the season in August. Fishermen operate 15- to 20-foot outboard skiffs and fish set gill nets. Three-quarters of the commercial catch in the district is chum salmon, with pink salmon making up almost all the remainder. Several thousand silver and king salmon complete the annual commercial harvest. Between 1923 and 1941, a small commercial fishery harvested herring in Golovin Bay (Anderson and Carlson 1945).

A small commercial fishery for salmon took place in the Port Clarence district in 1966. No further commercial harvest has been recorded.

From 1914 to 1918 the Midnight Sun Packing Company operated a small cannery in the Kotzebue district and processed slightly over 100,000 fish. Between 1918 and 1961 no commercial fishing took place. The present commercial fishery began in 1962, primarily for chum salmon. The only area now open to commercial fishing is east of a line extending from Cape Blossom on the Baldwin Peninsula south of Kotzebue northwest to Aukoolak Lagoon on Sheshalik Spit northwest of Kotzebue. Most fishing takes place along and within the 10-mile-wide channel between the Baldwin Peninsula and Sheshalik Spit. Fishing is closely regulated during the early season when most of the fish passing through the district are bound for the Kobuk River. This run is not only smaller but is also more heavily utilized for subsistence at villages on the Kobuk. The commercial season is set later to harvest the large run of chum salmon to the Noatak River.

Commercial catches in this district vary from year to year due to changes in the migration patterns of chum salmon, different wind and tidal currents, shifting sand bars and channels, variable levels of the discharge of the Noatak River into the sound, drifting seaweed and debris, and frequent inclement weather. Fishing usually begins in mid-July when fishermen in small outboard skiffs fish set gill nets. Kotzebue chum salmon are of exceptionally high quality, having a bright color, firm flesh, and high oil content. These fish are in great demand either fresh or frozen. They are dressed with heads on, iced, and transported to offshore Japanese freezer ships or may be flown daily to Seattle or Anchorage markets. The commercial catch in this district has been increasing rapidly in recent years with over 600,000 chum salmon landed in 1974.

Commercial fisheries for Arctic char and inconnu also occur in this district. Arctic char run later than salmon and are fished following the salmon season. A special permit fishery is allowed for inconnu. In years past, inconnu have been frozen and shipped to Barrow, Fairbanks, and Anchorage for marketing.

[Alaska Regional Profiles, Northwest Region, p. 172-180]

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