Fishing for Food Security and Tradition in the Arctic

In our latest column in partnership with the WCS, Dr. Trevor Haynes ventures to the northwestern Arctic to explore subsistence fishing traditions with Alaskan Natives.

Ice fishing is an unfamiliar experience to most people, and ice fishing in the Arctic is one that even enthusiasts rarely have. Up until recently, I was one of those waiting for my chance. But last spring, I found myself standing on Arctic sea ice, staring down through a hole into the frigid water of Kotzebue Sound beneath. This place felt like the edge of the earth – a spot just north of the Arctic Circle, closer to Russia than to Anchorage. My friends from the Native Village of Kotzebue were on a subsistence fishing trip and I’d tagged along to learn.

An incredible experience for most, the trip was particularly thrilling for me. As a fisheries scientist for the Wildlife Conservation Society, I have been researching fish ecology in the Arctic and the issues surrounding subsistence fishing, or fishing for a large portion of one’s diet. For recreational ice fishers, this pastime may be simple fun, but for Alaska Natives in the northwestern Arctic, ice fishing is a critical component of local food security, a way people who inhabit this harsh and remote region obtain high quality local food, and a way of life for thousands of years.

We ventured out from the rugged Iñupiaq village in a large group of snow machines, the local term for snowmobiles, surrounded by nothing but ice and snow for miles. Once we stopped, the incessant drone of the snow machine quieted, and I had the impression that we had arrived somewhere significant. Looking around at the white, reflective wilderness, it was hard to fathom how one could actually know where the fish would be. Thankfully, I was with experienced fishermen.

Transfixed by the ice and water beneath me, hoping that schools of fish were lurking underfoot, our target was sheefish, also known as “inconnu” or “tarpon of the north” due to their massive size and physical resemblance. This close relative of the salmon is a “whitefish,” a group of freshwater fish popular in the Great Lakes and Arctic Alaska but lesser known throughout North America. Unlike many culinary cultures that consume a diversity of fish species, North Americans generally have a more narrow focus. Carp are the most consumed fish on earth but barely touched in North America. And while salmon is a dominant food fish in North American culture and diet, its close relatives, including sheefish, are generally overlooked as an option for the dinner plate.

We drilled a cluster of holes through the ice using a gas-powered ice auger. Augers are a relatively new tool in the far north, where the traditional wooden pick, or tuuq, with an antler or ivory tip is still in use (though the tip is now typically made of metal). Once everyone in the party had a fishing hole, I was given a quick lesson on technique. Using Dacron tuna line attached to a piece of caribou antler that acted as a handle, I jigged my hooks below the ice. Jigging is a method that has been used for generations where one repeatedly raises and lowers the hook while in the water to attract fish.

The real trick to fishing for sheefish is finding the spot to fish, which takes vast experience and subsistence fishermen in northwest Alaska draw on experience that goes beyond their lifetimes, extending generations. Elders pass on important indigenous knowledge to the next on how to live in the Arctic environment and it includes not only important traditional and cultural wisdom, but also essential ecological information about the Arctic ecosystem. The knowledge transfer is a key part of the culture and has aided in the survival and success of Alaska Natives in this region since they arrived on the continent.

A jarring tug on my line was a cue for me to pull. Despite the careful instruction I received on how to bring up the fish, I lost the first one. Disappointment was quickly erased by more action on my hook. The smooth motion required to get the fish through the hole took me a bit of practice; however, once you get the angle of pull just right, fishing for sheefish is a straightforward affair. With new proficiency, I began pulling these large predators from the icy waters.

One at a time, we lined up our catch on the snow. Sheefish is considered to have a very delicate flesh that doesn’t hold its consistency well in warm weather, but is firm and fat in the depths of winter. In freezing temperatures, simply laying the fish on the ice serves to keep them cool and covering them with a layer of snow keeps the powerful rays of the springtime Arctic sun from drying the skin. To keep warm, my fishing companions heated moose chili on a portable stove. As we ate, a herd of caribou descended from the surrounding hills, pouring onto the ice nearby, providing spectacular scenes and fantastic encounters.

Throughout the day, we caught more fish than I could eat in an entire year, but for the fishermen, their catch would not only go into their freezers, but be shared with other community members, including Elders that were no longer able to go ice fishing. This sharing is an important part of the culture of subsistence communities. And before traveling back, the fish were filleted using traditional semi-lunar ulu knives, with the most experienced fisherman making a circular cut behind the head and another in front of the vent. This allows an upward snap of the neck; with a swift pull, the head along with guts comes right off. The fish are then filled with snow to keep them fresh.

When it comes to food and culture, subsistence fishing is key for the communities of Northwestern Alaska, resulting in an intimate connection between the people and their environment, a quiet understanding that I witnessed on the trip. The subsistence species that Alaska Natives hunt provides them with a reliable source of protein whose capture and distribution is deeply rooted in the culture. This means that protection of fish and wildlife habitats are not just about the beauty of nature or ecological and environmental health. They are literally about the health of individuals and communities as a whole.

Sheefish are just one of the many species that are important for this way of life. Survival of the indigenous peoples in the Arctic over millennia has required a reliance on a wide variety of foods. In northwest Alaska, native people depend heavily on a variety of fish species, land mammals, marine mammals, and waterfowl. These species, in turn, depend on healthy habitats. Thus, the scientific research of the Wildlife Conservation Society on Arctic ecosystems is integrating necessary ecology, traditional ecological or indigenous knowledge, and human health. Healthy habitat means healthy fish and wildlife, which in turn results in healthy food on the dinner tables in local villages.

Yet even remote communities in the Arctic are not immune to the rise of globalization and the availability of convenience foods. Exposure to western products at grocery stores has introduced local communities to food options that are more refined and processed than their generally healthier and fresher subsistence foods. The latter also foster food security for these remote villages. Without these species, communities would have to completely switch over to store-bought foods. Relying on such products is not a viable option in Arctic areas where economic opportunities are limited and grocery stores are expensive. For example, I once saw a quarter of a watermelon being sold for $25, which scales up to $100 a watermelon! Ingrained subsistence practices balance the reliance on pricy imported, not to mention processed, foods.

Back in Kotzebue, I was invited over to Alex and Siikauraq Whiting’s home to feast on our catch. Alex and Siikauraq are prominent community members in Kotzebue; Alex, the Environmental Specialist for the Native Village of Kotzebue and Siikauraq, the former Northwest Arctic Borough Mayor, now working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Traditionally local people eat sheefish raw, dried (the Iñupiaq term – paniqtuq), frozen (quaq) or fermented (tipliaqtaaq). I’ve talked with local folks who discuss quaq and tiplaqtaaq with an enthusiasm of a food connoisseur describing an exquisite gourmet dish at a world’s best restaurant. For locals who have grown up on this food but are now influenced by western additions to their diet, these traditional foods are true delicacies. Although the idea of tiplaqtaaq didn’t automatically grab me, I think of all the other fermented foods that I have acquired a taste for like kimchi and sauerkraut. After seeing how excited locals get about eating tiplaqtaaq, I resolve to try it one day, since I didn’t have the opportunity in this particular trip.

For this dinner, Alex served our sheefish deep fried – a relatively new way to cook it in an area rich with fish preparation tradition. The white fish meat fried well and had a sweet, mild taste. We greedily devoured the succulent, perfectly cooked chunks as we talked about our fishing excursion. Once finished, while Alex vacuum-sealed packages of sheefish fillets to be saved for future meals and shared within the community and I couldn’t help thinking that this modern act of food preservation contained the cultural value of centuries and emphasized the beauty of a place that, despite the harsh Arctic extremes, has provided a healthy living for local residents over millennia.

Our work here, and elsewhere around the world, focuses on understanding how to help people continue their relationship with, and stewardship of their environment, particularly in places such as the Arctic that are rapidly adjusting to climatic changes. These wild intact land and seascapes offer hope for success – there is room to breath, room to fish, and room for fish, animals, and people to adjust to new conditions.

With Contributions from Alex Whiting.