Gwich’in Elders aren’t letting climate change stop them from harvesting fish like their ancestors have done for centuries. Instead, they’re adapting their practices to a changing environment.
As climate change rages on, it is forcing changes to ecosystems and the people who depend on them. In the Mackenzie Delta of the Gwich’in Settlement Area, that’s resulted in pressures on traditional diets, such as whitefish.
In response, several Gwich’in Elders are focusing on adapting traditional knowledge to new realities.
“We are a group of Gwich’in First Nation land users and researchers collaborating on a community-based monitoring program and other research related to an important subsistence fish in the Mackenzie River watershed,” write the authors of the report, which was published in the scientific journal Conservation Biology in February, 2021.
In the paper, the authors note that for centuries the ecological conditions in the Mackenzie Delta were steady enough to be predictable and follow noticeable patterns. However, changes brought about by climate change, which include changes to water chemistry, changes in seasonal thaws, warmer summers, less ice retained over winter and depletion of permafrost, were rapidly forcing a new reality on people living traditional lifestyles.
As an example, it notes community members in Fort McPherson experienced an “unseasonably warm” March in 2019, with rain in place of snow. The paper says this has not happened “in living memory.” Stewart noted throughout the year temperatures were highly unusual, requiring him to wear winter clothing in July when it’s normally quite hot, and a t-shirt in September when the temperature normally begins to drop.
Changes are also being observed in the flow of the Peel River, which is consistently flowing far less intensely in the later summer, affecting access to the river. Stewart notes in the paper water levels were fluctuating rapidly in the autumn of 2019. He said they were the lowest he has ever seen.
“In one day, water levels dropped so quickly that he could not repeat his boat route in the same day, a highly unusual occurrence,” reads the report.
All these changes are forcing adjustments to how traditional knowledge is utilized. Stewart notes historically he would set his nets around June 26 to catch fish in the Peel River, but in 2019 he set a net on June 10, when the spring breakup is usually just finishing, and had a significant catch. Stewart adds in the report he has also been catching fish with mature eggs later in the year — historically fish would be spawning in October, but now are frequently breeding in November.
Another concern brought on by climate change are invasive species. Alice Vittrekwa notes in the report that all five species of Pacific Salmon have now been caught in the Peel and that has both Elders and harvesters concerned about how that will affect the indigenous species.
Tradition with Innovation
Harvesters aren’t letting these changes stop them from continuing their lifestyles, however. All three of the Elders involved in the paper note they’re adapting to changes by modifying how and when they employ their traditional knowledge.
Dealing with low water flows in 2019, Ernest Vittrekwa was not able to fish in the eddy he’s historically used. Instead, he found a sand bar nearby and set his nets up there, catching several fish. An unseasonably cool and wet summer prevented Alice Vittrekwa from drying fish in the traditional manner, but by introducing a wood stove to their drying house she was able to prevent the fish from spoiling. Stewart, as noted above, has taken to fishing earlier in the summer.
All three intend to pass on their updated traditional knowledge to youth, noting that people will need to survive on the land whether climate change can be stopped or not. The three will also continue to work with researchers seeking to understand how climate change affects communities and ecologies.