Alaska Fish & Wildlife News
December 2016

Researching the Customary and Traditional
Uses of Wild Resources by Alaskans

By Lauren Sill and Malla Kukkonen
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Division of Subsistence researchers accompany a Yakutat-based commercial fisherman on a trip to Dry Bay, north of Yakutat. Photo Josh Ream

For nearly 40 years, the Division of Subsistence has been researching the customary and traditional uses of wild resources by Alaska residents. As Division researchers, we rely heavily on social science research methods to carry out our mission of gathering, quantifying, evaluating, and reporting information about customary and traditional uses of Alaska’s fish and wildlife resources. We spend time in communities, learning about their harvest and use practices, getting to know their perspectives on issues concerning the continued use of resources, and building trust. The research projects we pursue address our mission but are spurred by local community concerns, interests of researchers, and funding opportunities.

Starting with the creation of the proposal, we attempt to engage the community in every step of research. We host community meetings; hire, train, and work alongside local assistants for project implementation; and share draft results. We collect information about the use of wild resources directly from the people harvesting and using the resources, therefore most of our projects would not be possible without the active and willing participation of community residents. Division staff have conducted at least one research project in nearly every rural community in the state, as well as in a few urban areas. Our community-level data is freely available online in the Community Subsistence Information System (CSIS) [1], which now also features the Community Observer, an interactive map of geographic survey data.

Division researchers, in partnership with the National Park Service, were recently awarded funding by the North Pacific Research Board (NPRB) to document the harvest and use of wild resources over time by residents of Yakutat, and examine how harvest patterns have changed in response to social and environmental change. The overall goal of the project is to investigate the resilience of Yakutat residents in meeting their subsistence needs, and also to identify vulnerabilities to future harvests that could be mitigated through resource management.

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Division of Subsistence researcher Malla Kukkonen talks about the Division’s work with Lt. Governor Byron Mallott in Yakutat at the community’s annual Fairweather Day Festival. Photo Barbara Cellarius/NPS.

Yakutat is a community undergoing significant change, both social and ecological. To highlight just one aspect of these changes, the USGS topographic maps we brought with us to document harvest areas of community residents showed a vastly different picture of the intricate river systems than what exists today – the mouths of important subsistence fishing rivers have migrated northward by miles, islands have shifted location, and river channels have changed shape and direction. As with most communities in Southeast, comprehensive subsistence surveys have not been conducted in Yakutat for approximately 15 years. Updating harvest information, including harvest areas, allows researchers and the community to compare and contrast harvest patterns today with those of the past, and examine some of the reasons for these patterns changing and how harvesters respond to social and ecological change.

The field research portion of the project was completed earlier this year and analysis of findings is currently underway. During fieldwork, researchers employed three main social science methods—household surveys, key respondent interviews, and participant observation. Several Yakutat residents were recruited as research assistants for the surveying and interviewing parts of the project. The first day of fieldwork was spent in training; discussing how our random samples are drawn and the importance of the sampling protocol, and learning and practicing the administration of a complex survey that can run more than 40 pages long. While completing the survey with each household is a time-intensive process, it rewards all stakeholders with higher quality data in the end.

In January 2016, the research team conducted surveys with 100 randomly selected Yakutat households. The survey was developed with input from the community and other divisions within the Department to ensure topics were appropriate and useful. Household surveys documented the efforts of the harvesters, success in harvesting, amount of wild resources harvested, overall use of a resource, and the amount of sharing (giving and receiving of resources) by species during 2015. In addition, survey respondents were asked to qualitatively assess their use of resources during the study year compared to the previous five years. Survey participants were also asked to map areas they used to search for and harvest wild resources during this time. To answer some of the specific questions of our research, we also added several questions designed to gauge the level of agreement in Yakutat on particular issues, such as household harvest limits for moose, community-bear interactions, and sea otters.

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Division of Subsistence researchers conduct community surveys with residents in Yakutat. Photo by Lauren Sill.

To complement the quantitative data collected during the household surveys, we also held in-depth, open ended interviews with experienced subsistence harvesters or processors of varying ages and gender in the community. While each interview covered the same general topics – such as wild resource harvesting in the past and present and thoughts on living in Yakutat and challenges for the future – each was structured to allow room for the interviewee to discuss issues of personal importance or specific areas of expertise. For example, interviews with marine mammal hunters focused more on changes in ice conditions and populations of seals, sea otters, and sea lions. The interviews provide essential context that will augment the survey results and help us in understanding why and how changes between study years came about. Software, such as NVivo[2], can be used to analyze these interviews. This provides us a way to take raw textual data and condense it into a brief summary format, but also helps to establish links between these summary findings and our research objectives.

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Subsistence seal hunters from Yakutat hunt in Disenchantment Bay. Photo by Josh Ream.

In addition to the harvest survey and interviews, researchers also accompanied a few local harvesters on their harvesting trips. This method, which is known as participant observation, allows researchers to learn firsthand about resource harvesting and processing techniques and practices, as well as about resource health and challenges related to a successful harvest. In Yakutat, we accompanied experienced seal hunters on a long hunt, spent time at Strawberry Point learning about the subsistence sockeye fishery, and participated in the commercial fishery that takes place in Dry Bay. These experiences allowed researchers to broaden their scope of understanding about the way of life in Yakutat and how socially and culturally important wild resources and participation in harvesting activities continue to be for residents of the community.

In keeping with standard Division practice, we presented the project overview at a meeting of the Yakutat tribal council and of the borough assembly at the beginning of the project. During this project, we diversified our usual community outreach and also presented to the K–12 students. These presentations were tailored to be interesting and accessible to students of each age group and spanned a variety of topics (in addition to discussion of our project) from amphibians to potential careers in the social sciences. We involved the oldest group of students in a small scale social science study concerning harvest and use of fish by their own households where the kids were able to act as the researchers. Researchers also prepared a poster of partial draft results to bring to a booth being staffed for annual Fairweather Day. This yearly event draws current and former Yakutat residents, as well as friends and family. It was a great and fun venue to reach people who might otherwise not attend a community meeting. This winter, we will return to the community and present draft results and ask for feedback from community residents. These presentations are also an opportunity for the community to ask questions about the draft findings and express any concerns about the data prior to publication of the data.

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Yakutat-based set netters fish the Alsek River. Photo credit Josh Ream.

With all of the fieldwork complete for this project, the research team will be busy performing the quantitative and qualitative analyses to write up the final report before the end of next summer. To fulfill Division practices, a technical paper reporting on the study findings will be published in the Division’s extensive technical paper series, available on our website[3]. In addition, we will be exploring the themes of resilience and adaptation in a journal article. For the community of Yakutat, we will provide a concise summary of results that will be mailed to Yakutat households with information on where to find the full report and how to contact the researchers.

The community of Yakutat has been an excellent partner throughout the research. We are so grateful for our wonderful research assistants and for everyone who welcomed us into their home and shared so much information with us. The project has been a rewarding opportunity to learn about a unique community, and hopefully, the results of the project will be of benefit to the community.

[1] ADF&G Division of Subsistence, Community Subsistence Information System (CSIS):

[2] Product names are given because they are established standards for the State of Alaska or for scientific completeness: they do not constitute product endorsement.


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