Special report: After the Ice
This is the first installment of a Seattle Times series exploring climate change in the northern Bering Sea region. The story is part of the Pulitzer Center’s Connected Coastlines reporting initiative. For more information, go to pulitzercenter.org/connected-coastlines
“With winter ice largely gone for two years, a food chain is at risk. What lies ahead for a body of water that produces some of the world’s biggest seafood harvests and helps sustain communities ranging from Alaska to Seattle, homeport for much of the Bering Sea fleet?
“SAVOONGA, Alaska – Derek Akeya hopes for calm waters and a lucrative catch when fishing from a skiff in the Bering Sea that surrounds his island village.
“But on this windy late summer day, waves toss about the boat as Akeya stands in the bow, straining to pull up a line of herring-baited hooks from the rocky bottom.
“Instead of bringing aboard halibut – worth more than $5 a pound back on shore – this string of gear yields four large but far less valuable Pacific cod, voracious bottom feeders whose numbers in recent years have exploded in these northern reaches.
“There’s a lot more of them now, and it’s more than a little bit irritating,” Akeya says.
“The cod have surged here from the south amid climatic changes unfolding with stunning speed.
“For two years, the Bering Sea has been largely without winter ice, a development scientists modeling the warming impacts of greenhouse-gas pollution from fossil fuels once forecast would not occur until 2050.
“This ice provided a giant platform for growing algae at the base of the food chain, and has been a significant contributor to the remarkable productivity of a body of water, stretching from Alaska to northeast Russia, that sustains some of the biggest fisheries on the planet.
“Much of U.S. seafood – ranging from fish sticks to king crab legs – comes from the Bering Sea, which generates income for an arc of communities that reaches from Savoonga to Seattle, where many of the boats that catch and process this bounty are home-ported.
“For Native people such as Akeya, who is Yup’ik [KMB: meaning “Real Person”], the ice also has shaped their culture, helping them to hunt the walruses, whales, seals and other marine life that have long formed a crucial part of their diet…”