Fish Consumption Advice for Alaskans
Cultural and Societal Importance of Fish in Alaska The use of traditional foods, including fish, provides a basis for cultural, spiritual, health, nutritional, medicinal, and economic well being among Alaska Native people and indigenous peoples. The social aspects of sharing in subsistence harvests and feasts associated with age-old traditions are integral to the cultural fabric of current-day Alaska Native people. Subsistence activities use local knowledge and skills and provide an opportunity to pass on knowledge from generation to generation, preserving cultural and community identity. Subsistence harvest activities are an opportunity for physical activity, self-reliance and meaningful productive work, especially in remote areas where few wage paying jobs exist. Thus, traditional food is “the basis of social activity and of the maintenance of social bonds through its production and distribution. This is the essence of subsistence not simply as an activity, but as a socio-economic system.”77 Thus, the social and cultural disruption associated with food consumption advisories can have profound and measurable effects on the health and well-being of subsistence communities.78 One Alaska Native leader put it this way: “The act and ritual of our subsistence food activities encompass who we are, and all that we are and is a vital source of our spirituality. I emphasize these things because I want you to know how much of an impact the threat of contaminants has on these things which are so sacred to us.” (Sally Smith, Chair, Alaska Native Health Board).
The importance of fish and the act of fishing extends beyond Alaska Native people to influence the majority of all Alaskans. While over 90 percent of rural households participate in subsistence fishing activities in Alaska, about half of all rural Alaska residents are not Alaska Native people.85 Thus, subsistence is central to the culture, economy, and way of life of almost all rural households, whether residents are of Alaska Native origin or not. Statewide, approximately 60% of Alaska residents over the age of 18 could be classified as “active anglers”.79 Even in urban areas, the primary motivation for many of these fishers was to obtain fish for food. During 2000, 22% of active fishers purchased a sport fishing license in Alaska primarily for the purpose of obtaining a Personal Use fishing permit to harvest fish or shellfish in Alaska.79 Alaska’s Personal Use fisheries are designed to allow Alaskan residents to harvest fish for food in designated areas that are not eligible for subsistence fisheries (such as Cook Inlet) using fishery-specific techniques such as dipnetting or gillnetting.80 Many urban (and other) Alaskan families have embraced this unique opportunity to harvest sufficient salmon (or other species in some areas) to eat throughout the year.
Economic Importance of Subsistence In addition to the socio-cultural value and associated physical activity, traditional foods such as fish have great economic value in Alaska. In rural Alaska, family incomes are often low and store-bought foods are several times the price found in Anchorage, so traditional foods such as fish provide an important source of nutritious and affordable food in many communities. Approximately 90% of rural households participate in subsistence activities, as traditional foods can be obtained with little or moderate costs compared to the cost of market foods.
Unemployment is relatively high in rural Alaska, although published figures typically underestimate unemployment rates.81 Only about 25% of employed Alaska Native people hold jobs in remote rural areas outside of the regional centers.81 During 2000, 20% of Alaska Native people lived in households with incomes below the national poverty level and the per capita income in remote areas was $14,032.82 These statistics mask much worse economic conditions in some villages, generally those with a high reliance on subsistence food gathering.
Despite low economic status, the geographic isolation, high transportation costs, and harsh climate in rural areas of Alaska contribute to a much higher cost of living compared to urban areas. Electricity can cost four times more in rural Alaska, and food generally costs at least 50% more.83 Store-bought foods are very expensive in rural Alaska, particularly in remote areas inaccessible by road where food items must be imported by plane or boat. For example, food for a week for a family of four eating at home costs $187 in Bethel, $173 in Nome, and $106 in Anchorage according to a 2003 survey. 84