Thirty miles off the coast of the village of Togiak in Southwest Alaska sits Round Island, known in Yugtun as Qayassiq. Surrounded by the Bering Sea, the island’s steep, grassy slopes are covered in shrubs, lichen, and wildflowers, ending in rocky beaches. Seabirds like kittiwakes, murres and cormorants nest here in the spring and summer. During that time, the island becomes home to thousands of massive white-tusked Pacific walruses, which swim to its beaches to rest after the breeding season.
Frank Woods, who is Yup’ik, first hunted walrus at Qayassiq in 1997, though his family has harvested walrus there for generations. “It was an El Niño year, it was really warm in October. Beautiful weather,” recalled Woods, who lives in Dillingham and now works at the Bristol Bay Native Association.
Qayassiq had “the most concentrated herds of walrus in the Bay, and that’s where they traditionally hunted,” Woods said. During that season, 15 walruses were harvested, and the hunts didn’t seriously disrupt the haulout.
Native people in Bristol Bay have harvested walrus at Qayassiq for thousands of years for food, clothing, tools and artwork. But they weren’t always able to hunt there. For decades, starting in the 1960s, the state banned hunting at the island as part of its efforts to preserve walrus habitat. It did so without consulting the tribes, even though state policy cut off their access to traditional hunting grounds. As a result, tribal leaders had to fight for years to regain access to the hunt and in doing so, created a model for communities to act as equal management partners that still exists today.
Woods’ 1997 hunt came soon after the ban was lifted. It was one of the first in more than 30 years. He wanted to go because of his family.
“My family still loves walrus,” he said. “And it was like a spiritual experience to actually have that – being able to take an animal, harvest it efficiently, and then dish it out to the community when you get back.”
A sanctuary for walrus
Over the past two centuries, Alaska Native walrus hunting traditions like those in Woods’ family have faced acute threats. In the 1800s, commercial hunting – especially by non-Native whalers – decimated the species, and as a result the federal government banned commercial hunting in 1941. After Alaska became a state in 1959, it also took extreme measures to conserve walrus habitat – without differentiating between who was responsible for the plummeting populations.
In 1960, the Alaska legislature created the Walrus Islands State Game Sanctuary in Bristol Bay and took over management of seven islands in the area. The state banned all hunting at Qayassiq, one of the main walrus haulouts in North America.
During this process, however, the state didn’t hold hearings in Togiak or any other Bristol Bay village before making the decision. This was consistent with the state’s approach to conservation at the time, according to State Lands and Refuges Manager Adam Dubour, who stepped into the role in 2022.
“I think opinions and attitudes and practices in the 1960s were a lot different than they are now,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there wasn’t any formal consultation with those groups.”
Peter Lockuk Sr, who serves on the Togiak Traditional Council, recalls how the sanctuary was created with no communication between the state and the tribe.
“The community of Togiak never knew Qayassiq Island became a sanctuary. People never knew of it, and some folks got arrested,” he said. “They got in trouble for it, to go down and get walrus.”
The closure lasted for over 30 years.
A community effort
Walrus hunting revolves around the community — providing food, but also teaching new hunters how to harvest safely and efficiently. Hunts are grounded in cakarpeknaki, or “with respect and without waste.”
Lockuk said if crews haven’t hunted for a time, the excitement to go out can be palpable.
“You could notice when people are getting restless: ‘When, when, when is that walrus hunt going to be happening?’” Lockuk said.
People used to travel in skin-covered kayaks to hunt walrus at Qayassiq, which means “a place to kayak” in Yugtun.
Now, 18-foot skiffs are common, and depending on where they are, some hunters even use 32-foot power boats to get the walrus back to town. Anywhere from five to 20 people can make up a hunting crew, and they need to decide ahead of time who will shoot, who will drive the boat, and how exactly to wrangle the carcass of a two-ton walrus.
“You got to have everything planned, because to us, it’s a big thing. And it’s only seasonally,” said Mickey Sharp, a Twin Hills hunt captain and a commissioner on the Qayassiq Walrus Commission. (Sharp hunts at another island in the sanctuary and hasn’t been hunting at Qayassiq yet, though he hopes to go one day.)
It takes about two hours to get to Qayassiq from Togiak, riding out into the Bering Sea across open water, which means calm conditions are best.
Daryll Thompson, who has participated in Togiak’s community hunts on and off for years, said it’s better to show newer hunters how to hunt on beaches. It’s easier, and they can choose which animals to kill and butcher quickly.
“It’s a little bit more adventurous when they’re all in the water,” he said. “You got to take your boat and get up and get the good shot, and then you got to harpoon them. With a harpoon, you keep them from sinking, and you can retrieve the animal.”
Hauling a walrus onto a boat can be like “dead weight lifting,” Sharp said. It’s also important for the crew to start gutting the walrus immediately. Otherwise the meat can spoil. Working nonstop, several crew members can butcher a walrus in a few hours.
“It’s just really a lot of work,” Sharp said. “Holy, yeah. It makes butchering a moose like a piece of cake.”
After a successful hunt, the crew will bring the meat back to the village, where it can feed people all year. “We help each other and cut it up into smaller pieces. So we could distribute first of all to the elders, and to the folks that can no longer hunt,” said Lockuk.
Fighting for the hunt
In the decades following the 1960 hunting closure at Qayassiq, the Togiak Traditional Council and other tribes in the region went through the state’s regulatory system and federal courts to regain access to walrus hunting.
The state limited walrus hunting in western Bristol Bay until 1972, when the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act passed. That act acknowledged Alaska Natives’ right to hunt walrus and other marine mammals as long as the populations were healthy.
But the state regained management authority of Pacific walruses several years later, and again limited hunting outside the sanctuary in western Bristol Bay. The people of Togiak sued, challenging the state’s authority to do so. They won in 1979, when the court ruled that the federal law means Alaska Native people must be allowed to hunt. Because the state held that its constitution couldn’t include such exemptions, walrus management in Alaska returned to the federal government.
Still, because Qayassiq was in the state game sanctuary, the state was able to keep it closed to hunting.
In 1991, Togiak’s elders petitioned the state Board of Game for a limited hunt on Qayassiq. They had to petition three times to get the hunt authorized. Larry Van Daele, who worked as the regional wildlife biologist in Bristol Bay at the time, said some of his superiors told him not to work with people there. But he thought there was room to compromise.
Recalling the state’s hardline approach, Van Daele said his supervisors would say “they’re going to tell you that they have to be able to hunt on Round Island, because that’s their traditional area. Say no, you can’t have that. Hunt anywhere else you want, but don’t come to Round Island, because that’s illegal to go there.’”
After one rejection of a proposal to establish a subsistence hunt on the island from the state Board of Game, two Togiak residents – Marie and Adam Arnariak – went out to the island and shot a walrus in civil disobedience. That became known as the Arnariak Case, which challenged the state’s authority to regulate walrus hunting at the sanctuary. The case — and the potential of an unauthorized hunt at the island — further pressured government agencies to negotiate with hunters.
Finally, in 1995, tribal leaders from Togiak and other villages successfully advocated for the state to reopen a subsistence hunt. Now, Alaska Native commissioners on the Qayassiq Walrus Commission manage a fall hunt every year on equal footing with state and federal agencies.
“Co-management meant you had equal say in what was going on,” Van Daele said. “That’s what walrus on Round Island ended up being, was a true co-management program.”
A work in progress
At last May’s Qayassiq Walrus Commission meeting at the Bristol Bay Native Association in Dillingham, commissioners gathered around a conference room table near a large screen that displayed the names of the co-management partners. At the far end of the room was a Ziploc bag of herring eggs on kelp that someone had brought from Togiak. A hunter had supplied fresh beluga muktuk, and there was also soy sauce, crackers and salmon dip.
The commission was working to change the hunt dates so that hunters could go out to Qayassiq earlier in September – an effort to avoid some of the stormy fall weather. Members were also re-upping a resolution to restrict the trawl fishery near Togiak to address long-standing concerns about the fleet’s impact on clambeds that walrus feed on.
Understanding how to be part of decision-making within co-management is vital, said the Dillingham hunter Frank Woods, who sat in on the May meeting.
“This type of activity is just as important as the subsistence activities outside the room,” he said in an interview after the meeting.
The Eskimo Walrus Commission is another Alaska Native organization pursuing that work. It was part of the task force that examined the potential of renewing a hunt at Qayassiq in the 1990s and eventually signed the co-management agreement when resurrecting the hunt.
As communities adapt to the changing climate, the need for Alaska Native organizations to have sufficient support and funding is greater than ever. Sea ice is melting, meaning that female walruses must travel further in order to calve on ice floes. Along with a shrinking habitat, less sea ice means more shipping traffic.
“The issues that we’re facing are becoming bigger and more broad, because we’re also experiencing climate change effects on our communities and the environment,” said Vera Metcalf, the executive director of the Eskimo Walrus Commission. She had just returned to Nome after a June trip to Washington, D.C. to talk with the congressional delegation about funding for co-management agencies.
The ability to meaningfully participate in co-management – traveling to meetings, giving public comments, and conducting research – is closely tied to capacity as well. For instance, Metcalf has sometimes been the commission’s only full-time staff member. She said the responsibilities of co-management must be shared equally by partners in order to best serve Alaska Native communities and the species they rely on.
“We’re facing harmful algal blooms, shipping disturbances and all these things that are affecting us, and we want to ensure that the walrus population and other marine mammal resources are healthy,” she said. “If the environment is healthy, so will our communities remain healthy.”
At 27 years old, David Williams of Ekwok is the youngest member of the Qayassiq Walrus Commission. At the May meeting, he and other members talked about organizing a joint hunt between Bristol Bay communities and involving more young hunters.
“If we could get 20 hunters within the region as one joint hunt, and get 20 walrus for all of our communities, I think that would definitely help everybody here, especially the elderly,” Williams said. “Personally, I would love to get my very first walrus and provide my community with my very first walrus.”
Another key part of sustaining co-management is teaching and involving young people. Last October the Eskimo Walrus Commission held the Young Hunters Walrus Summit, the first of its kind.
Metcalf, the executive director, said the idea for the hunters summit came after she heard about a young fishermen’s summit at the Alaska SeaGrant Advisory meeting.
Along with a focus on laws around co-management, Metcalf said, she also wanted the discussions at the summit to help prepare the young hunters to respond to environmental changes and meaningfully engage in management.
The fundamental purpose of the walrus commission, Metcalf said, is to protect their right to harvest walrus for food and ivory for artwork. She said there are extensive traditional practices around harvesting and sharing the harvest, and doing those things helps to strengthen communities’ traditional values.
“One of our goals is local self-regulation of walrus harvest management,” Metcalf said last year. “Helping to ensure our Indigenous food sovereignty and security is there for us for many years, well into the future.”
This story was made possible through a field reporting grant from the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources.