Eroding island forces Shishmaref residents to choose: Stay or relocate?

Published: Jul. 24, 2016 at 2:34 PM AKDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

Shishmaref residents will soon face a decision about whether or not they want to relocate their community, which sits on an eroding island in the Nome Census area.

Leaders in the village of roughly 600 residents recently discussed the issue recently and are set to conduct a special election on August 16th.

Mayor Harold Weyiouanna said residents have been dealing with the sea eating away at the land since the 1980s, if not earlier.

"They did put a seawall or rock walls up, and it seems to be holding," Weyiouanna said, "but we need more protection to protect the whole island."

The community elected to move after an earlier vote in 2002, but the move never happened. Studies for potential new sites were proving the land unstable, Weyiouanna said.

A lack of funding also prevented the move, according to Shishmaref Native Corporation General Manager Sara Tocktoo.

Since then, Weyiouanna said, the community has struggled to get funding for city projects.

"We didn't know the consequences it would have on the community ,when the word relocation was put in the ballot," Weyiouanna said. "That stopped all the new structures that the community surely needed."

State and federal funding, however, have provided some small upgrades to the town.

"They did renovate the clinic a couple years ago, but it's still not adequate enough to serve the whole community," Weyiouanna said.

Still, as each year passes, more land slips into the Chuckchi Sea.

Overcrowding is also becoming a prominent issue.

"We're still a growing town," Tocktoo said. "We have families that, you know, multiple families live in one home. We're running out of land for buildings."

Tocktoo said she's torn about the decision because moving would put subsistence gatherers farther away from their hunting areas.

"Our ocean is right there for our hunting," she said. "Our seals, our fish, our walrus.

"If we move up there, we'll still have access to the ocean," she said, "we'll just be a little further up. But what I love about this place is this is where I grew up, this is my home."

Tocktoo said she's also taking into consideration the possibility of having room to grow if they move to the mainland.

"I'm gonna have to think hard about this, you know, because it's gonna impact my children, it's gonna impact my grandchildren," Tocktoo said. "Whatever decision we decide to make, we have to think about the future."

The vote will take place at Shishmaref's Community Hall on August 16th from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. AKDT.