UPDATE: Shishmaref votes to relocate erosion-plagued village

Published: Aug. 12, 2016 at 9:03 AM AKDT
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Unofficial ballot returns show a majority of voters in one of Alaska's most eroded communities want to move to safer ground from their tiny island home, according to the Associated Press.

The Inupiat Eskimo village of Shishmaref held a special election Tuesday asking residents if they should develop a new community at a nearby mainland location or stay put with added environmental protections.

The city clerk says the unofficial count is 89 in favor of moving and 78 voting to stay. She says that count does not include absentee or special needs ballots.


The Inupiat Eskimo village of Shishmaref will vote in a special election on Tuesday whether to relocate the island community to the mainland or to stay put.

Shishmaref is located on a barrier island called Sarichef in the Chukchi Sea, about five miles from the mainland and about 600 miles northwest of Anchorage.

Its shores have suffered heavy erosion for decades and the community of about 600 residents needs to make a decision.

Shishmaref is considered one of Alaska's most eroded communities and global case study of what can happen due to climate change.

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

Don’t nothing is not an option, he said.

The community elected to move after an earlier vote in 2002, but it never happened. Studies for potential new sites were proved 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."

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

With each passing year, 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 special election will take place at Shishmaref's Community Hall on Tuesday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.