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"This is our grocery store," says Tony Weyiouanna, pulling shimmering white fish from his gill net.
But up and down Alaska's coast, alarm is spreading that the natural bounty on which the culture is built is at risk. At Point Hope, a bowhead-whaling village that dates from 600 B.C., flooding seawater threatens the airport runway and a seven-mile evacuation road. "During storms, people begin to panic," says town official Rex Rock. In the Pribilof Islands, villagers blame global warming along with industrial contaminants for the decline of 20 species, ranging from kelp to sea lion. In Barrow, capital of the oil-rich North Slope Borough, sandbags and dredging haven't protected $500 million in infrastructure. "We are at a crossroads," says Mayor Edith Vorderstrasse. "Is it practical to stand and fight our Mother Ocean? Or do we surrender and move?"
The prospect of relocating whole Eskimo villages global warming's first American refugees is gathering political support. Last January, Shishmaref citizens voted to move to a site called Tin Creek, 12 miles away, across a lagoon. And last June, Alaska's powerful Senator, Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, convened federal, state and local officials for a two-day hearing in Anchorage to hear impassioned pleas from village leaders who want help repairing their infrastructure or relocating. Among the most eloquent was Eningowuk, 54, a mother of six who heads the Shishmaref Erosion and Relocation Coalition. "Shishmaref is where it is because of what the ocean, rivers, streams and the land provide to us," she testified. "We are hunters, and we are gatherers. We have been here for countless generations. We value our way of life. It provides for our very existence."
But moving Shishmaref to a more protected location could be prohibitively expensive, especially given the high cost of building in the Arctic. When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers looked at relocating Kivalina, a nearby village of 380 people, the price tag was $100 million to $400 million roughly $1 million for each resident.