“Who and what am I without fish and fishing?”:  How climate change is shaping the identity of indigenous peoples in Nekrasovka on Sakhalin Island

by Evgeniya Dudina

The Nivkhi are an indigenous people who have traditionally lived in the region of the Lower Amur river and Sakhalin Island. According to the most recent census (2020), there are around two thousand Nivkhi remaining on Sakhalin. Their livelihood depends almost entirely on fishing and gathering wild berries and plants.

One afternoon in August 2021 I was walking a sandy dusty road in Sakhalin’s northernmost village, Nekrasovka––headed to the house of one of my assistants, Elena (her name has been changed). She is a member of the Nivkh community, a mother of five, and a very experienced fisher––stronger, bolder, and often more knowledgeable than the male elders. It was a summer of unprecedented heat and little precipitation thus the unusually dusty road. Locals were both glad and worried about the weather, noting that “we’ve never had such a summer before, one that feels like a ‘real’ summer.”  Among the other factors influencing local livelihood, such as oil and gas extraction and industrial fishing, the increasing temperatures are dramatically affecting the fishing season. Every summer the season has started earlier and earlier, with less and less fish.

My visit to Sakhalin coincided with the most tense and busy period of year. From July until October the Nivkh community is engaged in fishing in the Pomr’ and Baikal bays ––first, for pink salmon and later for chum. During my time in Nekrasovka, the village seemed both empty and alive: while elderly people (mostly women) were in the forest and wetlands collecting wild berries, younger men and women spent the bulk of their time on the shore catching fish, with great focus and intensity. The sharp, pungent smell of fish was everywhere.

The main purpose of my work in Sakhalin was to try to understand how climate change is shaping local livelihood, self-perception and the community itself. In casual conversations, formal interviews, and during focus group discussions, I frequently heard people voice their concerns about their future; their tone was often marked by a sense of fatalism and hopelessness. The threat of the disappearance of fish means, for Nivkhi, not only losing their subsistence way of life, but also a diminishing of the community’s understanding of itself. As I heard many people say during my time on Sakhalin: fishing here, on this land, is who we are. If there is no fishing, who and what are we?

In a patchwork attempt to adjust to the changes brought about by the climate crisis, Nivkhi in Nekrasovka are working to change the catching composition and are focusing on other species of fish that have recently appeared in the region in greater numbers, but they are dependent on a market demand that is primarily focused on salmon. 

I left Nekrasovka in October, at the end of the summer fishing season and the beginning of a time of waiting: waiting for the ice to freeze on the bay and the winter fishing season to start. The locals call this time the ‘season of silence.’ The summer’s sand and dust on the road had washed away, leaving large pits and puddles. Elena’s children went to school along the same road. During the summer season, she and her husband had been able (with manageable debts) to catch and sell almost enough fish to get their children ready for school that year. But what the next year will be like, and the years to come – no one knows. The signs that the locals have traditionally been guided by become unreliable in conditions of increasing climate change.