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Ammunition shortage causes Alaska Natives to have trouble putting food on the table


A nationwide shortage of ammunition means some Alaska Natives are having trouble putting food on the table. The cost of every shell and bullet is much higher than it was before the pandemic, raising concerns about food security in rural Alaska. Here's Emily Schwing.

EMILY SCHWING, BYLINE: Sam Berlin (ph) grew up eating ducks, geese and other waterfowl in a remote roadless village in western Alaska.

SAM BERLIN: My mom would boil them, make soup out of them with other ingredients like onions, potatoes, corn.

SCHWING: Berlin, an Alaska Native elder who lives in Bethel, is an avid bird hunter. But he's had a hard time finding shells for his shotgun over the last few years.

BERLIN: The Bethel stores can't find any. I called to a couple of the villages and they're rationing also. So when I called up my brother in Anchorage, he told me I was lucky if I found one box.

SCHWING: There are hundreds of roadless communities in Alaska where store-bought food selection is both limited and very expensive. So many people rely heavily on subsistence. It's a lifestyle. It means putting food away in freezers all spring, summer and fall for the long winter ahead. Kenneth Eric (ph) hunts for birds out of Chefornak, 200 miles southwest of Bethel.

Do you enjoy going hunting for birds?

KENNETH ERIC: Oh, yeah. A lot, yeah.

SCHWING: What do you like about it?

ERIC: Kind of therapy. It really helps with the mind and the body. Like, take out stress out there somewhere.

KENT HARRINGTON: There just is not the supply. There's the demand.

SCHWING: Kent Harrington manages VF Grace company based in Anchorage. It's a wholesale distributor of a wide range of goods, including ammunition.

HARRINGTON: Shotgun shells, centerfire cartridges, rifle cartridges, rimfire, .22s, et cetera.

SCHWING: After decades in the wholesale business, Harrington says, he's only had a hard time stocking shelves one other time. Manufacturers point to a raw materials shortage and supply chain issues brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. A recent surge in gun ownership has also contributed to the lack of ammunition. The years 2020 and 2021 saw more gun sales than any other years in the last two decades. And Harrington says everything's just more expensive.

Like, if I were going to, you know, order a case wholesale of shotgun shells today, what price would I pay compared to three or four years ago?

HARRINGTON: November 1 of 2019, a box wholesaled for $10.33. Today, it's $16.33.

SCHWING: Add to that a freight charge to ship the shells by air to one of Alaska's remote communities and a hazardous materials charge from the carrier and that price climbs beyond what some hunters, who rely on birds as a main food staple, can afford. Sam Berlin isn't too worried because he was able to stockpile four boxes of shells from last year.

BERLIN: When we grew up, me and my brother, my brother was mostly a driver. And I was the shooter. So I had a lot of practice.

SCHWING: Practice hunting for his large extended family, which includes three sisters, four brothers, their kids and eight children of his own.

For NPR News, I'm Emily Schwing in Bethel, Alaska.


Emily Schwing comes to the Inland Northwest by way of Alaska, where she covered social and environmental issues with an Arctic spin as well as natural resource development, wildlife management and Alaska Native issues for nearly a decade. Her work has been heard on National Public Radio’s programs like “Morning Edition” and “All things Considered.” She has also filed for Public Radio International’s “The World,” American Public Media’s “Marketplace,” and various programs produced by the BBC and the CBC. She has also filed stories for Scientific American, Al Jazeera America and Arctic Deeply.