Alaska’s disappearing salmon pushes Yukon River tribes to the brink

STEVENS VILLAGE, Alaska (AP) — In a typical year, the smokehouses and drying racks that Alaska Natives use to prepare salmon to get through the winter would be heavy with fish meat, the fruits of a summer spent fishing the Yukon River like generations before them.

There are no fish this year. For the first time in memory, both king and friend salmon have dwindled to almost nothing and the state has banned salmon fishing in the Yukon, even the subsistence crops Alaskans rely on to keep their freezers and pantries for the winter. to fill. The remote communities that dot the river and live off the bounty—far from road systems and convenient, affordable shopping—are desperate, doubling down on moose and caribou in the waning days of fall.

“No one has fish in the freezer right now. Nobody,” said Giovanna Stevens, 38, a member of the Stevens Village tribe who grew up harvesting salmon at her family’s fishing camp. “We need to fill that void quickly before winter comes.”

Opinions on what led to the catastrophe vary, but those who study it generally agree that human-induced climate change is playing a role as the river and the Bering Sea warm, altering the food chain in ways that are not yet fully understood. Many believe that commercial trawling activities that scoop up wild salmon along with their intended catch, as well as competition from hatchery-raised salmon in the ocean, have exacerbated the effects of global warming on one of North America’s longest rivers.

The assumption that unfished salmon return to their native river to lay eggs may no longer hold up because of changes in both the ocean and river environment, said Stephanie Quinn-Davidson, who has worked on salmon issues in the Yukon River for for a decade and is the program director of the Alaska Venture Fund for Fisheries and Communities.

King of chinook salmon has been in decline for more than a decade, but chum salmon was plentiful until last year. This year the numbers of summer friends have fallen and the number of autumn friends – who travel further upstream – is dangerously low.

“Everyone wants to know, ‘What’s that one smoking gun? What’s the only thing we can point to and stop?'” she said of the collapse. “People are hesitant to point out climate change because there’s no clear solution…but it’s probably the biggest factor here.”

Many Alaskan Native communities are outraged that they are paying the price for generations of practices beyond their control that have caused climate change — and many feel that state and federal authorities aren’t doing enough to bring Native voices to the table. The scarcity has sparked raw emotions about who should have the right to fish in a state that supplies the world with salmon, underscoring the powerlessness many Alaska Natives feel as traditional resources dwindle.

The nearly 2,000-mile (3,200 kilometers) Yukon River begins in British Columbia and drains an area larger than Texas in both Canada and Alaska, while cutting through the lands of Athabascan, Yup’ik, and other tribes.

The crisis affects both subsistence fishing in remote outposts and fish processing operations that employ tribesmen in communities along the lower Yukon and its tributaries.

“In the tribal villages, our people are furious. They are extremely angry that we are being punished for what others are doing,” said PJ Simon, chairman and head of the Tanana Chiefs Conference, a consortium of 42 tribal villages in the interior of Alaska. “As Alaska Natives, we have a right to this resource. . We have a say in how cases are prepared and distributed.”

More than half a dozen Alaska Native groups have petitioned for federal aid, and they want the state’s federal delegation to hold a hearing in Alaska on the salmon crisis. The groups are also seeking federal funding for more collaborative research into the effects ocean changes have on returning salmon.

Citing the warming ocean, Republican government Mike Dunleavy this month filed a federal disaster declaration for the salmon fishery and helped coordinate airlifts of about 90,000 pounds (41,000 kilograms) of fish to needy villages. The salmon crisis is one of the governor’s top priorities, said Rex Rock Jr., Dunleavy’s adviser on rural affairs and Alaska Native economic development.

That has done little to appease remote villages that rely on salmon to survive the winter, when snow paralyzes the landscape and temperatures can drop to minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 29 C) or below.

Families traditionally spend the summer in fishing camps, using nets and fishing wheels to catch adult salmon as they migrate inland from the ocean to where they hatched so they can spawn. The salmon is prepared for storage in a variety of ways: dried for jerky, cut into fillets that are frozen, canned in half-pint jars, or preserved in wooden barrels with salt.

Without those options, communities are under a lot of pressure to find other protein sources. Inland Alaska, the nearest road network is often tens of miles away, and it can take hours by boat, snow machine, or even plane to reach a grocery store.

Store-bought food is priceless to many: a gallon (3.8 liters) of milk can cost nearly $10, and a pound of steak was recently $34 in Kaltag, an inland village about 328 air miles (528 kilometers) from Fairbanks. . A spate of COVID-19 cases that has disproportionately affected Alaska Natives has also left many reluctant to move far from home.

Instead, villages sent out additional hunting parties during the fall season and look forward to the coming caribou season to meet their needs. Those who cannot hunt on their own rely on others to share their meat.

“We need to watch our people because there will be some who will be out of food by the middle of the year,” said Christina Semaken, a 63-year-old grandmother who lives in Kaltag, an Alaskan downtown area of ​​less than 100 residents. “We can’t afford to buy that beef or that chicken.”

Semaken hopes to fish next year, but it is not yet known whether the salmon will return.

Tribal advocates want more genetic testing on salmon harvested from fishing grounds in Alaskan waters to ensure commercial fisheries don’t intercept wild salmon from the Yukon River. They also want more sonar for fish tracking on the river to ensure an accurate count of the salmon escaping the harvest and returning to the Canadian headwaters of the river.

But changes in the ocean itself may ultimately determine the fate of the salmon.

The Bering Sea, where the river meets the ocean, has experienced unprecedented ice loss in recent years and the water temperature is rising. Those shifts throw off the timing of plankton blooms and the dispersal of small invertebrates that eat the fish, creating potential chaos in the food chain that continues to be studied, said Kate Howard, a fisheries scientist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Researchers have also documented warming temperatures in the river that are unhealthy for salmon, she said.

Because salmon spend time in both rivers and the ocean during their unique life cycles, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where these rapid environmental changes affect them most — but it’s becoming increasingly clear that overfishing isn’t the only culprit, Howard said. .

“If you dig into all the available data on Yukon River salmon,” she said, “it’s hard to explain it all unless you factor in climate change.”

Alaska Natives, meanwhile, continue to scramble to fill a gap in their diet — and built around salmon in centuries of tradition.

On a recent fall day, a small hunting party buzzed along the Yukon River by motorboat, scanning the shoreline for signs of moose. After three days, the group had killed two moose, enough to provide meat for seven families, or about 50 people, in their small community of Stevens Village for about a month.

At the end of a long day, they slaughtered the animals as the Northern Lights shone a vibrant green across the sky, their headlights piercing the inky darkness.

The makeshift camp, miles from any road, would normally accommodate several dozen families harvesting salmon, sharing meals and teaching children how to fish. It was eerily quiet on this day.

“I don’t really think there’s any kind of bell you can ring loud enough to explain that kind of connection,” says Ben Stevens, whose ancestors founded Stevens Village. “Salmon is life to us. Where can you go next?”

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