Alaska's vanishing salmon push Yukon River tribes to brink

STEVENS VILLAGE (AKL) In a normal year the smokehouses, drying racks, and other storage areas used by Alaska Natives to prepare salmon for the winter would be filled with fish meat. This is the result of a summer spent on the Yukon River, just like generations before.
There are no fish this year. The state has banned salmon fishing in the Yukon. This is the first time that king and chum salmon have been reduced to nearly nothing. Remote communities along the river, which live off the bounty of the river far from roads and easy, affordable shopping, are in desperate need and will increase their hunts for moose or caribou in the final days of fall.

No one has fish in their freezer at the moment. Giovanna Stevens (38), a Stevens Village tribal member, stated that nobody has fish in their freezer right now. She grew up fishing salmon at her family’s fish camp. This is why we need to quickly fill the void before winter arrives.

Although opinions on the causes of the disaster vary, most experts agree that human-caused climate changes are playing a part in the river's warming and altering the food chain. Many believe that global warming has been exacerbated by commercial trawling, which catches wild salmon with the intended catch.

Stephanie Quinn-Davidson, who is the Alaska Venture Fund's program manager for fisheries, communities, and has worked for a decade on Yukon River salmon issues, stated that the assumption that salmon that haven't been fished return to their river to lay eggs might not hold up due to changes in both ocean and river environments.

The chinook and king salmon are in decline for over a decade. However, chum salmon was more abundant until last year. The numbers of summer chum have plummeted, and the numbers of fall chum that travel further upriver are at dangerously low levels.

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Everyone wants to know: What is the smoking gun? She spoke of the collapse as the single thing that we can point at and stop. Although there isn't an easy solution, people are reluctant to mention climate change as a factor. However, it is probably the most important.

Many Alaska Native communities feel outraged that they have to pay the price for decades of climate-change-caused practices. They also feel the federal government and state aren't doing enough in bringing Indigenous voices to the table. This scarcity has triggered strong emotions about who should be allowed to fish in a state that provides salmon for the entire world. It also highlights the feeling of powerlessness felt by many Alaska Natives as their traditional resources diminish.

The Yukon River, which is nearly 2,000 miles long (3,200 km) in length, originates in British Columbia. It drains an area greater than Texas in Canada and Alaska, and cuts through the lands belonging to Yupik, Athabascan and other tribes.

This crisis has a significant impact on subsistence fishing in remote outposts as well as fish processing operations that employ tribal members from communities along the lower Yukon or its tributaries.

Our people are angry in the tribal villages. P.J. said that the tribal villages are furious at being penalized for doing what other people are doing. Simon is the chairman and chief of The Tanana Chiefs Conference. This group consists of 42 tribal villages located in the Alaska interior. We, Alaska Natives have a right of access to this resource. We have the right to be involved in the way things are arranged and divided up.

A half-dozen Alaska Native organizations have filed for federal aid. They want the federal delegation of the state to hold a hearing on the salmon crisis in Alaska. They also request federal funding to support more research collaboration on the effects of ocean changes on salmon returning home.

Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy asked for a federal disaster declaration to protect the salmon fishery and coordinated airlifts of approximately 90,000 pounds (41,000 kg) of fish to poor villages. Rex Rock Jr. is Dunleavy's advisor for rural affairs, Alaska Native economic development, and said that the salmon crisis is one governor's top priorities.

It has not done much to ease the suffering of remote villages, which are dependent on salmon for winter. Snow paralyzes the landscape, and temperatures can drop to minus 20 F (minus 29 C) or below.

Family members spend the summer at fish camp using nets and fish wheels to catch adult salmon. They migrate inland from ocean to land to hatch so that they can spawn. Salmon can be prepared in a variety ways for storage: it can be dried for jerky or cut into fillets and frozen in half-pint containers. Or preserved in wooden barrels with salt.

Communities are forced to seek out other sources of protein if they don't have these options. The Alaska interior is far from the nearest road, so it can take hours to get to a grocery store by boat, snowmachine, or airplane.

Many people find store-bought food prohibitively costly. A gallon (3.8 liters) worth of milk can run nearly $10 and a pound steak cost $34 in Kaltag. Kaltag is an interior village located about 328 miles (528 km) from Fairbanks. Many are reluctant to travel far because of the high number of COVID-19 cases, which has been disproportionately affected Alaska Natives.

Instead, villages sent extra hunting parties to fall moose season. They are now looking forward to the caribou season to fulfill their needs. People who are unable to hunt for themselves depend on others to share their meat.

We need to be careful with our people, because some people will starve by midyear. Christina Semaken is a grandmother of 63 who lives in Kaltag, Alaska's interior town of less than 100. We don't have the money to buy beef or chicken.

Semaken plans to fish next year but it is not known if the salmon will return.

Tribal advocates demand more genetic testing of salmon caught from Alaskan fishing grounds to ensure that wild Yukon River salmon are not being taken by commercial fisheries. They also demand more fish-tracking sonar in the river to help ensure an accurate count and return to Canada of salmon that have escaped harvest.

However, the fate of the salmon could be determined by changes in the ocean.

The Bering Sea, the area where the ocean meets the river, has experienced unprecedented ice loss over the past few years. Its water temperatures are also rising. These shifts can disrupt the plankton bloom's timing and the distribution of small-sized invertebrates the fish eat. This could lead to chaos in the food chain, which is still being studied by Kate Howard, a fisheries scientist at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. She said that researchers have also found warming temperatures in rivers that are harmful to salmon.

Since salmon spend their entire life cycle in rivers and oceans, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly where rapid environmental changes are most detrimental. However, Howard stated that it is becoming increasingly apparent that overfishing may not be the only problem.

She said that it was difficult to understand the Yukon River salmon data if you don't consider climate change.

The Alaska Natives are left trying to find a way to fill the void in their diet and centuries of salmon-based tradition.

A small hunting group zoomed by motorboat along the Yukon River on a recent fall day to look for signs of moose. The group killed two moose in three days. This was enough meat to feed seven families or 50 people for about a month in Stevens Village.

They butchered the animals after a long day. The Northern Lights lit up the sky in vibrant green, and their headlamps illuminated the dark.

This camp, located miles away from any roads, would usually host several dozen families who harvest salmon and share meals with children. It was quiet on this particular day.

Ben Stevens, whose ancestors founded Stevens Village, stated that he doesn't believe there is a bell that can be rung loud enough to make that connection. To us, salmon is life. What can you do beyond that?