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Yukon River salmon shortage hurts subsistence fishing communities in Alaska

Published: Oct. 8, 2021 at 4:15 PM AKDT
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - The 2021 summer and fall fishing season saw an unprecedented shortage of certain species of salmon along the Yukon River and its tributaries.

ALASKA DEPARTMENT OF FISH AND GAME INSTITUTES A BAN

This shortage led the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to ban subsistence fishing of certain salmon species in rural communities along the state’s major rivers, and to regulate the use of fish wheels and dip netting.

These restrictions have had a tremendous impact on the communities who rely on these salmon for food, and for whom fishing is a way of life

During the fall season, chum salmon and Coho salmon travel up the Yukon River in order to spawn. But this year, the river is seeing record lows of the two species.

“This year, for chum salmon and now Coho Salmon as well, we’re seeing unprecedented lows,” said Christy Gleason, acting Fall Season Manager on the Yukon River for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “Last year, the fall Chum Salmon run came in the lowest on record for the Yukon River - and this year, we’re half of those counts. For Coho Salmon last year, we saw a low run, but it wasn’t terrible. This year, we’re seeing a fifth of those numbers, and it’s the lowest we’ve ever seen, so we’re entering new territory for trying to manage for these low runs.”

According to Gleason, Fish and Game’s management plan necessitated a ban on all fishing of chum salmon. “If we are projecting a run less than 300,000 fall chum salmon, we have to keep all fishing closed, which includes subsistence fishing.”

Fish and Game predicted at the July start of the 2021 fall season that the chum runs would be low. In response, the department closed down subsistence fishing for that particular species. “We have tried to provide opportunity for alternative salmon species,” Gleason explained. “About the third week of July, we opened up dipnet and hook-and-line opportunity in the lower Yukon areas to be able to catch Coho, Pinks and Sockeye Salmon while releasing fall Chum and King Salmon, and we also opened up manned fish wheels later on in the season, so that way folks could target non-salmon species while releasing any salmon that were caught.”

However, Gleason said the department was surprised by how low the numbers went. The low chum salmon runs and the low Coho runs required more protection as the fall season progressed, according to Gleason. “We had to reduce the four-inch gill net schedule for non-salmon to a reduced schedule for the entire Yukon.”

Gleason said many people were supportive of Fish and Game’s actions. “The public knew that the runs were really low. They were worried about getting enough fish on the spawning grounds, and so many people were supportive of our management actions, and when we opened up opportunity for alternative salmon - for Pinks, Sockeye and Coho - we had calls of appreciation. People were able to harvest Pink salmon to help meet their subsistence needs, and then many people were even thankful for the manned fish wheel opportunity that we’re providing.”

Gleason added, “Our neighboring areas of the Kuskokwim and Norton Sound are also experiencing low chum salmon numbers, but the Yukon seems to be getting the worst hit.”

The shortage of chum salmon is a recent development, according to Gleason. “On the Yukon River, both the Summer chum salmon run and the fall chum salmon run, both of those runs have been very stable, and it seems about once every 20 years, we reach a couple years of a low - and we’ve always been able to recover from those lows - compared to Chinook salmon on the Yukon River, have been in a long-term, steady decline.”

This makes Gleason optimistic that the chum salmon runs will return to previous levels. “The two last crashes that we’ve had were about 20 years apart. One of them we thought was a freshwater event of cold, interior winter temperatures. The other one was in the mid-90s when it was a … plankton bloom in the Bering Sea that persisted for a few years. Once we find out what’s driving these low salmon runs for chum salmon in particular, I am optimistic that we’ll have fishing continued in the future, like what it has been for years in the Yukon history.”

The Lower Yukon runs from Holy Cross to the Pacific Ocean, the Middle Yukon runs from the Galena and Ruby Area to the Lower Yukon, and the Upper Yukon designates everything from the spawning grounds within Canada to the Middle Yukon.

A PERSPECTIVE FROM HUSLIA

Ricko DeWilde from Huslia, Alaska says the shortage is affecting the Yukon’s tributaries as well. “I’m from Huslia, Alaska on the Koyukuk River, and I do see a lot less salmon on the river, a lot less salmon on the Yukon River, and that’s been a trend over the last, I don’t know, 10, 15 years, but seeing a lot less salmon, and what I’m seeing right now is none of the fish camps up and running. They’re all shut down, not just because there’s no salmon, but the government’s shutting everybody down.”

While DeWilde said this isn’t the first time this has happened, he explained that this year is different. “This year is absolutely shut down 100%. Nobody is able to fish, and that’s a huge crisis here in Alaska.”

He called the closure of fishing detrimental to rural Alaska’s way of life, “especially for families that are getting out and putting food away. All the families have to put meat away for the winter, and fishing is one of the big things we do our there. It’s as important as moose hunting, and seeing the lack of salmon is scary for us.”

Meanwhile, the Dunleavy administration has secured donations of fish to rural villages. To that, DeWilde reacted, “Seeing the governor put on his Facebook page that ‘We had such good fishing this year in Bristol Bay that we’re able to donate some to the Interior, and everything’s a success,’ that’s a slap in the face for us out here in rural Alaska.”

He added, “We love to fish. It’s our way of life. It’s our way of passing our culture down to our children because if they take the fishing away and try to hand us little handouts, they’re not only shutting down fishing for us, they’re stealing our way of life.”

DeWilde said some in rural Alaska feel like scapegoats. “It’s almost like ‘Personal use has caused all this damage,’ when the numbers that we catch on the rivers is nothing compared to commercial fishing out on the ocean,” he said.

He thinks more needs to be done to stop commercial fishing’s effect on salmon numbers. “They’re not being checked, and what I think it is, is big money. It’s hard to beat big money, and commercial fishers pay a lot of taxes to the state of Alaska, so they’re protected by the corporations. They’re protected by the politicians and everyone else. That’s what makes the motor run for their financial gains, and us people living on the rivers, we’re the ones that have to take the hit.”

DeWilde continued, “I don’t really think we, as Alaska Natives along the rivers, cause much of any kind of effect to the salmon because we’ve been doing it for thousands of years out here. Since way back, since millennia our people have been relying on salmon, and they came back every year.”

DeWilde also mentioned hatcheries as a potential factor in the salmon shortage. “They’re dumping billions of baby salmon into the ocean, calling them wild. They’re not wild, and what’s going on is they’re eating the food that our natural salmon have to rely on.”

He said with numbers dwindling lower and lower each year, “Eventually there will be no salmon, and that’s our concern. They won’t come back. We could take a hit for a few years, but if they don’t come back, the whole food system that we rely on starts getting knocked out of balance.”

According to DeWilde, not being able to fish may force rural Alaskans to overhunt other species or rely on the government to fill the void. “Having no fish on the river is definitely taking food off the table, and that has to come from somewhere,” he said.

He also believes elected Native officials aren’t doing enough about the problem. “Our presidents, our leaders of our corporations, they need to stand up. That’s what we elected them for.”

DeWilde discussed the state of Alaska’s monitoring of fishnets, saying, “They have floatplanes out there checking fishnets. I’ve seen troopers along the river, hands on their guns when they speak to me, like I’m a criminal, and that’s not just me. That’s a lot of people experiencing that from the state of Alaska, and that’s no way to treat your first people, especially when you’re stealing their food and stealing their way of life.”

TANANA CHIEFS CONFERENCE SEES THE EFFECTS IN VILLAGES

Tanana Chiefs Conference (TCC) facilitated the Dunleavy administration’s shipments of salmon from Bristol Bay to the villages.

Ben Stevens, Tribal Resource Stewardship manager with TCC, said the salmon situation is dire, to say the least. “There are no salmon in the river for us to harvest. The numbers returning are so low that the state agency managing fish has closed any type of fishing season for the people along the Yukon River.”

He said fishing, for villages along the river, is “not only an issue of filling your tummy, but also wellbeing, and that wellbeing, right now, is being shaken.”

According to Stevens, while some Alaska Natives living out in the river communities will be able to hunt moose instead, many will not get any. “What we have is a whole watershed of subsistence users who are not going to have anything going into the winter.”

He compared the situation to Safeway and Fred Meyer shutting their doors in Fairbanks. “A majority of the folks that I know out there on the river harvest fish and moose and other animals to get them through the winter because they don’t have stores out there in their communities. If they do, it’s filled mostly with packaged goods, very unhealthy-type foods, and so having access to meat and fish right from the land and the waters not only helps them through that little challenge, but also provides them with good, quality protein.”

Fishing activity, Stevens said, “is what we do, as Alaska Native men. Our job is to help the people, and to help them eat, protect the weak - and when we’re not able to do that, that sends our system into a spin.”

“It means a lot more than sustenance. It’s our wellness,” Stevens added.

He said there are myriad reasons being considered for why salmon numbers are declining. “I don’t want to regurgitate all of the pundits, but they speculate a number of different factors, including mining in the headwaters, British Columbia and Yukon. Some folks say that there’s predation on salmon going out into the ocean, pike and so forth. Other folks say that it could be predation out in the ocean. A lot of folks lean toward the climate changing. The warming of the oceans can have a detrimental effect upon the prey that the salmon seek once they get out there.”

Stevens thanked the governor and Everts Air for their help with salmon donations to the villages. “Of course, we have to be thankful to the folks out there in Bristol Bay who saw our predicament and stepped in to help, but what we’re thinking is that we’re so very grateful for that consideration, but I think at the end of the day we want to be able to harvest our own.”

He explained that salmon means more than sustenance. “It’s one of the threads in the fabric of our society. When we go to camp, we reconnect with family, friends, community, and we tighten the bonds of that fabric.”

He suggested using a different light than western science to examine the situation. “Maybe we need more ideas, or different ways of looking at resource management, and I’m pretty sure the incorporation of Indigenous science might be something that the managing agencies should consider, because right now they’ve got half, we’ve got the other. The tribal folks along the rivers and the rural areas of that state of Alaska bring to the resource management table generations of knowledge.”

“This is not the job for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game,” Stevens concluded. “They’re doing the best they can. They’re good folks. They’re trying very hard to achieve their mission. This is a job for every one of us. We all have something to do with bringing back salmon, whether it’s harvesting less fish, or picking up the garbage, or doing whatever that you can as an individual, or as a family, or as a village, to make sure that we’ve got everything in line for the fish to come back the next year. Sustainability is interwoven within our culture.”

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