In a typical year, the smokehouses and drying racks that Alaska Natives use to prepare salmon to tide them through the winter would be heavy with the fish’s flesh, the fruits of summer being used in fishing on the Yukon River. Like previous generations.
No fish this year. For the first time in memory, both king and chum salmon have been reduced to almost nothing and the state has banned salmon fishing on the Yukon, even as a subsistence crop that Alaska Natives can use in their freezers for the winter. And rely on it to fill the pantry. The remote communities that dot the river and live off its bounty – off road systems and easy, cheap shopping – are desperate and are doubling down on moose and caribou hunting during the fall.
“Nobody has fish in their freezer right now. No one,” said Giovanna Stevens, 38, a member of the Stevens Village tribe. “We have to fill that void quickly before winter comes.”
Opinions about the cause of the catastrophe vary, but those studying it generally agree that human-caused climate change is driving river and Bering Sea warming, altering the food chain in ways that which are not yet fully understood. Many believe that commercial trawling operations that compete with wild salmon for their intended catch, as well as hatchery-raised salmon at sea, exacerbated the effects of global warming on one of North America’s longest rivers. Is.
Stephanie Quinn-Davidson, who has worked on Yukon River salmon issues, noted that the notion that salmon that do not catch fish bring it back to their native river to lay eggs is now changing in both ocean and river environments. Can’t get caught because of it. A Decade and is program director of the Alaska Venture Fund for Fisheries and Communities.
Looking for ‘smoking gun’
King, or Chinook, salmon have been in decline for more than a decade, but until last year chum salmon were more abundant. This year, summer chum numbers dropped and fall chum numbers – which travel further upstream – are dangerously low.
“Everyone wants to know, ‘What is a smoking gun? What is the one thing we can point and stop?’ ‘ she said of the fall. “People are reluctant to point to climate change because there is no clear solution … but it is probably the biggest factor here.”
Many Alaska Native communities are outraged that they are paying the price for generations of practices beyond their control that have led to climate change – and many feel that state and federal officials are not doing enough to bring local voices to the table. Huh. The shortage has fueled raw strong feelings about who should have the rights to fish in a state that supplies the world with salmon, and it underscores the powerlessness that many Alaska Natives face as traditional resources dwindle. feel as.
The approximately 3,200-kilometre (2,000-mi) Yukon River begins in British Columbia and flows over a large area from Texas into both Canada and Alaska as it cuts through the land of the Athabaskan, Yupik and other tribes.
The crisis is affecting both subsistence fishing in remote outposts and fish processing operations that employ tribal members in the lower Yukon and communities along its tributaries.
“In tribal villages, our people are angry. They are extremely angry that we are being punished for others,” said PJ Simon, president and head of the Tanana Chiefs Conference, a union of 42 tribal villages in Alaska. internal part. “As Alaska Natives, we have a right to this resource. We have a right to have a say in how things are prepared and divided.”
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 on the salmon crisis in Alaska. The groups also seek federal funding for more collaborative research on the effects of returning salmon.
Citing a warming ocean, Republican Governor Mike Dunleavy this month requested a federal disaster declaration for salmon fisheries and has helped coordinate the airlift of about 41,000 kilograms (90,000 pounds) of fish to needy villages. The salmon crisis is one of the governor’s top priorities, said Rex Rock Jr., Dunleavy’s adviser for rural affairs and economic development for Alaska Natives.
an important tradition
This has done little to please remote villages that depend on salmon to get through the winter, when snow paralyzes the landscape and temperatures are minus 29 °C (minus 20 °F). or may be less than that.
Families traditionally spend the summer in fish camps using nets and fish wheels to trap adult salmon as they migrate inland from the ocean where they hatch so that they can lay eggs. Salmon is prepared for storage in a number of ways: dried for jerky, cut into frozen fillets, canned in half-pint jars or preserved in wooden barrels with salt.
Without salmon, communities are under immense pressure to find other protein sources. In the interior of Alaska, the nearest road system is often dozens of miles away, and getting to the grocery store can take hours by boat, snowmachine, or plane.
Store-bought food is prohibitively expensive for many people: 3.8 liters (1 gallon) of milk can cost around $10, and more recently Caltag, an inner village about 528 kilometers (328 air mi) from Fairbanks The cost of a pound of steak in the U.S. was $34. The rise in COVID-19 cases, which has disproportionately affected Alaska Natives, has also made many people hesitant to venture away from home.
Instead, the villages sent additional hunting teams during the autumn season and are looking to the upcoming caribou season to meet their needs. Those who cannot hunt themselves depend on others to share their meat.
“We have to watch our people because there will be some who won’t have any food about mid-year,” said Christina Semaken, 63, a grandmother who lives in Caltag, Alaska’s inner city of less than 100 people. “We can’t afford to buy that beef or chicken.”
Semaken hopes to catch the fish next year, but whether the salmon will return is unknown.
Tribal advocates want more genetic testing on salmon harvested from fishing grounds in Alaskan waters to ensure commercial fisheries are not deterring wild Yukon River salmon. They also want more fish-tracking sonar on the river to ensure accurate counts of salmon that have escaped from the harvest and return it to the river’s Canadian headwaters.
loss of sea ice
Yet changes in the ocean 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 its water temperatures are rising. Kate Howard, a fisheries scientist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said those changes are turning off the timing of plankton blooms and the distribution of small invertebrates that eat fish, creating potential chaos in the food chain. Researchers have also documented warmer 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 cycle, it is hard to pinpoint exactly what these rapid environmental changes are most affecting them, but it is increasingly clear that overfishing is not the only culprit. , Howard said.
“When you dig into all the available data for Yukon River salmon,” she said, “it’s hard to explain it all unless you consider climate change.”
Alaska Natives, meanwhile, are scrambling to fill a hole in their diet—and in a tradition built around salmon for centuries.
On a recent fall day, a small hunting party zoomed by motorboat along the Yukon River, scanning the shoreline for signs of moose. After three days, the group killed two moose in their small community of Stevens Village for about a month, enough to provide meat for seven families, or about 50 people.
At the end of a long day, they crushed the animals as the northern lights gleamed a vibrant green across the sky, their headlamps penetrating the deep darkness.
The temporary camp, miles from any road, will typically host several dozen families who harvest salmon, share meals and teach kids how to fish. There was complete silence on this day.
“I really don’t think there’s any kind of bell that you can ring aloud to try to explain that type of connection,” said Ben Stevens, whose ancestors founded Stevens Village. “Salmon, to us, is life. Where can you go further than this?”