In villages along the Lower Yukon River, people are waiting for chinook salmon to start returning in the coming weeks. The fish have long provided food and money in one of Alaska's most cash-poor regions.
The only problem?
There are so few kings making it back to the Yukon these days that no one's allowed to catch them as the season begins.
The state Department of Fish and Game plans to close commercial fishing on the river and bar subsistence fishing for the first pulse of Canada-bound chinook. When subsistence fishermen do get a crack at the kings, they'll have 50 percent less time to do it.
Now, after months of criticism from the nonprofit that represents more than 50 villages in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, Gov. Sarah Palin's team went to the area this week to meet with villagers. They're looking to explain and defend how the state is managing the dwindling number of Yukon River king salmon.
At the top of many fishermen's concerns: The number of kings that the massive Bering Sea pollock fishery catches each year.
Some of these fish would otherwise find their way up the Yukon, and the council that oversees the pollock fishery voted in April to cap the number of kings caught by trawlers, calling it an unprecedented move to rebound king stocks.
But many Yukon River fishermen, and those who represent them, argue the cap is too high, and with their fishing season slashed, the villages are the ones making the sacrifices.
"All we have heard from this state administration is excuses not to help our villages," wrote Myron Naneng, president of the Bethel-based Association of Village Council Presidents, in a recent e-mail to Palin's adviser for rural affairs, John Moller.
Naneng's group had pushed for tighter restrictions on the pollock fleet and asked for the state to declare an economic disaster in the region after Fish and Game closed commercial fishing and limited subsistence fishing last year too.
Fish and Game officials say the complicated new cap and incentives are often misunderstood but will motivate the pollock fleet to waste fewer salmon.
Moller told Naneng the state couldn't legally declare a formal disaster on the Lower Yukon last year, partly because of changes the Legislature made to the law in 1999 and 2000. He said the state has done other things to help people in the region, including extending the moose-hunting season, signing people up for assistance programs and holding a job fair.
With no emergency declaration from the state, the Alaska Federation of Natives and others have asked the federal government to declare a fisheries disaster, which could bring money to the region. U.S. Sens. Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young wrote a letter in support of the request May 7, though no decision has been made, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Fish and Game Commissioner Denby Lloyd and Moller planned to wrap up a six-village trip today with stops in Mountain Village and possibly Emmonak, the village that sparked national headlines about a food and fuel crisis on the Lower Yukon over the winter. They also planned to visit Hooper Bay, Scammon Bay, Holy Cross and Anvik, said Mary Schlosser, a special projects assistant to the commissioner.
About 100 people from four villages went to the Holy Cross meeting Thursday, said former Anvik Mayor Robert Walker.
It lasted about two and a half hours, with people rushing to ask their questions. It feels like everything -- the bycatch limits, the fishery closures -- had already been decided, Walker said, and people left the meeting confused and in a poor mood.
"The local communities don't have no input into what's being regulated," he said. "It's just handed to everybody on a tray, the rules and regs, what's going to happen."
Fish and Game communications director Jennifer Yuhas said the king salmon season on the Yukon isn't over and that what the state officials hear on this trip will be used to make decisions later in the season. That could always include opening up the river to more fishing.
"We don't know what the returns are and we're taking that extra step to talk to people individually. ... they haven't made all of the in-season decisions," she said.
A normal, healthy king salmon run on the Yukon is about 250,000 fish, said summer area manager Steve Hayes.
In 2007, the total run was about 170,000 kings. It dropped to about 158,000 last year, he said.
This year, Fish and Game forecasts another bad run: Roughly 166,000 kings.
The state needs to try to get 45,000 of those salmon, including the first pulse of kings expected to hit between June 8 and June 15, all the way to Canada to meet the goals of a U.S.-Canadian salmon treaty.
Lloyd is a member of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which voted for the first time to cap the number of kings the pollock fleet catches.
The chinook bycatch trended upward through most of the decade, hitting a record of about 120,000 fish in 2007. The number dropped to about 20,000 in 2008, according to Fish and Game.
At the April meeting, Lloyd proposed a cap of 68,000. He and the other commissioners later voted to reduce it to 60,000, and Fish and Game officials argue it's really lower than that. That's because if the industry's salmon bycatch breaks the cap in two out of seven years, the limit drops to 47,500.
In comparison, leaders in Mountain Village, a community of about 800 people on the north bank of the Yukon, called for a cap of about 32,000 fish, said City Manager John Agwiak.
The new limits take effect in 2011, if approved by the Department of Commerce.
Walker, who attended the Holy Cross meeting, said the commissioner's visit was a rare chance to talk to the state's decision makers, but that people didn't have enough time to sort all this out.
"I think we confused them and they confused us," he said.