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On the mighty Yukon, Alaska chum salmon fuel an economic revival

Jill Burke
Courtesy Doug Karlberg

Along the banks of the Yukon River, halfway between the Bering Sea and Canada, sits a small Alaska village that has revived hope among its people by finding a way to put them to work. In Kaltag, selling and processing a long-overlooked species of salmon that marketers renamed to boost its appeal to Outside consumers, has produced a summer job boom. This year, there's so much work in Kaltag that villagers from neighboring communities are commuting to town.

What's happening along Alaska’s mightiest river is a unique success story during a season that has seen other Yukon River salmon fisherman reduced to spectators as biologists try to protect a dwindling population of Alaska’s most prized salmon, the chinook or king, with fishing closures. 

When jobs are hard to come by and living expenses are high, depression can hang over an entire community like a storm that refuses to move. It’s a problem with no easy fix, regardless of political winds or the health of Alaska's overall economy. Yet a public-private fishing venture in Kaltag has helped lift the community’s emotional fog. 

"For the first time in a long time we have almost the whole community employed. It's exciting for me to see them feel good about themselves and know they can work and provide for their families," Kaltag Mayor Violet Burnham said in an interview Tuesday. 

Filling the void

Eight refrigerated storage vans spanning 53 feet, plopped outside the plant where fish wheels are stored during winter, are tangible proof the fishing's been good this year. Five are nearly filled with Alaska chum salmon that will head out on the next barge, bound for Seattle by way of Nenana, Fairbanks and Anchorage. The others will fill as the fall chum run makes its way upriver.

It's a stark contrast to individual smoke huts which are in some cases nearly bare. King salmon, the larger of the species, is highly desired by villagers who rely on personal catches of salmon to survive. This year, due to conservations efforts and a weak run, there few opportunities to pull kings in, and the smoke huts are filled only sparingly with the cured, oily flesh of kings lined out to dry. Chum, sun dried and cut differently, will have to fill the void for fisherman and their families who rely on the river to provide. Conservation measures attempt to balance the needs of subsistence and commercial users alike.

Certainly, there are plenty of chums in the river – 2.1 million of them have passed a sonar 121 minutes upstream from the mouth of the Yukon River. That’s the biggest run in at least six years, and a successful rebound after the chum runs crashed in 1997, bringing the fishery to a stand still. By contrast, this year’s weak king run is only 5 percent of the chum run.

Yukon fishermen have long sought ways to make chum salmon profitable, but Kaltag is the site of the only commercial operation along the Yukon River using fish wheels.

Paychecks in Kaltag

Before taking over as mayor, Burnham, who also works as a bookkeeper for her tribe, spent more than two decades working with people struggling with mental health issues and substance abuse. She says Kaltag’s summer fishing success has been a boon for the city as a whole.

People feel good about having a job to go to, Burnham said. The money it brings in supports families and helps parents get their kids ready for school. And the city, which owns the fish processing plant that's been humming with activity, hopes to expand the operation.

Many rural Alaska Natives live off the land, and the Yukon-Koyukuk Distict, where Kaltag is located, is one of the most economically depressed areas of the United States. Even residents who supplement their diets with store-bought food hunt and fish to maintain a connection to their culture. But economics can play a large role in access to traditional foods. Outings, whether on land or water, require equipment with power motors powered by expensive fuel. Without jobs, there’s less money to pay for the equipment needed to go out and gather food.

Three factors have boosted Kaltag's Cinderella Summer, after previous efforts fell flat: location, lobbying, and lots of fish.

Location matters because at Kaltag, the different species of salmon swim along opposite sides of the Yukon. This minimizes chances fish wheels will intercept a king salmon bound for Canada, important because the king run has essentially crashed and the United States has a treaty obligation to get kings across the border to their spawning grounds.

The owners of Yukon River Gold Fisheries, the company that's leasing and operating the city-owned processing plant, knew they wouldn’t be profitable unless fisherman got more time in the water to catch chum. To get that extra time, Yukon River Gold needed to convince the state area fisherman wouldn’t harm the ailing king salmon population. The fact that the two species largely swim in separate parts of the river was a good start. When Yukon River Gold was able to show that fish wheels were able to scoop up kings and return them to the water unharmed, the state agreed to give expanded fishing windows a try. 

Chum jackpot

With the processing plant in place and the fish wheels running, Kaltag hit the jackpot when millions of summer chums came upriver; even more are expected this fall. 

"We are damn close to breaking even," Doug Karlberg, the fish plant's president, said in a recent interview. "I figured the plant needed to do close to a million pounds and I think we will probably come close to it."

This year, Alaska instituted a strict rule for Kaltag fisherman: someone must monitor fish wheels every hour every day. If the wheel is running, someone needs to be with it, a lookout ready to ensure that a wayward king is safely returned to the river.

"It's pretty clear that they don't catch a lot of kings on this side of the river," said Andy Padilla, a fisheries biologist with the state who was in Kaltag to observe and monitor the catch. The kings Kaltag fisherman catch on the Yukon’s west side are clearly not those bound for Canada, he said. They are smaller "jack" kings, and blushed out, evidence, he said, that they are fish bound for local spawning grounds.

"We have proved without question that we have no impact on the chinooks," Karlberg said. "They (state biologists) have verified that there have been 59 kings caught and released alive out of 100,000 chums brought in."

That adds up to a rebound from last year when, locked out from the river for much of the season, Karlberg and the city considered mothballing their dream of a humming fish processing plant in Kaltag. Because of measures designed to protect king salmon, Kaltag’s fishing window for chum fishing was too short to be economical. Where it had limped along from 2007, 2008 and again in 2010, the plant closed during 2011, uncertain of its fate.

"This is a very difficult project and restarting a fishery this remote is tougher than I ever thought it was," Karlberg said.

Clothes for school

These days, Kaltag has so much work available that people from surrounding villages are in town to lend a hand. Among them is a boatload of high school students from Nulato, 40 miles upriver. A few laborers from Unalakleet, Huslia and Galena are also getting a piece of the action. Karlberg believes it's the first time in 15 years the village has had zero unemployment. All together, 60 jobs are available in the plant, and another 40 for fisherman manning the wheels.   There’s so much work that when softball players playing at a regional tournament dropped in on Kaltag earlier this month, several stuck around after finding work at the plant.

Gutting the fish and preparing eggs for caviar is the first paying job Elizabeth Stanley has ever had. The base wage for unskilled labor at the plant is $10 per hour. However, many employees, ranging in age from 15 into their 60s, rack up time-and-half pay by working 12-hour shifts for days on end. The fishing crews and processing plant employees are keeping work going 24 hours a day.

Stanley, who is 17, works the night shift, from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. On a late Tuesday in July, she was enjoying her first day off in more than two weeks.

"It's going good," said Stanley, who plans to stay until August, when she'll head back to Nulato to begin her senior year in high school. She plans to buy new clothes with the money she's earned.

Seventeen-year-old Molly Stickman is another Nulato teen who made the journey to Kaltag for summer work. She spends her time at the plant counting fish and helping with the eggs.

"I'm happy. It's good to have the work," she said Tuesday from Kaltag, where she was staying with relatives.

Like Stanley, Stickman plans to put her cash toward clothes and shoes, and is looking forward to the shopping trip she's planned to Fairbanks, Alaska's second largest city. She, too, will be a senior this fall and hopes to head to college after graduation.

$300,000 in wages

Fisherman selling fish to the processing plant make about 40 cents a pound, or $1.70 per fish. Karlberg estimates he's paid more than $300,000 in wages and fish buys combined since July 1, when the fishing opened. When the season wraps up, he expects to have funneled a half million dollars into the local economy and another $200,000 to Fairbanks and beyond.

Karlberg anticipates the plant will process about 750,000 pounds of fish by year's end, more than double what it has done in the past -- but only about one third of its allotted quota for 2012. Having sat idle for so many years while the chum run regained its steam, the plant must do its own rebuilding to be able to handle more fish.

"You always wish you got more and processed more," said Karlberg, who hopes that by fine-tuning the revived operation, the plant will be able to do exactly that.

This year, he believes the plant has made enough to pay wages, invest in overhauling aging equipment, and stay open another year -- hopefully more.

He and others in the community are also looking for ways to expand the work that the processing plant handles. Currently, the eggs are placed in brine in preparation for their eventual use in caviar. After being gutted, the fish are frozen, loaded onto trailers, and shipped to different companies to create a final product. Karlberg and others are looking at how these value added end-products could be done, too, generating even more money and jobs.

Among them is Arni Thomson, president of United Fisherman of Alaska. He's spent time this month scouting Yukon River Gold's operation in Kaltag, and keeping tabs on the only other processing plants along the Yukon drainage -- Kwik'Pak Fisheries in Emmonak, at the mouth of the river, and Interior Alaska Fish Processors in Fairbanks, along the Tanana River.  

Chum or Keta or Silver Brite?

The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute and Alaska salmon processors have worked hard to create markets for chum salmon, which are sold Outside as "Keta" or "Silver Brite" salmon. The name chum is associated with fish heads and other leftover parts used as bait, explained Tyson Fick, ASMI's communications direction. To distance the fish from its unfair reputation, marketers reintroduced it as keta, derived from it's Latin name, Oncorhynchus Keta. Silver Brite refers to the highest-quality chum and their distinct, bright-silver skin. "They are quality fish," he said, noting that chum salmon are also used to make salmon burgers, like those sold at Costco.

With king salmon on the decline, other species are rising to fill the void. "Combined, pinks and chums are one of the great stories of the resurgence in salmon values in the last 10 years," Feck said, adding that they are a lower cost alternative king and sockeye salmon.

Keta is popular is Europe and in the United States, while the loose roe (or salmon caviar) are popular throughout Asia. Strong markets also exist for it in Europe and the Ukraine.

This lays the groundwork for the promise Thomson sees in fish-wheel technology -- perhaps exactly what's required to bring desperately needed economic development to the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim regions, allowing fishermen and processors to take advantage of strong chum runs while simultaneously conserving kings.

Already, the trend is spreading. Late last week, the Board of Fisheries gave a Fairbanks area processor, Interior Fish Processing, permission to operate a manned fish wheel on the Tanana River for the remainder of the summer chum season.

Kwik'Pak, which estimates it has harvested only one sixth of the available chums -- 200,000 of 1.2 million -- because of measures taken to protect the king run, is also testing new methods, including a fish wheel, dip netting and beach seines. Had it been able to net the full catch, it estimates it could have pumped about $7 million into the local economy.

"It was a pretty grim situation to watch all those fish swim by," said Kwik'Pak General Manager Jack Schultheis.

Comes down to jobs

But, genuine local economic development, Thomson said, will require what he called "active support" by Gov. Sean Parnell, including injecting "modest amounts of strategically placed funds into a few credible operations."

"While the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the Board of Fisheries and the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council are on the right track, evaluating scientific and manmade causes of king salmon declines, and this is an important long- term project, the timing is right for restarting the commercial Keta (chum) salmon fishery as part of the solution to the king salmon decline, at least in the Yukon drainage," he said via email while traveling in Fairbanks.

For Karlberg, who this year may bring home a paycheck for the first time in five years after taking over as manager, the Kaltag upstart owes its success to one basic premise.

"Local access to local resources, and 100 jobs were created. It really was that simple," he said.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com