Rural Alaska

Western Alaska salmon crisis affects physical and mental health, residents say

The salmon crisis in the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers is harming more than local economies, food security and culture, according to people in the region. It is also harming human health.

That was a message emphasized on Friday at a field hearing held by U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, in Bethel, the regional hub for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Field hearings, held outside of Washington, D.C., are often located in sites directly affected by specific issues.

Murkowski said she convened the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing in Bethel so that Alaskans there could explain the impact of the salmon collapses to people outside the region and outside the state who might not grasp its severity.

“Part of my job is to convey the urgency here,” she said at the start of the five-hour hearing.

Among those testifying was Dan Winkelman, president of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp., the tribal organization that is the region’s main health provider. Friday’s event was held at the organization’s Bethel headquarters.

Lack of salmon, Winkelman said, “is not just negatively affecting our culture and well-being but our good health,” he said.

He ticked off the numerous well-known nutritional benefits of salmon. It is a complete, high-quality protein that builds lean body mass and helps people’s bodies function correctly, he said. It is rich in omega-3 fatty acid and essential minerals key to heart health, brain health, immune function and control of inflammation, he said. It is a nutrient-dense food that helps people maintain healthy body weights and avoid diet-related health problems, he said.


For these and other reasons, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has recommended that people eat at least two servings a week of fish like salmon, Winkelman said. In the past, with widespread daily consumption of salmon, residents of the region easily met that recommendation, he said.

“However, when fish is not available, meals are supplemented with store-bought, highly processed foods that contain added sugars, salts, and saturated fats, and often less protein,” he said. “Diets become more energy-dense instead of nutrient-dense, which can lead to an increase in unhealthy weight gain and increased rates of chronic disease development. Often, I have providers tell me that this has become a problem (over) the last decade or so in the Y-K region.”

In rural areas across the state, wild foods generally provide all the required dietary protein, according to studies by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Salmon has been the dominant wild food in many rural regions, and that is especially so in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region, according to state and federal experts.

Additionally, salmon harvesting itself is physical exercise that keeps residents fit, Winkelman said in his testimony.

The scarcity of salmon also affects mental health, said residents testifying at the hearing.

Jonathan Samuelson, executive director of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, described salmon harvesting as part of a holistic approach to wellness.

“When we’re forced to deviate from our traditional ways of life, it only amplifies our unwellness. Our way of life and our cultural knowledge and the way that we be in the world is our path to wellness, and we know that,” he said.

Kara Dominick of Bethel spoke about how a return to salmon-harvesting traditions helped her recover from a serious opioid addiction.

“The river and the tundra became my peace. In the end, it was what made my life feel whole and meaningful again. I may not have been here today if I didn’t have that connection and access to my culture and subsistence opportunities,” she said in her testimony.

The “deeper connection to our culture and our way of life” is critical to addressing the substance-abuse crisis that is gripping much of the population, Dominick said. But now that avenue of recovery is under threat, she said.

“With the decline in salmon numbers comes further separation from our culture. How is this going to affect our mental health? How much worse will it get? I fear for our people,” she said.

Charles Menadelook, subsistence resources program director for Kawerak Inc., a Nome-based tribal consortium, expressed similar fears.

He talks to his young family members about the importance of subsistence harvesting, he said, his voice faltering with emotion. “I tell them, they need to go fishing. They need to go snow hunting. Because I don’t think it’s going to be around much longer,” he said.

Originally published by the Alaska Beacon, an independent, nonpartisan news organization that covers Alaska state government.