BETHEL – For the first time since 1960, for as long as the state has managed fisheries, a season's worth of salmon will travel up rivers in the Kuskokwim Delta this year with no opportunity for local residents to catch them commercially.
With no fish buyer signed up for the Kuskokwim region, the usual infusion of millions of dollars into this part of job-poor Southwestern Alaska isn't happening.
Nearly 450,000 salmon of various types have been caught on average commercially in recent years.
Not this year. The state says those unharvested fish could overload spawning grounds and hurt future runs.
"We need to fish," says Timothy "Johnny-boy" Matthew, a Quinhagak fisherman who goes by his childhood nickname.
The sole local buyer in recent years, a branch of Coastal Villages Region Fund, isn't operating its $40 million fish processing plant in Platinum, on the Bering Sea coast in Southwest Alaska.
Coastal Villages Seafoods isn't buying any salmon from village residents at all.
The local fishing operation was heavily subsidized by Coastal Villages, costing it $66 million in the last seven years alone, according to the organization.
Some fishermen and village leaders say Coastal Villages Region Fund, or CVRF, is failing to live up to its promise. It is one of six Alaska non-profit organizations created under federal law to boost the Western Alaska economy by investing profits from quotas of high-seas fisheries of crab, pollock and other species into their regions.
"The Kuskokwim is not a tenable commercial fishery at this time," CVRF says in written materials explaining the situation.
Uncertainty over commercial fish openings, weak global salmon prices, tensions between commercial and subsistence fishermen, and years of losses led to the decision to put the Kuskokwim fisheries on hold this summer, CVRF said.
Slug of kings
Without an identified market, the state Department of Fish and Game won't call any commercial openings in fishing districts in Kuskokwim Bay and the Bering Sea near Quinhagak, Goodnews Bay or up the Kuskokwim River main stem to around Tuluksak, said Aaron Poetter, the state management biologist for commercial fisheries in the Kuskokwim area.
Lacking buyers, "there's no place for those fish to go," said Poetter, part of a state commercial fisheries team based in Bethel for the summer.
If local fishermen can find a market, the state would consider a commercial opening, he said.
In recent years, Fish and Game commercial salmon openings generally occurred three days a week in Kuskokwim and Goodnews bays, though openings always depend on the strength of the runs, Poetter said. On the Kuskokwim River, with more conflict between subsistence and commercial interests, there have been fewer openings, he said. Some fishermen who live upriver boated hours each summer to camp and fish out of Quinhagak.
In Kuskokwim Bay this year, king salmon are running thick and the reds are starting to show up, locals who have been fishing for subsistence say.
"Some people – I heard they set their nets out for one hour, getting close to 100 fish," Matthew said.
The state is hearing reports of big returns in the bay, too.
"That's lost commercial harvest opportunity," Poetter said.
Fish and Game has been asking CVRF to make a formal announcement on its decision.
"So they still haven't come out and made an announcement and the season is here," Poetter said.
Coastal Villages confirmed in emails that it won't be buying Kuskokwim fish or running its processing plant.
Some 396 Kuskokwim-area fishermen participated last year in the salmon fishery, according to state commercial permit records, below the recent average of 473. Coastal Villages also employed 150 people as fish processors in the region, according to written materials it provided.
Last year, Kuskokwim fishermen were paid 50 cents a pound for salmon, no matter if it was red, silver, chum or king. They later got bonus pay.
Village residents and leaders say they were caught off-guard and want answers. With more notice from Coastal Villages Region Fund, they might have been able to find another buyer.
"Our question is 'Why?' " said Warren Jones, president of the Quinhagak village corporation, Qanirtuuq Inc. "Why didn't they let us know? Why did they not open?"
Coastal Villages says its employees and board members in the affected villages have been providing information.
The fishing closure affects entire communities, Jones said. Business is down about 40 percent at the village corporation's store and fuel pump, he said. Inventory of nets, raingear and other fishing supplies at the corporation's hardware store aren't moving either, he said.
Jones and others have contacted potential fish buyers but haven't been able to arrange for quick sales of Kuskokwim salmon. He is thinking about trying to transform a Quinhagak tribal building back into a salmon fish plant. He ran the plant, where salmon were processed down to restaurant-ready fillets, several years for Coastal Villages, which shut it down when the bigger one opened in Platinum.
Now the Quinhagak plant is being used for storage. Coastal Villages sold two tenders used in the region. It's shuttered all of its Kuskokwim seafood operations.
"There are still some trucks and forklifts. Everybody thought they were going to open so all the stuff they used last year is sitting at the dock, doing nothing," Jones said.
Matthew, one of the village fishermen, is working temporarily for the village corporation. He said he usually relies on fishing to bring in $10,000 a year and cover bills. After last season, he bought a new boat motor with the help of CVRF, but hasn't even gotten to use it for commercial fishing.
Dozens of residents from the village and Eek have signed a petition asking the CVRF board and executive director Morgen Crow to come to them and explain the status of fishing.
"I'm getting calls from other villages too, on what our deal is," Matthew said.
CVRF is the designated community development quota group for 20 Southwestern villages, including Quinhagak, Platinum and Goodnews Bay on the coast, Toksook Bay and other Nelson Island villages, and Kuskokwim River villages from Eek near the mouth on up to Napaskiak, Napakiak and Oscarville, all near the hub of Bethel. Some 10,000 people live in the CVRF villages.
Spending in region
None of CVRF's executives or top managers were available for an interview this week, said Taylor Bickford of Strategies 360, a communications firm working for the organization.
While it lost $6 million to $7 million a year on local fishing operations, Coastal Villages said it makes millions from Bering Sea fisheries including pollock on its own factory trawler as well as crab and cod caught on boats that it owns and manages. Locals can work on its vessels and on others that it is invested in, CVRF said.
To benefit its communities, Coastal Villages said it spends $25 million to $30 million a year in the region and wants to ensure it can keep doing that.
It runs community service centers in every village that employ more than 140 people, function as free internet cafes and in most villages include a mechanic shop. It pays 40 percent of the cost of expensive items such as boat motors, four-wheelers and Toyo stoves for residents in its villages who qualify. It offers scholarships and pays for residents to go through training programs. It expects to employ more than 500 young people this summer in a youth job program.
"To ensure our region can weather the difficult economic times ahead, and to alleviate the pressure on the local resource, thus freeing it up for subsistence use, Coastal has determined it must pursue only healthy and vibrant programs that provide the greatest benefit to the largest number of people," the organization said.
A CVRF online survey is underway to ask residents about greatest needs as well as preferences on community spending.
Some Kuskokwim fishermen point to the bustling fish plant in the Yukon River village of Emmonak, run and subsidized by the community development quota group there, the Yukon Delta Fisheries Development Association.
If the Yukon can do it, why not the Kuskokwim? asked Charles Guest, a third-generation fisherman from Bethel who now lives in his wife's home village of Napaskiak.
"I think we are getting the short end of the stick," Guest said.
The Platinum fish plant was an experiment that opened in 2009 and committed to running at a loss for five years. It's just too expensive to continue with it and the subsidies for fishermen, CVRF said. The state budget crisis is a factor, too, the organization said.
In 2015, the Kuskokwim fishing area harvested about 234,000 salmon, most of them coho or silver, followed by red or sockeye salmon, according to preliminary Fish and Game numbers. The value of the catch was $869,112.
That's about half of the 10-year average.
When there is commercial fishing in Quinhagak, "everybody is working hard, happy. People are making money, families working together. They are going to store a lot more," Jones said.
"Now it's kinda depressing."