Rural Alaska

Unprecedented salmon declines force fish donations to Alaska’s Yukon River villages

For 47 years, Jack Schultheis has spent fishing season around the mouth of Yukon River.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Schultheis said from Emmonak, where he is general manager of Kwik’Pak Fisheries, a commercial enterprise set up to help the regional economy in the Lower Yukon. In a regular season, the operation would be involved in commercial fishing, buying fish, and processing.

But this year, returns of staple salmon species are abysmal, prompting the state, regional non-profits, and processors to coordinate deliveries of fish from other parts of the state. Kwik’Pak isn’t fishing at all. Which means local residents aren’t earning cash to put towards essential needs, including gas and supplies for their own subsistence activities.

Communities up and down the Yukon are coming to terms with a collapse in key stocks, and now confronting the prospect of a winter without enough food. Tribal groups working in the region say the situation is dire, and are scrambling to find alternative ways to get protein and assistance to some of the most rural households in the state.

Runs of kings and chum salmon on the Yukon have been so low that subsistence fishing for both have remained closed. In the case of kings, the number of fish in the river has been in decline for decades, along with the average size of fish harvested, according to decades of data compiled by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

But the real story this year are the chum: only a tiny fraction of the number expected have shown up in the Yukon, and nobody can definitively explain why. Hypotheses include warming waters from climate change, the proliferation of hatchery fish, and commercial fishing practices in the Bering Sea. But none of those theories fully account for why so few chum are coming back this year.

“We’re supposed to have 1.6 million fish through the sonar, and we have about 150,000 through the sonar,” Schultheis said of the number of chum counted entering the river.

Chum returns have been poor in the Kuskokwim, Norton Sound, and Kotzebue fisheries, too. But in most of those regions, there are normal enough numbers of pink, sockeye, or silver salmon to allow for some realistic subsistence opportunities.

Not so on the Yukon.

“The 2021 summer chum salmon run was the weakest and latest on record and failed to meet the drainage-wide escapement goal,” said a recent ADF&G assessment of the summer chum run.

Chum enter the Yukon in distinct waves. The earlier “summer chum” season follows closely after the passage of kings, which are typically nearing the Canadian boarder by this time of year. Management biologists have now switched over to monitoring “fall chum” in the river, and are pessimistic there will be enough fish for the subsistence harvest.

[Alaska’s Bristol Bay sees record return of sockeye salmon. The warming climate may have helped.]

Normally at this stage of late summer, Ben Stevens’s fish camp between Stevens Village and Beaver in the Interior would focused on putting up king strips.

“Our smoke house hopefully would have been filled, our folks right now would be focused on drying the fish,” said Stevens, who manages the Tanana Chiefs Conference’s Tribal Natural Resources Commission.

He and his family look to chum if they need to backfill a low king run.

As the number of kings returning to the Yukon has declined, particularly in the last decade, abundant chum have helped ensure a degree of food security.

According to ADF&G’s data on subsistence and personal use permits, between 1994 and 2016, 70 percent of the subsistence salmon harvest on the Yukon were chum.

“This is an incredibly unnerving time for our people,” Stevens said. For the first time in years, without any subsistence openings on the river, he found himself at an office in Fairbanks instead of on the river.

In traveling to small Interior communities the last few weeks, Stevens hears acute concern that people with the end of summer fast approaching, people’s smoke houses, fish racks, and freezers are all but empty.

“They’re afraid at some deep, deep levels,” Stevens said. “Our folks say they don’t know what they’re gonna do this winter.”

It’s a worry Stevens said has not been felt so palpably in a long time, but remains a living memory from earlier crashes in fish and animal stocks.

“There’s starvation in our DNA,” he added.

TCC is exploring “all opportunities to get protein to our people,” which could include purchasing bison from the Interior or reindeer from herders in the Norton Sound region to butcher.

They are also coordinating with other regional non-profits, tribes, and the State of Alaska.

“We saw a complete run failure of summer chum coming into the river,” said ADF&G Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang. “We’re anticipating, and so far are seeing, very poor returns of fall chum salmon.”

Last week, The Association of Village Council Presidents and TCC announced a plan to distribute 25,000 pounds of salmon to families. The donations of king and chum salmon come from six seafood processors in Bristol Bay, coordinated through SeaShare, a consortium of non-profits and businesses connected to the fishing industry, which is also helping with delivery logistics. Bucking most other fish trends in Western Alaska, this year’s sockeye returns in Bristol Bay have once again broken recent records, much of it landed by the commercial fleet.

“The Yukon River, from the mouth of the river as it empties into the Bering Sea all the way to the headwaters in Canada, is experiencing an unprecedented situation with salmon this summer,” wrote AVCP CEO Vivian Korthius in a release. “Throughout the whole river, including within the AVCP region, there has been no opportunity for subsistence users to catch salmon to put away for the winter.”

According to Korthius, half of the donated fish will go to communities in AVCP’s coverage area around the mouth of the lower Yukon, and the other half will be delivered to villages further up-river served by TCC.

“We know that the donated salmon will not be enough to fulfill all the needs for the winter,” Korthius wrote. “But, it is certainly greatly appreciated and we are thankful to our neighbors in the Bristol Bay region.”

The idea for sending Bristol Bay fish to the Yukon to as a response to the chum collapse was hatched at a meeting earlier this July in King Salmon among a group of salmon processors.

The state is also figuring out ways to mitigate the crash. Vincent-Lang said the governor’s administration authorized ADF&G to use $75,000 set aside in its budget for food security emergencies to procure more fish for distribution.

“Even though it’s not a lot, it does help,” said Amber Vaska, Executive Director for TCC’s Tribal Government and Client Services.

During last year’s summer of pandemic precarity, TCC alone spent more than $400,000 buying salmon to distribute to families in its region, which does not cover the ten villages in the Lower Yukon.

Vaska said after surveying tribal members, the organization is also looking at ways to further diversify subsistence harvests, including workshops to teach traditional methods for netting sheefish.

“We don’t see the low salmon run going away any time soon,” she said.

Managers announced a limited subsistence opening along the Yukon last week: families can go after pink, sockeye, and silver salmon, but only using small-mesh nets, fishing rods, or dipnets. While those might be familiar tools for sport fishermen or Southcentral families hoping for a few fillets of Kenai River reds, they are poor ways to put up bulk quantities of fish to last through a winter.

Schultheis said after the opening was announced, a few people he knew caught pinks to dry.

“They don’t like fishing dipnets,” he said. “But it helped. Something is better than nothing.”

He and others at Kwik’Pak have been receiving thousand-pound totes of donated salmon, breaking it down, and coordinating delivery with tribes.

Stevens with TCC said one strategy state and federal officials should pursue in the months ahead is recalibrating management policies with tribes when it comes to wildlife like moose, caribou, and other game. During the height of the pandemic, with flights grounded, seasonal work curtailed, and store shelves empty, people in his communities requested special hunting openings to feed themselves. Managers said no.

“What the hell are we supposed to do in that situation?” Stevens asked. “How about loosening some of those stringent regulations on rural people. That would go a long way.”