‘We’ve never seen this before’: Salmon collapse sends Alaskans on Lower Yukon scrambling for scarce alternatives

First of three parts: In a region of Alaska where culture and commerce both come from fishing nets, something essential is missing.

First of three parts. These stories were made possible in part with a grant from the Pulitzer Center’s Connected Coastlines initiative.

EMMONAK — Cyril Jones dropped hunks of moose meat off around town to neighbors who might need it.

He delivered a hefty rack of ribs, then he doubled back to the river to lug a rump roast and thick brisket slab from the floor of his boat to the front of his four-wheeler.

“We were out berry picking, saw a good sized bull,” Jones said of the fortuitous moose. His girlfriend shot it with a 30-.06 the evening prior. Jones and a relative made quick work of the carcass, breaking it down in hours. Now the 26-year-old was making deliveries to elders and others.

It’s been a different kind of summer in Emmonak and in communities of the Lower Yukon River region. There have been nowhere near the amounts of chum salmon, the river’s keystone stock, needed for a commercial or even subsistence harvest. In a place where culture and commerce both come from fishing nets, something essential is missing.

Late summer is usually one of the busiest times of year in Emmonak: smokehouses full of fish, boats skittering over the river between nets and fish camps, the region’s only processing plant kinetic.

This year it’s the opposite: Any fish rack or smokehouse with even a glint of drying meat is the exception.

Without salmon, everyone is scrambling for alternatives before the winter freeze-up.

There are few good options.

Some have boated hundreds of miles in search of salmon outside the region. Others piloted aluminum skiffs 40 miles into the open Bering Sea hoping for halibut.

For Jones, the moose provided an early opportunity to put away real food, with enough left to distribute some to those who might otherwise go without.

His camo-patterned Honda laden with meat, Jones twisted on the ignition with a metal keychain that read “You are not alone in this.” He puttered toward a neighborhood known as “Housing,” a nickname from when the development was called “New Housing.”

He bounded up a cockeyed staircase toward the home of Theresa and Alley Peters. She accepted the gift and got to work, arranging chunks of moose meat on cardboard laid out on the kitchen floor, working apart gristle and bone with an ulu.

[Part 2: The economy of the Lower Yukon is gone]

Her husband, Alley, a compact man of 60 with a neat mustache, would typically be working at the salmon-processing plant during the commercial fishing season. Not this year.

“I was a crane operator, and also a deckhand,” Peters said. It was enough money to get through a few months for the family of seven.

As Theresa bent over butchering, a son turned a fan on to break the heat while other children watched a “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” movie on the couch.

By evening time, the mass of moose meat was on its way to the freezer or slated to become jerky.

‘We had no fish’

For people in the Yup’ik villages of this part of Alaska, the talk has been about how this is a fishing season like no other.

“This summer has been pretty sad because we had no fish,” said Herman Hootch. “Fish is part of our diet. And it’s always been, since we grew up. We have fish for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

Orbited by several young grandkids, Hootch gave a tour of his smokehouse. It didn’t last long.

“We don’t have fish,” he added. “I don’t know what we’re gonna do.”

By mid-August, smokehouses here are normally full of uqurliit, big fat-rich fall chum. For years, the number of king salmon returning to the Yukon has declined to the point of near collapse. But abundant chum, which come in two major waves, are the staple harvest, accounting for up to 70% of the subsistence catch along the length of the Yukon, according to data pulled from decades of Alaska Department of Fish and Game subsistence reports.

Salmon counts, based on projections and extrapolations, are not an exact science. On the Yukon, Fish and Game uses an underwater sonar at a narrow point near Pilot Station, taking readings three times a day. They also drag test nets through the same spots multiple times a day. And they listen to what residents are seeing up and down the river. All that data and more is incorporated into the figures that determine whether there are enough salmon in the river to fish.

A normal fall chum return on the Yukon is 868,000 salmon. Fisheries managers need to count 300,000 chum to open subsistence opportunities. Once 550,000 fall chum are tallied, commercial openings are announced. As of Aug. 31, just 93,000 fall chum were projected to return this year, a fraction of the normal annual return. The figures for summer chum, which arrive earlier, were equally bleak.

By mid-August, the air in Emmonak usually smells like cottonwood smoldering in smokehouses. But this year, Hootch didn’t even bother cleaning out his from last season, or unstacking fishing equipment from behind his squat, tidy sauna.

“This year, first time I had to go 30, 40 miles out on the coast to get halibut and crabs,” Hootch said.

Others traveled beyond the Lower Yukon to the southern edge of Norton Sound, in the waters by Stebbins and St. Michael. Hootch’s son made the long journey, which he estimated was about 160 miles each way. Stimulus checks from the local tribe, he said, had helped pay for the $500-$600 in gas it took getting there and back.

“This year was pretty amazing because people from St. Mary’s on down were going to Norton Sound,” Hootch said. “There were nets just littered on the Norton Sound. We’ve never seen that before.”

Most of those nets belonged to Yukoners, he said.

His son’s fishing party returned with around 150 chum salmon, and several dozen more pinks. The catch was shared among five families. Hardly a haul by Yukon standards.

With freezers unfilled, another looming alternative is store-bought processed foods. Young people, Hootch worries, seem to survive on canned foods, candy, pizza and pop. This, Hootch said, is a liability, as expensive as it is unhealthy.

“All those are not good for our bodies,” he said. “Because when we grew up we lived off the fish, we lived off the seal, the whale, the birds. Off the river.”

‘The basis of our culture’

Wild food is fickle. Salmon runs often boom and bust. Migrating caribou might zig instead of zag, bypassing expectant hunters. Weather might scorch or shrivel even the most dependable berry patch.

To cope with such precarity, the Yup’ik value system has resilience, adaptability and ingenuity built into its core.

“That really is the basis of our culture, and our everything, out here in the Y-K Delta,” said Vivian Korthuis, CEO of the Bethel-based Association of Village Council Presidents, the regional nonprofit for the Yukon-Kuskokwim area.

Chum runs have been bad all across Western Alaska. But while communities along the Yukon are highly dependent on the chum for subsistence and commercial harvests, other river systems like the Kuskokwim and those feeding Bristol Bay saw big sockeye runs that have helped households backfill their needs. Some of that abundance was shared via donations sent by plane to the Yukon from Bristol Bay processors.

Korthuis’ organization is working with partners to help as the region struggles with food insecurity, plans they intend to roll out in the coming weeks.

One proposal is liberalizing the moose hunt in order to give families the chance to put away more meat this fall.

Moose are relatively new to the Lower Yukon. But over the last few decades, they have become a dietary staple.

“If you go to every household, they are catching moose, it’s part of their diet now,” Hootch said.

More moose are ranging in the region because there is more for them to eat. A research paper published in 2016 attributed this to climate change: Gradual warming in northern climates since the 19th century has made for bigger willows and other forage, particularly along “riparian shrub corridors” like the banks of big rivers.

Louis Immamak has come to rely on hunting moose to keep his family fed.

“Us more experienced hunters try to go later toward the end of the rut season,” he said, standing inside his empty smokehouse, the dirt floor speckled with tufts of white and brown moose hair from last season.

In a normal summer, Immamak aims to fill two 5-gallon buckets with dry fish, and keep another several chums and kings filleted in the freezer for special occasions. In mid-August, all of Immamak’s fish racks stood bare. He hopes to put away two moose this year. And he might try to maniq for sheefish in winter with a line and hook, or maybe set nets under the ice to target white fish in the river.

Being a successful provider requires cash for boats, four-wheelers, snowmachines, gasoline and all the equipment and tools that are part of subsistence. For many here, that means bursts of seasonal work either catching salmon to sell or working at the local processing plant.

“I’ve been paying taxes since I was 11 years old, as a commercial fisherman,” Immamak said.

He thinks it’s unlikely the declines in king and chum stocks will turn around. He kicked around theories about why: pollock trawlers bycatching them in the Bering Sea, radioactive debris from Fukushima making its way up the food chain, encroachment by more predators, especially bears, which are new to the area and have started regularly vandalizing people’s fish camps.

Sure enough, not long after leaving Immamak’s yard, a fellow on four-wheeler warned not to leave the roads in town: A brown bear had been spotted by the air strip.

A trip up north

Salmon patterns are changing all across Alaska. Prized species like kings are declining almost everywhere while other stocks are returning less and less predictably. Big sockeye runs in Bristol Bay, banner chum years in Kotzebue Sound, rivers clogged with pinks in even years distort a broader picture of increasing variability, smaller-sized fish and some species thriving seemingly at the expense of others.

The implications are huge, especially for communities and economies built on the dependability of certain stocks, like the Lower Yukon. There is no backup plan.

There was one house with a few amber slivers of fish flesh hanging on a rack, visible from the road at the back corner of a lot jumbled with spare lumber, pallets and a makeshift boardwalk of plywood plopped over mud puddles.

John Westlock Sr. was converting the piles of scrap wood into an addition to his house. With nine family members living in the home, it was feeling a bit cramped, so he was building extra rooms to accommodate growing grandkids.

At 70, Westlock has fished all his life. Commercial and subsistence.

“When I was young, a good season was $30,000,” Westlock said of the commercial fishery in the 1970s, enough cash to keep his family afloat for most of the year.

This year, he’d been part of the Yukon subsistence fleet that motored to Point Romanof, camping on the beach during the dayslong expedition.

“We had to go way up north,” he said, “ ‘bout 200 miles.”

They had some luck. Dangling from the roof of his smokehouse were thin ruby strips of king salmon and orange chum backs.

But it was spoiling. Splotches of white mold were ruining the food.

“It’s amazing,” Westlock lamented. “Cold season. And wet, water everywhere.”

The cool, wet weather all summer made for near-impossible drying conditions. On a rack beside the smokehouse, several more spoiling fish hunks hung limp. Westlock was on track to put away a single bucket of dry fish, about a third of the volume of the 100 to 150 chums he would dry for the winter most years.

He hoped to bridge the gap by netting white fish, by hunting for birds, hopefully with moose from his son, and with reindeer. Westlock’s wife is a member of the St. Michael tribe, which he said entitles the family to go butcher three reindeer from the herd there.

“Long trip, but it’s worth it if we get it,” Westlock said.

But it’s not the same as catching chum and chinook close to home.

He asked how people in Anchorage would react if their supermarkets suddenly ran out of beef. Without their steaks, their hamburger, their rump roasts and briskets, what would they do?

“They would cry,” he said.

Next: As salmon stocks have crashed along the Yukon, so has one of the few connections to the cash economy for many.