Amid an unprecedented collapse in Alaska Yukon River salmon, no one can say for certain why there are so few fish

Last of three parts: For both summer and fall chum, around one-tenth of the normal numbers of fish were tallied. The impacts have been extreme but causes elusive.

Last in a three-part series. These stories were made possible in part with a grant from the Pulitzer Center’s Connected Coastlines initiative. Read parts one and two.

EMMONAK — A single slick silver salmon lay flat in the center of a floating dock.

The lone coho was the only fish that turned up in the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s test net that mid-August evening. A technician stooped low in her orange rubber gloves and sandals for measurements.

Test nets are one of the tools that fisheries managers use to understand what’s happening with the salmon runs on the Lower Yukon River. Any of the fish caught, once sampled, are given to local residents for food. In normal times, when big pulses of chum surge into the river, managers sometimes have 50 or a hundred fish at a time to donate. But this year, test nets sometimes went as long as three days without a single salmon. People stopped bothering to even check the bins set down the road from the AC store.

So it was a big deal that hours earlier during the morning run, the test nets yielded a catch.

“Word traveled fast that we got three fish,” said biologist Courtney Berry.

“Fishing for water all summer has been … boring,” Berry said.

The salmon situation this year on the Yukon is bad. Kings have been in decline for years, here and almost everywhere else in the state. This summer was the fourth lowest count of kings in the Yukon since 1995.

This year, Western Alaska river systems that usually see dependably high volumes of chum salmon — the Kuskokwim, the Yukon and drainages feeding Norton and Kotzebue sounds — have all been near total busts. Most of those regions have enough sockeye or pink salmon that are performing well enough so people can subsistence fish for their household needs. But not the Yukon, where commercial and subsistence harvests are built atop of waning king stocks and the mysteriously absent chum.

For both summer and fall chum, around one-tenth of the normal numbers of fish were tallied.

One of the most unsettling aspects of this year’s chum collapse, according to people in Emmonak, is the absence of a definitive explanation.

Without one, theories, hypotheses, prognostications, rumors and conspiracies abound.

Explanations from folks in Emmonak include: climate change, species encroachment, foreign ghost fleets, trawlers, Fukushima radiation, bycatch and international hatcheries.

“Starting to think maybe the fish are having a pandemic, too,” joked an elder, Herman Hootch.

[Part 1: ‘We’ve never seen this before’: Salmon collapse sends Alaskans on Lower Yukon scrambling for scarce alternatives]

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

‘A record low’

“It’s gonna be a record low,” said Bonnie Borba about the fall chum. “Summer chum was a record low.”

Borba has spent the three decades of her career at Fish and Game researching salmon, especially Yukon River chum. There are important distinctions between summer and fall chum salmon. Summer chum arrive earlier, fall chum come later and spawn farther upriver. As a result, fall chums have more fat stored to power them for thousands of miles to upriver spawning beds.

Salmon counts come from a mix of methods. Managers use an underwater sonar at a relatively narrow part of the Yukon near Pilot Station. They also use test nets, drifting nets at the same locations twice a day, a way to gauge the mix of species. Managers take those data measurements, along with observations from residents, to extrapolate the volume of salmon passing upriver.

Last year, Fish and Game tallied just under a million chum in the Yukon, which was nearly a record low. This year, with the season closing, the run is less than a quarter of that.

Two decades ago, the chum runs crashed, but the stocks rebounded mightily in the years afterward. Population cycles appear to be growing more variable, with bigger oscillations between extreme booms and busts, rather than steady, dependable returns with modest fluctuations. Two years of dramatic declines don’t bode well for the 2022 season.

“I would assume there may be some more repercussions next year,” Borba said.

‘They didn’t show up this year’

State managers and regional residents have cooperated in the past to close commercial fishing when stocks have been low. But they always kept subsistence fishing open — until this year.

“It surprised us that they didn’t show up last year, and it surprised us even more that they didn’t turn up this year,” said Christy Gleason, a Fish and Game manager. “We don’t know the reasons.”

Whenever there are salmon declines, people scramble for explanations that typically don’t come until long after the season has ended. According to Gleason, the low chum of the early 2000s was partially attributable to an anomalous phytoplankton bloom in the Bering Sea a few years earlier. Low returns in the early ‘90s, she said, were likely linked to an exceptionally cold winter in the Interior in the years prior, when rivers froze all the way down to spawning beds.

But unlike the kings, said Gleason, “Chum salmon have always been able to bounce back.”

A difference now is human-driven climate change, and the rapidity with which it is altering animal patterns. Salmon already have myriad predators at almost every stage of their life cycle: trout and loon in their natal streams, orcas and otters out in the ocean, then bears, eagles and humans once they reenter the Yukon en route to spawning grounds. A report by the state of Washington in 2020 mentioned that in addition to the threats posed to juvenile salmon from invasive species in the Columbia River, the growing number of seals and sea lions in the ocean since passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act account for a 10-fold increase in the number of chinook salmon eaten by pinnipeds. The same climatological changes that are increasing vegetation along the Yukon’s banks and expanding the moose range could be the reason other newcomers are showing up in the area too.

“The black bears are moving down, so is the brown bear,” said Harold Hootch, 62, who’s lived most of his life in Emmonak. “We never had those. They were all up in the hills.”

Beavers, too, have been arriving in numbers to the region’s waterways.

“If you go to a lake, you’ll find a beaver house,” Hootch said. “We never had beaver.”

‘We can’t give up on them’

For Vivian Korthuis, head of the Bethel-based Association of Village Council Presidents, this year’s chum collapse calls to mind a different animal.

“The canary in the coal mine,” Korthuis said. “All of those who have a stake or interest in the Bering Sea should be paying attention to what’s happening within the Yukon River to figure out what’s going on with the salmon. We are experiencing and witnessing a devastating subsistence fishery. And we really don’t know why.”

“This is a warning shot, I think, that we have been anticipating. And we want answers as to why it is the way it is,” she added.

If salmon disappear, so do all the environmental benefits they confer on the local ecology. On a river system the size of the Yukon, those impacts will be massive, not only for humans and the other apex predators that survive off their meat, but for the health of the river itself. As their spawned out carcasses decompose, salmon seed all the sloughs, streams, creeks, ponds and puddles of the drainage system with the nutrients they spent years gathering from the ocean. Unlike hatchery fish, which return to the lone location of their release, wild stocks work their way into far more of the winding contours feeding the main river.

Korthuis grew up in Emmonak, and is incapable of imagining the Yukon without salmon. Or perhaps unwilling.

“I can’t accept that yet,” she said. “We can’t give up on them and think, ‘Well, maybe that’s how it’s gonna be from now on.’”

She knows what that’s like, a river emptied of its fish for so long the absence is all anyone knows. She went to college in New Hampshire, near the Connecticut River, the aquatic jugular of four New England states, running from Canada to its terminus in Long Island Sound. Walking by the banks one day as a new undergraduate, Korthuis asked a man what kind of salmon swam up it.

“He said, ‘There hasn’t been any salmon in that river for over 200 years.’ And I could not wrap my mind around having a river lose its salmon, and to top it off, that salmon was gone 200 years ago. I just couldn’t understand that,” she said.

The decimation of salmon rivers is hardly unique to New England.

Alaska doesn’t have the same history of intensive damming and development on its rivers as the East Coast or threatened waterways in the Pacific Northwest. Almost none of its major salmon rivers have ever been dammed. And there’s been far less habitat destruction from industrial activity like mining or logging.

The Yukon is unique, too, because it flows through so many different parts of the state and across an international border into Canada. As a result, it gets more management attention and study than almost any other river in the state.

“Fish and Game is very protective of this river,” said Jack Schultheis, general manager for Kwik’Pak, the commercial fish operation in the Yukon Delta.

Through luck of geography and history, many important lessons had been learned about fisheries conservation by the time intensive commercial fishing and industrialization started arriving in the great salmon rivers of Western Alaska. Which makes it all the more unsettling that a major run could shrink to a fraction of its median size in just a year or two.

“Alaska has the most sustainable runs in the world. And for this to happen here?” Schultheis said.

Whatever might be driving the declines, Schultheis believes there is too much observed and curated in the river for the problem to be occurring there.

“The fish die in the ocean,” he said. “And I think something has disrupted their food system.”

It’s easy to point the finger at factory trawlers, but Schultheis said that as the industry has been more closely monitored and scrutinized, it’s evident that booms and busts along the river bear little if any correlation to the salmon incidentally caught in the pollock nets.

“It ain’t bycatch,” he said.

‘An increased threat to wild salmon’

Dan Bergstrom was a fisheries manager in Western Alaska for 30 years before retiring from Fish and Game. He has the relaxed air of a ski bum, and spends a good amount of energy tending to the elaborate gardens that ring his home on the Anchorage Hillside.

“You look around the state, and things are down,” he said on a recent afternoon. “It seemed like the ocean, because of how widespread.”

“When you get something that big, it most likely isn’t ‘somebody caught millions of fish.’ It’s food, prey, something like that,” Bergstrom added.

Across most of Alaska, not only is the number of salmon diminishing, but the fish coming back are smaller, younger and stocked with less fat.

The one high-profile exception is in Bristol Bay, where the commercial fleet keeps landing record-breaking harvests of sockeye. Most fisheries go up and down, but the runs there keep nudging upward. One hypothesis for this, Bergstrom said, is climate change: Sockeye spend more time than most salmon species maturing in inland lakes, and climate warming could be helping survival rates among the fry before they head into the perilous expanse of the ocean.

“They stay in those lakes, and now with less winter time and more productivity in those, they’re doing better in the lakes,” Bergstrom said.

But there’s another major change in the Bering Sea that he, Schultheis and others all point to as a potential culprit: hatcheries.

Industrial hatcheries fertilize salmon roe and raise the resultant fish in a protected environment until they’re strong enough to be released in a set spot in spawning rivers. The practice of stocking rivers with hatchery fish has been practiced for centuries, and has some success at reestablishing depleted runs if the habitat is also restored, according to Mark Kurlansky, a historian who recently published “Salmon: A Fish, the Earth, and the History of their Common Fate.” The problems arise when hatchery fish are dumped into the same food systems as wild stocks, so that an increased biomass of hungry young salmon is competing for the same amount of nutrients.

Between Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, Japan and Russia, 5 billion to 6 billion hatchery salmon flood into the Pacific every year, according to Kurlansky. This might be pushing the northern Pacific beyond its carrying capacity.

Twenty years ago, a novel research paper titled “The Road to Extinction is Paved with Good Intentions” looked at how chinook salmon on the Snake River off the Columbia fared alongside hatchery stocks. At the time, it was a new area of inquiry. What the authors found was that in years when ocean conditions were poor for the food supply, like during a strong El Nino, there was more competition, and wild salmon returns suffered.

Decades later, ocean warming from climate change appears to be recreating those same conditions that limit food supply in the sea, just as billions more smolt are poured into it annually. As the study’s authors warned in 2001, “The increased mortality of wild salmon associated with high densities of hatchery fish that we observed in years of poor ocean conditions may become more prevalent. As a result, industrial-scale hatcheries will probably become an increased threat to wild salmon.”

‘It’s not an option’

One of the few people in Emmonak not pointing at the ocean is Martin B. Moore Sr., the 84-year-old city manager.

“It’s very puzzling,” Moore said, hunched in his office chair and surrounded by stacks of municipal documents.

“This year we don’t have really any answers,” he said. “For subsistence, none. For commercial, none. It’s a disaster.”

But he points to what he says the elders told him as a possible explanation for why it’s happening.

“If you fight over the resource,” he said, “it’s gonna disappear.”

For a long time now there have been disputes. Disagreement over escapement numbers with managers, griping from up and down the river about who is taking too much or too little, treaty negotiations with the Canadians. Any time people argue about the animals, be it moose or salmon or seals, they will go away, as Moore tells it.

Vivian Korthuis, with AVCP, said the organization is working to convene together everyone with a stake in Bering Sea salmon to look for solutions. The region, she said, is already contending with massive challenges: the pandemic, insufficient public safety, high energy costs, poor infrastructure, lack of job opportunities and, now, the disappearance of a vital resource.

“It’s very difficult to ask for help for yourself or for anyone in your community,” Korthuis said. “All these hardships can easily break someone, or break a person who is trying to help their family, or the family itself, or the community. But that’s not going to happen.”

She reflected on the Connecticut River, depleted of its salmon for two centuries, before coming back to what’s at stake in her home region.

“It’s not an option,” Korthuis said. “We can’t get to that point. We have to do everything within our power to not make that happen.”