After last year’s disastrous king and chum salmon runs on the Yukon River, observers witnessing crashing fish stocks and the devastating impact of subsistence fishing closures along the length of the river were left to wonder: Could it get worse than this?
This year has answered that question: yes, at least for kings. The fish at the heart of Southwest and Interior Alaska river culture is having its worst year in recorded history, by a wide margin. And although the chum run this year is better than last year’s record low, at about 500,000 fish so far this summer, it’s still frighteningly low compared to the usual seven-figure returns. Alaska Department of Fish and Game fall run manager Christie Gleason said that in all likelihood, subsistence fishing during the run will be closed along the entire length of the river for the second year in a row. That’s a devastating blow to river communities, both economically and culturally.
The importance of king salmon to Yukon River villages can scarcely be overstated. The big, oily and flavorful fish are a mainstay of dinner tables from the Bering Sea to the Canada border. In good years, residents can significantly defray their winter grocery bills with a substantial catch of kings — an important economic aid in places where diesel costs as much as $10 per gallon and food has to be flown in once the river freezes. But more important than the dollar value of the fish is their cultural and spiritual significance to Alaska Native people. The salmon provide purpose and direction for a summer on the river, and it’s no exaggeration to say that village life revolves around the salmon runs.
It is this special importance of the salmon, and particularly the kings, that makes decisive action imperative to preserve the Yukon runs. The stakes are clear: Fewer than 45,000 kings have been counted at Pilot Station near the river mouth, and the run is effectively over. In 2000, the second worst year on record, upwards of 54,000 fish had been counted at this point. In every other year, more than 100,000 kings were counted at Pilot Station. Put another way, Alaska’s salmon treaty with Canada has a minimum escapement goal of 42,500 kings crossing the border just upstream from Eagle, more than 1,200 miles from the river mouth. Even in six-figure king years, sometimes that minimum isn’t reached. This year, the border would have to be at the Bering Sea to satisfy the treaty obligations.
It is, of course, possible that this year’s drastic low is an outlier, as 2000 was. But that Pollyanna outlook — that the kings will surely bounce back, because they have before — neglects some key truths. Most importantly, when a population crashes too far, recovery just isn’t possible. That’s a lesson Lower 48 residents learned in the 20th century in the salmon streams of Washington and Oregon, which made Alaska’s salmon far more important. Also, assuming a bounce-back is inevitable ignores the historical trend — since the late 1990s, the king run has averaged substantially fewer fish than it did in the decades prior.
So what’s to be done? The first step is understanding the factors driving Yukon salmon populations down. It’s generally understood that commercial bycatch and environmental change due to warming waters are both contributors, but we don’t have a clear picture of how much each affects returns, and whether other factors — ecosystem pressure from hatchery fish, pirate fishing by other nations, etc. — could also be at play. The governor has put together a bycatch task force, but it’s as yet unclear what if any impact that group will have on Alaska’s bycatch rules — the group has ample representation from commercial fishing interests, and its focus is statewide, not on the Yukon. What we need is a sober, science-only look at the roots of the Yukon River’s woes, untainted by powerful political and economic interests. It needs to be exhaustive, it needs to be adequately funded and it needs to happen now. And our policymakers need to meaningfully address its findings by taking whatever action is necessary to preserve and restore the Yukon’s salmon.
We need to take action now, because here’s what will happen in the absence of clear direction: Fish and Game will bemoan the state of the run, closing the commercial and subsistence fisheries. The bycatch task force will issue a watered-down recommendation suggesting that commercial operators voluntarily reduce their quotas, but the rules won’t change. The lack of science-based answers will leave us guessing at causes and stifle action. And along the length of the Yukon River, the people who rely on salmon for food, culture and purpose will suffer for this inaction. If they receive any compensation for the loss of their fish, it will take the form of food stamps or, at best, donated fish from other places where the runs are healthier — which, in its own way, is just a reminder that others have it better.
And village residents along the Yukon River don’t want food stamps. They want their salmon back, and they deserve to have them. Because there’s no true replacement for a smokehouse full of fish you caught yourself. There’s no true replacement for the time spent at fish camp, each generation learning from the ones before, passing down knowledge and skills that have been honed over millennia. There’s no true replacement for knowing you were able to provide for your family.