‘Salmon Is Life’: For Native Alaskans, Salmon Declines Pose Existential Crisis | Civil Eats

‘Salmon Is Life’: For Native Alaskans, Salmon Declines Pose Existential Crisis

Climate change and other factors are disparately impacting Indigenous subsistence fishermen, for whom salmon is the center of their culture. 

Two people observing sockeye salmon in a stream. (Photo credit: Jonny Armstrong)

Photo credit: Jonny Armstrong

In St. Mary’s, Alaska, the people of the Yupiit of Andreafski look to the south wind, the budding tree leaves, and even the formations of migrating birds to discern whether the pulse of salmon returning upriver to spawn will be strong. Serena Fitka grew up in this tiny Yukon River village, and though she now lives in Valdez, she returns home every summer with her family, to partake in the traditional salmon harvest that is both the community’s main source of sustenance and the fabric of its culture.

This year, however, abysmally low salmon runs in the Yukon River have led Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) to impose a moratorium on fishing for Chinook (or King) and Chum salmon in the mighty river, which runs for 2,000 miles from the Bering Sea to Canada’s Yukon Territory. While Yukon run sizes for both salmon species numbered about 1.9 million in the past, this year they’re projected to be less than 430,000. The moratorium impacts 40 villages and roughly 11,000 people, 90 percent of whom are Indigenous Alaskans. And many have no access to grocery stores or any other source of food besides what they can hunt or harvest.

On a recent trip to St. Mary’s, Fitka said she felt depressed. “I walk on to the riverbank, and I look at the river and . . . I want to go get fish, but I can’t. And that’s how everyone was feeling this year. People came to me and said, ‘I don’t know what to do.’” Fitka is executive director of the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association, which represents the interests of Indigenous subsistence fishermen on the Yukon River.

Serena Fitka

Serena Fitka

Chinook salmon, the largest and fattiest of Alaska’s five salmon species and the mainstay of these communities, has been declining for decades, and for the second year in a row, Indigenous fishing communities have faced a complete fishing moratorium. Now the Chum salmon, the tribes second-most-important species, which come upriver to spawn later in the summer and fall, have declined as well, catching everyone by surprise and leading to feelings of anger, frustration, and depression among tribal members.

“We have discerned a deeper sense of pain than we have ever seen before. The people are scared to totally different levels,” Ben Stevens, Tanana Chiefs Conference tribal resources manager, told Civil Eats. “In the past when numbers were low . . . it would be okay because we always had the Chum salmon to dry and to put in the freezers,” Stevens continued. “But this year is unprecedented. We’re not able to fish anything except maybe the white fish or the pike,” which he adds are less plentiful and don’t provide equivalent nutrition to salmon.

Salmon populations are also crashing in the Chignik River, on Alaska’s Peninsula, just north of the Aleutian Islands. Fishermen there, who are also largely Native Alaskans, face a similar moratorium on salmon fishing. But Alaskan salmon populations are not declining everywhere. Bristol Bay, in fact, is experiencing another banner year for Sockeye salmon, with the ADFG’s 2021 forecast predicting that 2021 harvests for both Sockeye and pink salmon, estimated at 170 million fish, will be “substantially larger” than the 2020 harvests.

“There’s a paradox,” said Peter Westley, an associate professor in the College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “Overall, in the ocean right now there’s more salmon than there has been in at least 100 years, but the species that are in the ocean are often the ones that are not of local importance.” In other words, the Chinook and Chum salmon that the Yukon River communities rely on are in decline, while other species in other regions are thriving, but scientists don’t fully understand why.

Overall, salmon appear to be moving further north into colder waters, as rising temperatures warm the oceans, said Westley, but that doesn’t explain the whole story. Regardless, Native Alaskans are disparately impacted by the changes to the salmon populations, and with salmon at the center of their culture, they face a potentially existential crisis.

Why Are Some Salmon Declining?

Alaskan salmon make their home in the Northern Pacific Ocean, a complex ecosystem shared with Russia and Asia, and with other fisheries. The five wild Alaskan species mingle and compete in the ocean with hundreds of millions of hatchery-raised salmon produced globally. Certain species spend their time in different regions of the ocean (such as the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska), but warming waters are changing their movements. They also spawn in a multitude of rivers. All this makes it hard for scientists to tease out why a particular species is failing in one area.

Sockeye salmon congregating at a stream mouth. (Photo credit: Jonny Armstrong)

Sockeye salmon congregating at a stream mouth. (Photo credit: Jonny Armstrong)

Climate change is a major factor, said Westley, whose research has linked rising ocean temperatures to smaller fish size and a decline in the age of returning salmon. Both point to “clear evidence that there’s competition for limited food in the ocean.” But the data are confounding, he says, and climate change doesn’t explain all of the population changes they’re seeing. Chinook and Chum salmon, for example, may also be getting out-competed by other salmon species, including hatchery-raised salmon produced in Asia and Russia.

Scientists are clear, however, that whatever is causing the Chinook, and possibly the Chum, to die is happening early in life, during their first years in the Bering Sea. Salmon hatch upriver and spend two years there before swimming out to the ocean, where they spend another three to four years before returning to the same river to spawn. Surveys conducted by ADFG in partnership with NOAA over the past 20 years have found fewer juveniles in the oceans, which means that fewer fish are reaching adult size and returning upriver to reproduce.

“Even when we get one juvenile cohort that’s better, it’s usually just one and then we drop back to low abundance again the following year. Or we get a period of a couple of low abundance juveniles,” said Katie Howard, a fisheries scientist for the ADFG.

Howard points to recent, rapid habitat changes, all linked to climate change, that are likely impacting the young salmon. “We see big changes in river temperatures, drought, permafrost melting,” she said. “We’re seeing changes to the timing of when we typically see our ocean blooms, which starts off this cascade of the food web every year. And we see changes in the distribution of different species in the Bering Sea with warmer temperatures.”

But Westley thinks that other factors, including fisheries management, cannot be ruled out. “We are sometimes too quick to point to things less under our control, like things in the ocean, when things are going bad, and we tend to applaud ourselves when things are going well,” he said.

Indigenous leaders question the impact of the Bering Sea’s pollock industry, which harvests the fish with a trawl net pulled behind the fishing vessel, and inadvertently scoops up salmon as bycatch. Howard agrees that some Yukon Chinook are caught up as bycatch in that fishery, but she says, “It’s just not what’s driving the low run abundance.”

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Bycatch reports are complicated to interpret because hatchery fish also get caught up by trawlers, but Howard estimates that about 17 percent of Chum bycatch “would have been attributed to Western Alaskan rivers including the Yukon,” in recent years. The pollock industry may not be the driving force behind the plummeting populations, but its impact cannot be dismissed.

‘Once You Pull That Main Stem Out, Nothing Stays Together’

Stevens is a member of the Dinyeet Hut’aana tribe who grew up in a sharing culture in a tiny village with fewer than 100 residents deep in the interior of Alaska. His place on the river and fish camp feed five to seven families. “We all join together to make this thing [salmon harvest] happen,” he said.

Salmon accounts for about 75 to 80 percent of Yukon River tribal diets, Stevens estimates. “Even more so, it goes beyond our tummy—into our souls, our culture. It’s not just sustenance. Salmon equals life,” he said.

“When we put a fish net in, and we go and check it,” he continues, “we’re having our kids help us. They’re feeling the joy and the pain along with us. It’s helping to solidify that social fabric of our families and our communities.”

When someone does catch their first salmon, it’s usually divided up, either within the family or within the community, to be passed off to elders first to make sure that they get a taste of the fish, said Fitka. Giving thanks is another important tradition that Fitka said she’s strayed from herself but is working to instill in her daughters.

A Native Alaskan child stands at a salmon drying rack in 2006 in the Bristol Bay area. (Photo credit: Mark Emery)

A Native Alaskan child stands at a salmon drying rack in 2006 in the Bristol Bay area. (Photo credit: Mark Emery)

Cutting and preserving salmon by smoking and drying it are especially central to the culture. Fitka recalls the first time she taught her oldest daughter, Hali, how to cut half-dried salmon, known as egamaarrluk in her tribal language. She reveled in her then-seven-year-old daughter’s pure enjoyment of the fish after the job was done, and they ate it dipped in seal oil with potatoes, cabbage, and carrots.

“I was that proud mother,” Fitka said. “My Indigenous soul was screaming, ‘Yeah!’ Now, she says that pride is complicated by a fear that her daughter may not be able to pass on the knowledge to her children. “I thought this thing wouldn’t come this soon. It’s disheartening,” She added.

Stevens worries about the future when he recalls 2012, the last time the Chinook population crashed and the tribes self-imposed a total moratorium on fishing. “We all beached our boats, hung up our fish nets, and just kind of went home. But the social ills that resulted from that were devastating. Domestic violence, drug abuse, and substance abuse—everything just skyrocketed.”

“Our jobs as Alaskan Native men is to help feed the people and protect the weak,” he continued. “If we’re not doing that, then we’re sitting on the couch, kind of in disarray. It’s a woven fabric—once you pull that main stem out, nothing stays together.”

Short- and Long-Term Solutions

The ADFG opened fishing for other salmon species, including pink and Coho, to communities on the lower and middle Yukon River, closer to the Bering Sea, said Deena Jallen, Yukon summer season manager at ADFG. Native fishermen must use different nets to harvest the smaller fish and agree to release any Chinook or Chum salmon they might catch incidentally. While the less-tasty, less-oily pink and Coho salmon aren’t a usual staple of Native Alaskan diets, Jallen said, “people are desperate, and they need something going into the winter.”

Communities on the upper Yukon, which account for about 30 percent of the river communities, have fewer alternatives. They only see Chinook and Chum in their part of the river and have access to limited freshwater species, said Jallen. They also have fewer moose in their area, another key food source.

Last year, donations of Bristol Bay sockeye salmon, funded by the nonprofit Catch Together, helped stave off hunger for the Yukon and Chignik river communities. But the funds have depleted, according to Linda Behnken, a commercial fisherman and executive director of the Alaska Longline Commercial Fishermen’s Association. And in response to families’ requests for more help, the groups that organized those donations are once again seeking funds to help the river communities. Some Bristol Bay food processers have already stepped up and begun purchasing sockeye for the Yukon River communities.

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Linda Behnken holding a halibut.

Linda Behnken holding a halibut.

Behnken also submitted a proposal to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for funds to study the feasibility of building a regional distribution system for moving Bristol Bay salmon inland to communities in need on a more sustained basis. Behnken and others want to keep building on the partnerships and infrastructure that quickly came together in 2020 to assist Alaskans in need. An ad-hoc network of small-boat fishermen, processors, transporters, Tribal groups and charitable food organizations is now in place, that with a consistent revenue stream could become a more robust channel for distributing plentiful Bristol Bay salmon to communities in need.

“What we were able to do last year, that supported [commercial] fishermen at a time when prices were too low, but more importantly met needs around the state, really highlighted for us how important it was for Alaskans to be prepared to help other Alaskans, especially as climate change starts to have these strange distributional, abundance impacts.”

Still Behnken says that “the real solutions are to address climate change, address the bycatch of salmon in the trawl fisheries, and . . . prioritize the fish and the people who depend on those fish in the [river] communities.”

Fitka thinks that reliance on fish donations is “crazy” when Native Alaskans should be out on the river. Stevens is thankful for the donations, but stresses, “We are by no means asking for handouts, because we want to be able to do this stuff ourselves. But when we got snow looking at us, and we don’t have a store, we don’t have jobs . . . if this is an option for us to get some protein out to those remote areas, we’re going to consider it and we will be thankful.”

At the same time, Stevens acknowledges that it’s not a long-term solution. On a broader scale, he wants regional resource managers to start integrating Indigenous science. “The folks in the villages have ideas on how to sustain life,” he says, though he acknowledges that generational wisdom about the natural world, such as “how the mice interact with the clouds via the wolf and lynx,” is hard to fit into the “Western scientific square.”

Stevens would also like to see greater Native representation on the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, which sets fishery policy for Alaska, Oregon, and Washington. Tribal members are on the local councils for subsistence fisheries but are poorly represented at higher levels in the state.

“We truly believe and assert that we should be able to go outside our villages and drop a net, solidifying that social fabric that sustains us, instead of going to the industrial complex over the mountains and accepting donations, or maybe even buying it from them,” he said. “We should be able to live our lives.”

Meg Wilcox is a freelance writer based in Boston focused on solutions-oriented stories about the ways people are fighting climate change, protecting the environment and making our agriculture systems more sustainable, including by addressing poverty. Read more >

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  1. Cree
    Surely the discerning scientists need to look into the connections of the mice, clouds and wolves. The answers may be right in front of them if there wasn’t the ridiculous attitude of some scientists, if ‘if they can’t prove it it doesn’t exist!’ Western medicine suffers from this too! A true scientist would look at a problem with open eyes. I can feel the pain of the indigenous communities but obviously only a fraction of their pain.

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