In a typical year, the smokehouses and drying racks that First Nations people use to prepare and winterize salmon would be teeming with fish flesh, the result of a summer spent fishing on the Yukon River like generations before them.
- Alaska governor has banned salmon fishing along the Yukon River, citing concerns over warming ocean temperatures
- The First Nations, who fish for salmon for food in winter, are “outraged” and “livid”
- Leaders want an Indigenous voice at the decision-making table
This year there are no fish. For the first time in memory, king salmon and chum salmon are nearly extinct and the state has banned salmon fishing in the Yukon, even the subsistence crops that First Nations rely on to fill their freezers and pantries. for winter.
The remote communities that dot the river and live off its riches – far from roads and easy and affordable stores – are desperate and increase moose and caribou hunts in late fall.
“Nobody has fish in their freezer right now. Nobody,” said Giovanna Stevens, 38, who grew up fishing for salmon in her family’s fishing camp.
Opinions about what led to the disaster vary, but those who study it generally agree that human-caused climate change is playing a role in the warming of the Bering River and Sea, altering the food chain of in a way that is not yet fully understood.
Some believe that commercial trawling operations, which collect wild salmon with their intended catches, and competition from hatchery-raised salmon in the ocean have exacerbated the effects of global warming on one of America’s longest rivers in America. North.
The hypothesis that salmon that are not caught return to their native river to lay eggs may no longer hold, as ocean and river environments have changed, according to Stephanie Quinn-Davidson, who has examined issues with salmon from the Yukon River for a decade.
King or chinook salmon populations have been in decline for over a decade, and chum salmon were abundant until last year.
This year, the number of summer chum has dropped and the number of fall chum – which travel further upstream – is dangerously low.
“Everyone wants to know, ‘What’s the only smoking gun? What is the only thing we can point out and stop? “” Ms. Quinn-Davidson said of the collapse.
Indigenous communities not consulted
Many indigenous communities are outraged at paying the price for generations of practices beyond their control.
They also believe that state and federal authorities are not doing enough to bring Indigenous representatives to the table, highlighting the helplessness felt by First Nations in the face of dwindling traditional resources.
The Yukon River is 3,200 kilometers long and crosses the lands of the Athabascans, Yup’iks and other tribes. The river originates in British Columbia and drains an area larger than Texas in Canada and Alaska.
The crisis affects both subsistence fishing in remote outposts and fish processing operations that employ tribal members in communities along the lower Yukon and its tributaries.
“In the tribal villages our people are livid,” said PJ Simon, president and chief of 42 tribal villages.
“They are extremely angry that we are being penalized for what others are doing.
More than a half-dozen indigenous groups have asked for federal help and they want the state’s federal delegation to hold a hearing in Alaska on the salmon crisis.
The groups are also seeking federal funding for more collaborative research into the effects of ocean changes on salmon returns.
Citing the warming of the ocean, Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy called for a federal declaration of a salmon fishing disaster this month and helped coordinate the airlift of around 41,000 kilograms of fish to villages in the need.
The salmon crisis is one of the governor’s top priorities, according to Dunleavy’s Alaskan Native Rural Affairs and Economic Development Advisor Rex Rock Jr.
However, it hasn’t done much to appease the remote villages that depend on salmon for their winter, when snow cripples the landscape and temperatures can drop to minus 29C or below.
Traditionally, families spend the summer in fishing camps using nets and fishwheels to catch adult salmon as they migrate inland from the ocean to where they have hatched and will spawn.
Salmon is prepared for storage in a variety of ways: dried for jerky, cut into fillets and frozen, canned in half-pint jars or kept in wooden barrels with salt.
Without these options, communities are under intense pressure to find other sources of protein.
First Nations turn to caribou and moose
Within Alaska, the closest road network is often miles away, and it can take hours by boat, snowmobile, or plane to reach a grocery store.
Store-bought food is prohibitive for many, with a gallon (3.8 liters) of milk costing almost $ 10, and a pound of steak recently costing $ 34 in Kaltag, an inland village.
An increase in COVID-19 cases that has disproportionately affected Alaska’s indigenous population has also made many people reluctant to venture far from their homes.
Instead, villages have sent additional hunting groups during the fall moose season and are looking to the next caribou season to meet their needs.
Those who cannot hunt themselves rely on others to share their meat.
“We have to watch our people because there will be some who will not have food by the middle of the year,” said 63-year-old grandmother Christina Semaken.
Ms Semaken hopes to fish next year, but it’s unclear if the salmon will return.
Tribal advocates want more genetic testing of salmon harvested from Alaskan waters fishing grounds to ensure commercial fisheries do not intercept wild salmon from the Yukon River.
They also want more fish-tracking sonar on the river to ensure an accurate count of salmon that escape harvest and return to the Canadian headwaters of the river.
Yet changes in the ocean itself could ultimately determine the fate of the salmon.
The Bering Sea, where the river meets the ocean, has suffered unprecedented ice loss in recent years and its water temperature is rising.
These changes disrupt the timing of plankton blooms and the distribution of small invertebrates that fish eat, creating potential chaos in the food chain that is still under investigation.
Kate Howard, a fisheries specialist in the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said warming seas, in addition to overfishing, pose a growing threat to salmon populations.
“Because salmon spend time in rivers and the ocean during their unique lifecycle, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where these rapid environmental changes are affecting them the most – but it’s increasingly clear that overfishing is not the only culprit, said Howard.
First Nations people scramble to fill a hole in their diet – and in centuries of tradition built around salmon.
On a recent fall day, a small group of hunters raced along the Yukon River in a motorboat, scanning the shore for moose tracks.
After three days, the group had killed two moose, enough to provide meat for seven families, or about 50 people, for a month in their small community of Stevens Village.
At the end of a long day, they slaughtered the animals as the Northern Lights cast a vibrant green across the sky, their headlamps piercing the inky darkness.
The makeshift camp, miles from any road, would normally accommodate several dozen families fishing for salmon, sharing meals and teaching children to fish. It was calm that day.
“I don’t really think there is some kind of bell that you can ring loud enough to try to explain this type of connection,” said Ben Steven, a resident of Stevens Village.
“Salmon for us is life.