Dwindling Alaskan salmon leaves Yukon River tribes in crisis

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By NATHAN HOWARD and GILLIAN FLACCUS

October 2, 2021 GMT

STEVENS VILLAGE, Alaska (AP) – In a normal year, the smokehouses and dryers that Alaska Natives use to prepare salmon for winter crossing would be heavy with fish meat, the fruits of a summer spent fishing on the Yukon River like generations before them.

This year there is no fish. For the first time in memory, king salmon and chum salmon have been cut to almost nothing and the state has banned salmon fishing in the Yukon, even the subsistence crops that Alaska Natives rely on to fill their lives. freezers and their pantries for the winter. The remote communities that dot the river and live off its wealth – far from road networks and easy, affordable stores – are desperate and redouble their hunts for moose and caribou in the final days of fall.

“Nobody has fish in their freezer right now. Nobody,” said Giovanna Stevens, 38, a member of the Stevens Village tribe who grew up harvesting salmon at her family’s fishing lodge. fill that void quickly before winter arrives.”

Opinions on what led to the disaster vary, but those who study it generally agree that human-induced climate change is playing a role in warming the Bering River and Sea, altering the food web of a way that is not yet fully understood. Many believe commercial trawling operations that scoop up wild salmon with their predicted catch, along with competition from hatchery salmon in the ocean, have worsened the effects of global warming on one of America’s longest rivers. North.

According to Stephanie Quinn-Davidson, who has worked on Yukon River salmon issues for a decade and is the Alaska Venture Fund’s program director for fisheries and communities.

King salmon, or chinook, have been in decline for more than a decade, but chum salmon were more abundant until last year. This year, summer chum numbers have plummeted and fall chum numbers – which travel further upstream – are dangerously low.

“Everyone wants to know, ‘What’s the only smoking gun? What’s the one thing we can point and stop?’” she said of the meltdown. finger climate change because there’s no clear solution…but that’s probably the most important factor here.”

Many Alaskan Native communities are outraged that they are paying the price for generations of practices beyond their control that have caused climate change — and many feel that state and federal authorities are not doing enough to make Native voices heard. The scarcity has stirred strong emotions about who should have the right to fish in a state that supplies the world with salmon, and underscores the helplessness many Alaska Natives feel as traditional resources dwindle.

The Yukon River, nearly 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometers) long, begins in British Columbia and drains an area larger than Texas in Canada and Alaska as it flows through the lands of the Athabascan, Yup’ik and other tribes.

The crisis is affecting 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. They are extremely angry that we are being penalized for what others are doing,” said PJ Simon, president and leader of the Tanana Chiefs Conference, a consortium of 42 tribal villages in interior Alaska. “As Alaska Natives, we have a right to this resource. We have the right to have a say in how things are crafted and distributed.

More than half a dozen Alaska Native groups have requested federal assistance 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 on the effects of ocean change on returning salmon.

Citing ocean warming, Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy this month sought a declaration of federal disaster for salmon fishing and helped coordinate the airlift of about 90,000 pounds (41,000 kilograms) of fish to needy villages. The salmon crisis is a top priority for the governor, said Rex Rock Jr., Dunleavy’s adviser for rural affairs and Alaska Native economic development.

That has done little to appease remote villages that depend on salmon to get through winter, when snow cripples the landscape and temperatures can drop to minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 29C) or lower.

Families traditionally spend the summer in fishing camps using nets and fish wheels to catch adult salmon as they migrate inland from the ocean to where they hatched so they could spawn. Salmon is prepared for storage in a variety of ways: dried for jerky, cut into frozen fillets, canned in half-pint jars, or preserved in wooden barrels with salt.

Without these options, communities are under intense pressure to find alternative sources of protein. Inside Alaska, the nearest road network is often dozens of miles away and it can take hours by boat, snowmobile or even plane to reach a grocery store.

Store-bought food is prohibitively expensive for many: a gallon (3.8 liters) of milk can cost almost $10, and a pound of steak recently cost $34 in Kaltag, an inland village in approximately 328 air miles (528 kilometers) from Fairbanks. A rise in COVID-19 cases that has disproportionately affected Alaska Natives has also made many reluctant to venture far from home.

Instead, villages have sent in additional hunting parties 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 some won’t have food around the middle of the year,” said Christina Semaken, a 63-year-old grandmother who lives in Kaltag, a town in interior Alaska. less than 100 inhabitants. “We can’t afford to buy that beef or that chicken.”

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 fishing grounds in Alaskan waters to ensure commercial fishing does 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 fishing and return to the Canadian upper reaches 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 seen 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 web that is still being studied, said Kate Howard, a fisheries scientist at the Department of Fisheries. and Alaskan game. Researchers have also documented warming temperatures in the river that are unhealthy for salmon, she said.

Because salmon spend time in rivers and in the ocean during their unique life cycle, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where these rapid environmental changes affect them the most – but it’s increasingly clear that the Overfishing isn’t the only culprit, Howard said.

“When you dig through all the available data on salmon in the Yukon River,” she said, “it’s hard to explain everything unless you factor in climate change.”

Alaska Natives, meanwhile, are scrambling 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 cruised down the Yukon River in a motorboat, scanning the shoreline for signs of moose. After three days, the group had killed two moose, enough to provide meat for seven families, or about 50 people, for about a month in their small community of Stevens Village.

At the end of a long day, they slaughtered the animals as the Northern Lights blazed bright green in the sky, their headlamps piercing the inky darkness.

The makeshift camp, miles from any road, would normally host several dozen families harvesting salmon, sharing meals and teaching children to fish. It was eerily quiet that day.

“I don’t really think there’s any kind of bell that you can ring loud enough to try to explain this kind of connection,” said Ben Stevens, whose ancestors founded Stevens Village. “Salmon, for us, is life. Where can you go beyond that?

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