News-Miner opinion: There is growing frustration in Yukon River villages about anemic salmon runs, the state’s closures of all
fisheries, including subsistence, to protect escapement goals and a lack of concrete answers about the problem.
Meanwhile, those who depend on the annual chum and king salmon runs to feed their families are left to wonder about their future.
A recent three-part series in the News-Miner reported and written by Alena Naiden details the complex problems. Chums are coming back in such small numbers there are questions about state escapement goals being met. Kings? They are returning near or below the low-end of run projections.
The importance of the salmon runs to the Yukon River region tribes cannot be overstated. The fish are the very foundation of their lifestyle and a primary source of sustenance.
What is wrong with the fisheries? Nobody appears able to pinpoint a single problem. Is it increased bycatch in areas outside the Yukon? Or climate change? Warmer ocean water temperatures? Or is it a combination of factors that have coalesced to decimate the runs?
Stephanie Quinn-Davidson is tribal fisheries commission director for the Tanana Chiefs Conference. She told Naiden, “The way that the chum salmon numbers are looking right now, we’ve never seen anything like this before.”
She said such low runs of chum and kings occurring at the same time are rare and are costing tribes a food source and a “loss of culture, and tradition, and knowledge passed down.”
A delegation of fish managers and tribal leaders visited three Yukon villages last month and a tense atmosphere greeted them in Huslia, Nulato and Holy Cross. Villagers questioned fishery regulations and wondered whether they will be able to harvest enough food for their communities. The majority of people from the villages objected to the restrictions and impatiently wanted fish managers to explain the poor runs.
The managers said they are “a couple years behind” in responding to the changing environment. Tanana Chiefs Conference has started a climate change department, where members talk about alternatives to fishing such as using poultry and reindeer, TCC Chief and Chairman PJ Simon said.
“If there’s no fish in the future, what are we gonna do?” he asked.
While there are efforts underway to lessen bycatch’s impact and reroute those fish to villagers, TCC is looking for ways to immediately help tribes hurt by the run crashes and closures. Providing funding and boxed fish from other regions are possibilities.
For now, all salmon fishing remains closed in the majority of the region, from to the mouth of the river to the Canadian border. That is not sitting well with some villagers.
“There’s gonna be lots of trouble,” Shirley Kruger, of Nulato, said. “People just kind of go off, and they are gonna go get their fish.”
An international treaty between Canada and the U.S. calls for the two nations to work together to ensure at least 42,500 fish make it to their spawning waters in the Yukon more than 1,300 miles away. The escapement goal hasn’t been met since 2018. Last year, only about 33,000 chinook made it to Canadian spawning grounds.
The Yukon River region’s problem is real and potentially catastrophic. There are no easy answers. Unless there is a dramatic, unexpected and unlikely turnaround in the size of the Yukon River runs, villages along the waterway most certainly will require state and TCC help of some kind later this year.
As the state works to maximize its fisheries resources, we urge researchers and fish managers to work with the villages to find the answers necessary to ensure healthy future runs.
A culture largely depends on those answers.