How residents of the lower Yukon River are coping after 2 years of crashing

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St. Mary’s elder Sophie Beans stands in her empty smoking room. (Photo by Olivia Ebertz/KYUK)

At the AC store in Emmonak, near the mouth of the Yukon River, Maggie Westlock was buying some things for dinner. In her cart, she had grapes, coleslaw, sandwiches and canned ham.

These are not the foods she and her family of 8 prefer to eat. During a normal summer, Westlock would fill his family’s dinner plates and chest freezers with plenty of wild chum and chinook salmon they caught themselves. But the fishery for these two species in the Yukon was closed for two summers due to a sudden and severe collapse.

This means that Westlock’s diet changes. Her family relies more on store-bought food. Her grocery bill has gone up dramatically, and inflation is making it even worse.

Westlock wheeled his cart to the freezer.

“I’m going to show you something,” she said.

Westlock picked up a small bundle of ribs, less than 2 pounds.

“This one is $37.10,” Westlock said.

On the other side of the store, things were even more dire.

“Laundry is very expensive! $62.99 is Tide and Kirkland is $55.99. Dear I tell you. And look at those pampers, huggies: $84.99. A box,” Westlock said.

The final damage was $81.81 for five items.

Residents are also feeling the loss 100 miles upriver at St. Mary’s. Elder Sophie Beans lives on the banks of the Andreafsky River, one of the Yukon’s tributaries where salmon spawn. She says that when there was fishing, her whole block was orange and filled with smoke.

“Full of kings and fishes,” Beans said.

And now?

“Nothing! Nobody cuts,” Beans said.

Beans stood in his empty smoking room. The smell of leftovers lingered in the wooden walls, but his smokehouse had been fish-free for two years. In both years, managers closed the subsistence fishery for chum and chinook to try to protect their dwindling numbers.

Last summer, the Yukon summer run dropped to just one tenth of its average size. This year, the numbers rose slightly for chum, but plummeted even more for chinook, the Yukon’s most prized species. Normally, families would set aside hundreds of both species to overwinter.

“My son, when he went drifting once, he caught 700 buddies and it took us three days. Seven bins! says Beans.

And that didn’t even include kings.

Beans use all parts of the fish, from head to tail. She does culunaq and egamaarrluk.

Beans usually keep three chest freezers filled with salmon, but now only one has salmon. It’s about a third full. This fish dates from two years ago, when fishing was still allowed. She and her husband now ration themselves, only taking out fish for special occasions.

Scientists point to warming seas

Scientists have been scrambling to understand why western Alaskan chum and chinook stocks are collapsing. They are beginning to focus on one main cause of the chum’s collapse: recent marine heat waves in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska. Dr. Katie Howard of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game says it’s linked to climate change. There have always been sea heat waves, but the recent ones are different.

“They were just bigger, they were geographically bigger, they were more intense. And they lasted much, much longer than usual. And so that’s what has been linked to climate change – it’s more extreme when it happens. And the other expectation is that they can happen more often,” Howard said.

But Howard says they don’t know exactly what’s impacting wild chinook, and that species has been declining in many Alaskan rivers for a decade now.

Many residents also point to another factor behind the low yields of both species: commercial fishing in the Bering Sea. State and federal managers allowed these commercial fisheries to continue to operate, even as they imposed stricter measures on subsistence users of the Yukon River.

State-donated and state-coordinated frozen salmon is one of the only fish the people of the lower Yukon River eat year-round. (Photo by Katie Basil/KYUK)

The state says it wants to continue studying the fish before taking action against commercial fishing, but most subsistence users say they don’t have time for years of scientific study. Many want the state and federal government to more strictly manage commercial fishing now.

Some scientists say the numbers are now so low that it is important to get every spawner back into the Yukon River. Dr. Howard says she is worried and this issue will only become more urgent as time goes on.

“If over a period of more than five years you don’t get enough fish on the spawning grounds to replenish the population, you really start to worry,” Howard said.

The low Chinook returns have well exceeded this five-year mark.

Higher Grocery Bills, Less Protein

Across town in St. Mary’s, in a small house overlooking the Andreafsky and Yukon rivers, Jolene Long and Troy Thompson live with their six young children.

Thompson worked as a commercial fisherman and has now been unemployed for two years. He says they are much more store-dependent and spend two or three times more on groceries than when salmon was plentiful.

To feed their family of 8, they spend between $400 and $600 a week. They don’t eat a lot of protein these days.

“When they catch a bit of fish, they just swallow it,” Long said.

Nicole Long, 11, practices cutting fish for the first time in two years with her mother, Jolene Long. (Photo by Katie Basil/KYUK)

The salmon crisis means it has become more difficult for parents to pass on their Yup’ik culture to their children. Long used to cut fish with his eldest daughter every summer. Now her daughter barely remembers how to cut.

She trained a bit after most of the St. Mary’s Tribe received two salmon each donated by the state.

For many St. Mary’s, that small amount of salmon given away is the only taste they’ll have all year round.

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