In a normal year, the smokehouses and drying racks that First Nations people use to prepare salmon to tide them through the winter would be heavy with fish meat, the fruits of a summer spent fishing on the Yukon River like generations before them.
- Alaska’s Governor has banned salmon fishing along the Yukon River, citing concerns about warming ocean temperatures
- First Nations, who fish salmon to sustain them 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, both king and chum salmon have dwindled to almost nothing and the state has banned salmon fishing on the Yukon, even the subsistence harvests that First Nations rely on to fill their freezers and pantries for winter.
The remote communities that dot the river and live off its bounty — far from road systems and easy, affordable shopping — are desperate and doubling down on moose and caribou hunts in the waning days of fall.
“Nobody has fish in their freezer right now. Nobody,” said 38-year-old Giovanna Stevens who grew up harvesting salmon at her family’s fish camp.
Opinions on what led to the catastrophe vary, but those studying it generally agree human-caused climate change is playing a role as the river and the Bering Sea warm, altering the food chain in ways that aren’t yet fully understood.
Some believe commercial trawling operations, that scoop up wild salmon along with their intended catch, and competition from hatchery-raised salmon in the ocean have compounded global warming’s effects on one of North America’s longest rivers.
The assumption that salmon that aren’t fished make it back to their native river to lay eggs may no longer hold up, because the ocean and river environments have changed, according to Stephanie Quinn-Davidson, who has examined on Yukon River salmon issues for a decade.
King, or chinook, salmon populations have been declining for more than a decade, and chum salmon were in abundance until last year.
This year, summer chum numbers plummeted and numbers of fall chum — which travel farther upriver — are dangerously low.
“Everyone wants to know, ‘What is the one smoking gun? What is the one thing we can point to and stop?'” Ms Quinn-Davidson said of the collapse.
Indigenous communities not consulted
Many Indigenous communities are outraged they are paying the price for generations of practices beyond their control.
They also feel state and federal authorities aren’t doing enough to bring Indigenous representatives to the table, underscoring the powerlessness First Nations feel as traditional resources dwindle.
The Yukon River is 3,200-kilometers long and cuts through the lands of Athabascan, Yup’ik and other tribes. The river starts in British Columbia and drains an area larger than Texas in both Canada and Alaska.
The crisis is affecting both subsistence fishing in far-flung 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,” PJ Simon, chairman and chief of 42 tribal villages said.
“They’re extremely angry that we are getting penalised for what others are doing.
More than a half-dozen Indigenous groups have petitioned for federal aid, 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 changes on returning salmon.
Citing the warming ocean, Republican Governor Mike Dunleavy requested a federal disaster declaration for the salmon fishery this month and has helped coordinate airlifts of about 41,000 kilos of fish to villages in need.
The salmon crisis is one of the governor’s top priorities, according to Dunleavy’s adviser for rural affairs and Alaska Native economic development, Rex Rock Jr.
However, that has done little to appease remote villages that depend on salmon to get through winter, when snow paralyses the landscape and temperatures can dip to minus 29 C or lower.
Traditionally, families spend the summer at fish camps using nets and fish wheels to snag adult salmon as they migrate inland from the ocean to the place where they hatched and will spawn.
The salmon is prepared for storage in a variety of ways: dried for jerky, cut into fillets and frozen, canned in half-pint jars or preserved in wooden barrels with salt.
Without those options, communities are under intense pressure to find other protein sources.
First Nations turn to caribou, moose
In the Alaska interior, the nearest road system is often miles away, and it can take hours by boat, snow machine or airplane to reach a grocery store.
Store-bought food is prohibitively expensive for many, with a gallon (3.8 litres) of milk costing nearly $10, and a pound of steak was recently $34 in Kaltag, an interior village.
A surge in COVID-19 cases that has disproportionately hit Alaska’s Indigenous population has also made many hesitant to venture far from home.
Instead, villages sent out extra hunting parties during the fall moose season and are looking to the upcoming caribou season to meet their needs.
Those who can’t hunt themselves rely on others to share their meat.
“We have to watch our people because there will be some who will have no food about midyear,” 63-year-old grandmother Christina Semaken said.
Ms Semaken hopes to fish next year, but whether the salmon will come back remains unknown.
Tribal advocates want more genetic testing on salmon harvested from fishing grounds in Alaskan waters to make sure that commercial fisheries aren’t intercepting wild Yukon River salmon.
They also want more fish-tracking sonar on the river to ensure an accurate count of the salmon that escape harvest and make it back to the river’s Canadian headwaters.
Yet changes in the ocean itself might ultimately determine the salmon’s fate.
The Bering Sea, where the river meets the ocean, had unprecedented ice loss in recent years, and its water temperatures are rising.
Those shifts are throwing off the timing of the plankton bloom and the distribution of small invertebrates that the fish eat, creating potential chaos in the food chain that’s still being studied.
Kate Howard, a fisheries scientist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said warming seas, in addition to overfishing, was an increasing threat to salmon populations.
“Because salmon spend time in both rivers and the ocean during their unique life cycle, it’s hard to pin down exactly where these rapid environmental changes are most affecting them — but it’s increasingly clear that overfishing is not the only culprit, Ms Howard said.
First Nations peoples are left scrambling to fill a hole in their diet — and in centuries of tradition built around salmon.
On a recent fall day, a small hunting party zoomed along the Yukon River by 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 a month in their small community at Stevens Village.
At the end of a long day, they butchered the animals as the Northern Lights blazed a vibrant green across 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 how to fish. On this day, it was quiet.
“I don’t really think that there is any kind of bell out there that you can ring loud enough to try to explain that type of connection,” Stevens Village local Ben Steven said.
“Salmon, to us, is life.