Alaskan salmon decline leaves Yukon River tribes in crisis

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IN DEVELOPMENT … The story will be updated as new information can be verified. Updated 3 times

STEVENS VILLAGE, Alaska – In a normal year, the smokehouses and drying racks that Alaskan natives use to prepare salmon for wintering would be laden with fish flesh, fruit of a summer spent fishing on the Yukon River like generations before them.

This year there are no fish. For the first time in memory, king salmon and chum salmon are all but extinct and the state has banned salmon fishing in the Yukon, even the subsistence crops that Alaskan natives rely on to fill their freezers and their freezers. pantry for the winter. The remote communities that dot the river and live off its riches – far from roads and easy, affordable stores – are desperate and increase moose and caribou hunts in late fall.

“No one 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 camp. “We need to fill this void quickly before winter arrives.”

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. Many believe that commercial trawling operations that collect wild salmon with their intended catches, as well as competition from hatchery-raised salmon in the ocean, have exacerbated the effects of global warming on one of America’s longest rivers. North.

The assumption that salmon that are not caught return to their native river to lay eggs may no longer hold due to changes in ocean and river environments, said Stephanie Quinn-Davidson, who has worked on issues of the Yukon River salmon for a decade and is the director of the Alaska Venture Fund program for fisheries and communities.

King or chinook salmon have been in decline for over a decade, but chum salmon were more 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 weapon that smokes? “What’s the only thing we can point and stop?” She said of the collapse. “People are reluctant to report climate change because there is no clear solution… but it is probably the most important factor here. “

Many Native Alaskan communities are outraged at paying the price for generations of practices beyond their control that have caused climate change – and many believe federal and state authorities are not doing enough to make their voices heard. The scarcity has sparked strong emotions over who should be allowed to fish in a state that supplies the world with salmon, and underscores the helplessness many Alaskan natives feel in the face of dwindling traditional resources.

The nearly 2,000-mile (3,200-kilometer) Yukon River originates 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 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. They are extremely angry that we are being penalized for what others do, ”said PJ Simon, president and leader of the Tanana Chiefs Conference, a consortium of 42 tribal villages in the interior of Alaska. “As Alaskan natives, we have a right to this resource. We have the right to have a say in how things are worked out and divided. “

More than a half-dozen Native Alaskan groups have asked for federal help and 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 salmon returns.

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

It does little to appease the remote villages that depend on salmon to get through the winter, when snow paralyzes the landscape and temperatures can dip to minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 29 C) or below.

Families traditionally spend the summer in fishing camps using nets and fishwheels to catch adult salmon as they migrate inland from the ocean to where they are. have hatched so that they can spawn. Salmon is prepared for storage in a variety of ways: dried for jerky, cut into fillets that are 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. Within Alaska, the closest road network is often tens of miles away, and it can take hours by boat, snowmobile, or even by plane to reach a grocery store.

Store-bought food is prohibitive 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 about 328 miles away. air (528 km) from Fairbanks. An increase in COVID-19 cases that has disproportionately affected Alaskan natives has also made many reluctant to venture far from home.

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 Christina Semaken, a 63-year-old grandmother who lives in Kaltag, an inland town in the Alaska of less than 100 inhabitants. “We cannot afford to buy this beef or this 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 Alaskan waters fishing grounds to ensure commercial fisheries do not intercept wild salmon from the Yukon River. They also want more sonar to track fish 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 experienced unprecedented ice loss in recent years and its water temperature is rising. These changes are disrupting the flowering timing of plankton and the distribution of small invertebrates that fish eat, creating potential chaos in the food chain that is still under investigation, said Kate Howard, a fisheries scientist in the Department of Fisheries. and game from Alaska. The researchers also documented warming temperatures in the river which are unhealthy for salmon, she said.

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 the overfishing isn’t the only culprit, Howard said.

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

Alaskan natives, meanwhile, must 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 traveled the Yukon River by 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 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 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 strangely quiet 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 Stevens, whose ancestors founded Stevens Village. “Salmon for us is life. Where can you go beyond that? “


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