Two major rivers in western Alaska have seen fewer salmon returning to spawn in recent years. It’s too early to tell how the run of chum salmon on the Yukon will be this year. But with commercial fishing becoming a less reliable venture, one fishing enterprise is hoping to find stability by turning to veggies.
The goal is to keep the business operating and workers employed, so Kwik’pak Fisheries in the village of Emmonak is diversifying its business by building greenhouses right next to its fish processing plant.
Traditionally, Kwik’Pak is the only fish buyer in the lower Yukon, and one of the region’s main employers during the summer. During good chum and coho salmon runs, Kwik’pak can employ between 100 and 300 workers on a given day. A number of those employees are teenagers from villages all over the lower Yukon.
"It's great seeing these kids, ‘cause their self esteem and well being, they just glow because they have work," said Jack Schultheis, who manages Kwik'Pak Fisheries. "They have their own money. And not just menial work, but when they can use the imagination and their intellect."
But last summer, low salmon runs meant that Kwik’Pak couldn’t hire as many people, which meant fewer people receiving paychecks used to pay bills and buy the supplies needed to practice subsistence. So to keep up local employment, and to widen local food access following years of weak salmon runs, Schultheis began thinking about other options for Kwik’Pak.
"Food security is what it comes down to. And having fresh, fresh vegetables that you could actually afford to buy, and they would be good quality," Schultheis said.
So Schultheis, who lives in Anchorage but has been coming up to Emmonak seasonally for 50 years, asked community members what kind of vegetables they wanted.
"Potatoes, carrots, lettuce, tomatoes, broccoli, peas," said Schultheis.
He ordered greenhouses, which arrived on June 14, and he’s already hired workers to set them up. Schultheis said that he knows it will be a short growing season this year, but he has a plan in place and he’ll learn along the way.
"I wouldn't call this season an experiment, I would call it gaining experience," said Schultheis.
And if the chum run is high enough to open a commercial fishery this summer, the two operations will sustain each other. Schultheis said that he will use fish waste to enrich the soil in his greenhouses. Schultheis also hopes that the program can partner with local grocery stores to sell its produce upriver.
Reprinted from KYUK, Public Media for Alaska's Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.