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By Joaqlin Estus
ICT

Salmon populations on the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers have plummeted to record lows and fisheries managers shut down most or all of the fishing on the rivers last summer.

At the Alaska Federation of Natives convention in October delegates discussed possible solutions moving forward.

Brian Ridley, Athabaskan, is chief/chairman of the Tanana Chiefs Conference, the regional nonprofit for Interior Alaska.

“For the last three years we haven't been able to fish at all (on the Yukon). So our people have no fish whatsoever,” Ridley said speaking to ICT after the convention. Fishing was likewise closed on much of the Kuskokwim.

He said salmon numbers have been down for at least 10 years on the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers, with some species showing the lowest returns on record.

Salmon are born in freshwater and go to sea to mature then return to their birth streams to spawn and die.

“We haven't been meeting our escapement goals that we're supposed to have, a minimum number that gets into Canada to the headwaters to spawn,” Ridley said.

He said the lack of fish is causing food insecurity but the problem is larger than food shortages.

“What I'm hearing mostly from my elders are (concerns about) the ties to our culture and traditions.”

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Elders used to spend their entire summers camping out and harvesting and processing fish, he said. “Now we have a whole generation of our youth coming up who've never seen or been to fish camp because we have no fish. And that's one of our biggest concerns right now is that we don't want to go through a generation having never known to fish for salmon.“

Related: Low chum salmon numbers disrupt Yukon River residents' lifestyles - ICT

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He said the speed of the decline is also alarming. “That’s what I'm worried about, and that if we don't do something now, they might completely disappear and be gone forever. And that's what we're trying to prevent. "

Tanana Chiefs Conference and western Alaska organizations submitted a resolution at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention for a reduction in the number of fish that are intercepted on their way back to the rivers. 

Alaska's Area M fishing district near the Aleutian Islands (Courtesy of Alaska Department of Fish and Game)

It specified reducing interception fisheries in waters in the Gulf of Alaska along the western coast of the Alaska Peninsula and eastern Aleutian Islands, which for management purposes, are designated as Area M. The chiefs conference also submitted a resolution calling on fisheries managers to come up with incentives to reduce bycatch, the incidental catch of salmon, by trawlers fishing for cod and pollock.

Fishermen caught half a million chum salmon (9.4 percent from western Alaska) and almost 14,000 Chinook (King) salmon (more than half of them from western Alaska) in 2021 as bycatch in Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands ground fisheries.

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Ridley said there are other factors affecting the salmon returns but reductions in intercept and bycatch would help the salmon numbers in western Alaska rivers. He said it’s been tried before and had a positive effect.

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Also, “some of the people talk about, ‘Oh, there's a study coming out in 2026,’ and what I said (on the Alaska federation convention floor) is, if we wait till then we might have no fish left, zero, and we can't afford that. We have to do something now. We need action now.”

Nathan McCowen. Tlingit and Haida, is the president and CEO of St. George Tanaq Corporation, and the Aleutian Pribilof Islands region village representative to the Alaska Federation of Natives board of directors.

“Everyone in the Aleutians affirms and feels great sorrow for our friends in the Interior about the diminishing and crashing fish stocks and the impact on their way of life that it represents,” McCowen said. “We realize that their pain and their struggle is real, and we don't want to, in any way, undermine or dismiss the reality of what's happening to them and to their villages.”

However, he said for the Aleutians, there might be more effective solutions that don’t have such a high cost.

The resolutions pit two regions against each other, something the Alaska Federation does not promote, McCowan said.

“Number two the facts and the science that are behind the thinking of the resolution just simply haven't been validated anywhere.” Moreover, he said, “there are a number of studies underway by federal officials, by state officials, some of which have preliminarily concluded that it is in fact the habitat conditions and the prey species conditions which are driving the chum and Chinook crash.”

McCowan said the number of fish being taken in Area M has minimal significance to the shortage.

“The root cause of the problem is not intercept or harvesting of fish on their way to either the Yukon or Kuskokwim rivers, but rather, other harvesting practices outside the international waters, combined with most likely substantial changes in the ocean habitat.”

McCowan noted that Bristol Bay had a record run of sockeye salmon this year. “So there isn't a clear cut answer to the question that it's Area M. The sockeye that go into Bristol Bay pass Area M just like the chums and the Chinook (that go to the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers).

He said the changes to fisheries would not work. They could also devastate villages in the Aleutian Islands region, which rely on the commercial fishing industry.

“We don't have another backup plan,” McCowan said. “We don't have another source for people to be able to take care of themselves and their families. And (if limitations are set), we would see another wave of depopulation of our villages. We would see boats that would be put up never to be used again. We would see villages and schools close.”

He said he supports the efforts of the resolution. “But its actual practices were one that are going to be devastating without necessarily creating one more fish inside the rivers.”

He said a larger-scale governmental effort is needed, including tackling behaviors and policies worldwide that are influencing the ocean’s chemistry and fishing in international waters.

“We need long-term solutions from actors who are greater than ourselves to be able to restore the fish,” McCowan said.

He said changes to the Area M fisheries in the past have not led to more fish for the Yukon and Kuskokwim regions.

”If you take Area M and you say that that's the boogeyman, and yet you've done, you know, 99 things to neutralize the boogeyman and bad things are still happening, well, you gotta go back to your original proposition of is it really the boogeyman?”

On Oct. 22, delegates to the Alaska Federation of Natives convention voted to urge fisheries managers to reduce the number of salmon intercepted in Area M and to reduce bycatch.

Federation president Julie Kitka said the resolutions will go to the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

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