ST. MARY’S, Alaska – There are too few salmon right now in Alaska's Yukon River. That's making it hard for Indigenous residents to feed their families. And it's all made worse by skyrocketing prices at the grocery store.
Maggie Westlock, Yup’ik, is in a grocery store in Emmonak, a small village near the mouth of the Yukon River in western Alaska. She's picking up a few things for dinner.
“Grapes. Coleslaw. Sandwich,” Westlock commented to KYUK.
These are not the foods she and her family of eight prefer to eat. Normally, she'd be filling her freezer with wild salmon, the same staple food her Yup'ik ancestors ate for thousands of years. Now, because of a sudden and severe salmon crash, her family is forced to rely on store-bought food. Westlock picks up a small pack of ribs.
“Thirty-seven dollars and 10 cents,” Westlock said.
In the diaper aisle, things are even more dire.
“And look at these Pampers, Huggies, $84.99, one box. Expensive, I tell you.”
She doesn't end up buying the diapers or the ribs. Still, the final damage is more than $80 for just five items. Westlock is spending a lot more on food than back when she was fishing. The salmon crash has touched every Indigenous village from the Yukon River's mouth on the Bering Sea to its headwaters in British Columbia nearly 2,000 river miles away.
A hundred miles upriver in the village of St. Mary's, Yup’ik elder Sophie Beans is peering into her smokehouse with her daughter, Deedee. It's empty now, but her whole street used to be filled with the sweet aroma of smoking fish.
When asked what the neighborhood would normally be like, when people were fishing, Beans replied, “Orange and smoky.”
“Yeah. Orange, full of kings and fish,” she said.
Now it looks like, “nothing.”
The Yukon's two most important salmon species are crashing. The most prized species is the big and fatty king salmon. Those have been running in low numbers for years. The other main species, chum salmon, was super abundant until just last year.
“My son Matty, one time he caught 700 chums,” Beans said. “And that's not even the kings before that.”
Scientists have been scrambling to figure out why western Alaska wild salmon stocks are crashing.
“That has been tied to a changing climate.”
That's Katie Howard, a fish biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. She says marine heatwaves have intensified in recent years. That's what's likely driving the chum crash.
“They were just bigger. They were geographically larger. And they lasted over a much, much longer period of time than is typical. It's more extreme when it happens. And the other expectation is that they may occur more often,” Howard said.
Back in the village of St. Mary’s, 11-year-old Nicole Thompson, Yup’ik, is practicing cutting fish with her mom for the first time in years.
“We cut it here, then cut at the head,” Thompson said.
Most tribal members in the village have just received a couple of donated salmon from the state. For most, it's the only taste they'll get all year. Nicole is struggling to remember exactly how to cut the fish. Her dad, Troy, says when he was his daughter's age, he already knew how because fish were so abundant and he got more practice.
“Pretty sad, though. We have to wait for fish one or two at a time. If we had a lot more I'm pretty sure she'd have it down a little quicker,” Troy Thompson, Yup’ik, said.
The salmon crash is about more than food. It's making it harder for parents to pass on Yup’ik culture to their kids.
This article was first published in KYUK.