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Meghan Sullivan
Indian Country Today

YUKON RIVER, ALASKA — Laurel Sullivan, Koyukon Athabascan, hauled up the 20-by-60-foot setnet from the whirling Yukon River eddy with the help of her family members. After weeks of her family’s planning, traveling, setting up camp, and then finally setting the net into the water just off shore, she was anxious to see if all the effort had paid off.

What she saw was not encouraging. There were only three king salmon caught in the net. Ten years ago, there might have been 15 or 20 kings, but not today.

Many Alaska Native people subsistence fish in the summer, traveling to their fish camps up and down the Yukon River to harvest the spawning salmon. Some use fish wheels to capture chinook salmon, also called king salmon. Others set large, stationary nets in eddies — areas along the riverbank with swirling currents where salmon rest and can be more easily caught.

Fish camps are scattered in between the region’s various remote villages, hours away from roads, cell service, or internet access. To get there, people fly small bush planes or drive river boats through the rugged Yukon terrain.

It’s an Alaska Native cultural practice that goes back thousands of years, and one that has continued to be a staple of contemporary Alaskan culture. Families work together under the endless hours of the midnight sun to catch, smoke, and can the summer salmon, so that it can be used as food throughout the winter. Today, around 40 Yukon communities rely on subsistence fishing, said Holly Carroll, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s seasonal salmon biologist.

Fish camp on the Yukon River in Alaska. (Photo by Meghan Sullivan, Indian Country Today)

This summer, the Yukon River encountered another below average run of chinook and chum salmon. The low numbers are consistent with the weak and late salmon runs seen across Alaska this fishing season. It is also on par with the past decade’s negative Yukon River salmon run trends.

“We ended up with a projected run size of about 160,000 [chinook]. So that's definitely below average, which is closer to about 185,000 in the recent 10 years,” Carroll said. For chum, it was even worse. “Chum runs are typically about 1.8 million. But this year it's probably going to be around 700,000,” less than half the norm, she said.

The delayed run led Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game to shorten and push back the fishing season for certain areas of the Yukon. This decision is intended to protect salmon populations, but it can be frustrating for commercial and subsistence fishers who rely on the fish.

This year’s limited salmon run was further complicated by unusually high water along the Yukon River.

“The water was the highest I’ve ever seen in my lifetime. The elders were saying the same thing. There was no beach, it looked like a completely different fish camp,” said Ben Fate-Velaise, Koyukon Athabascan, whose fish camp is located near Rampart Village.

High water can wash excessive amounts of beached debris into the river, which can then become stuck in fishnets, fish wheels, and boat motors. It can also make setnet fishing more challenging. With increased water in the eddies and therefore a larger area for the fish to rest in, the likelihood of catching salmon is lower.

Some fish can even become stranded in isolated pools on land when river water rapidly rises then recedes, says Carroll.

The high waters are another addition to the growing list of environmental changes seen throughout rural Alaska in the past 10 years.

Fish camp on the Yukon River in Alaska. (Photo by Meghan Sullivan, Indian Country Today)

These changes have been noticed by locals and scientists alike. However, the specific reasons for the yearly environmental differences are not always clear.

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Higher water can usually be traced back to one of three causes: increased rain, glacial melt, or snow melt. But there are many factors that can impact the success of a year’s salmon run. This makes identifying the cause for an unusual salmon run more difficult.

Considerations that can impact a salmon population include warming water temperatures, increased competition amongst other fish species, and overfishing in the oceans. Biologists also look at issues in the current salmon run’s “parent year,” to see if a population decline stemmed from the year they were conceived, rather than challenges faced on their spawning journey.

“All these factors could have effects on the different life stages of the salmon. We know the least about the salmon once they've hatched out and then once they out-migrate. So they have to swim all the way back down the Yukon and get to the ocean — what’s happening to them during that period?” asked Carroll.

Despite increased technology to monitor the salmon runs, some aspects of their journey are still shrouded in mystery.

For example, the spawning chum population this year was around 83 percent five-year-olds. This population is typically made up of an equal split between five-year-olds and four-year-olds — meaning that a significant portion of the 2020 four-year-olds were missing.

“There's definitely something going on in the oceans, we know that the fish are coming back smaller. And they're also coming back younger — we're seeing less and less of seven-year-olds returning,” said Carroll.

Cutting the salmon at fish camp on the Yukon River in Alaska. 2021 (Photo by Meghan Sullivan, ICT)

Reports earlier in the season indicated that the chum and chinook population would be too small to open for harvest.

While the salmon run did not turn out as bad as it was initially projected to be, the shaky run has still had negative consequences throughout the region. For example, Kwik’Pak, a chum processor in the lower Yukon area, had to close down its summer operations due to a limited salmon supply.

Subsistence fishers also saw negative impacts.

“I really miss the times when we were growing up, where it'd be six in the morning and we’d hear our aunties across camp yelling, ‘how many [salmon] did we get?’ after we’d return from pulling the nets,” said Fate-Velaise. “And the answer was always in the 20s, sometimes even in the 30s. But these days, we don't even ask how many. Just because we know the answer is probably somewhere between zero and five.”

Carroll and Fate-Velaise both believed that people were somewhat prepared to be in chinook conservation mode, given the fluctuating salmon populations of previous years. But this year’s poor salmon run seemed especially detrimental during a time when food instability has already been occurring.

“I think the most terrible thing is that this is 2020. This is the year that people are already struggling with lots of income and food security issues, frustrations with travel restrictions, worries about family members’ health,” said Carroll. “Now we have these two runs which are weak and we’ve had to limit the harvest on. And then you have weird water levels that make fishing that much harder. And it's just been one blow after the other to the people that rely on these fish.”

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Meghan Fate Sullivan, Koyukon Athabascan, is a Stanford Rebele Fellow for Indian Country Today. She grew up in Alaska, and is currently reporting on her home state from our Anchorage Bureau. Follow her on Twitter: @mfatesully

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