“It’s the fabric of our culture coming apart”: Yukon River communities face chinook and chum closure

A wooden fish wheel on a large river
A fish wheel on the Yukon River (FairbanksMike photo via Creative Commons)

In late June, summer chum salmon numbers in the Yukon River were the lowest on record. The Chinook run is also extremely low, resulting in ongoing closures of salmon fishing on much of the Yukon River.

RELATED: Yukon River chinook, chums, on track for dismal season

The loss is causing anxiety for more than 30 riverside communities that depend on chinook and chum as a main source of protein for the winter.

Ben Stevens is the Tanana Chiefs Conference tribal resources manager. Stevens is from Stevens Village on the upper Yukon and said he has never before seen such a total shut down.

Listen to the conversation here

Below is a transcript of an interview with Lori Townsend on Alaska News Nightly with minor edits for clarity

Ben Stevens: We’ve seen chinook crashes before in recent history. We were still okay with the idea because we had something else to fall back on. And that was the fall chum.

This year, it’s unprecedented because we don’t have the chinook or the fall chum and that has disturbed our folks to a level I haven’t seen before.

Lori Townsend: Are there other river or tributary opportunities close enough that could help people get fish in other places? Or is it just not possible?

Ben Stevens: My family, we go to fish camp, instead of setting the salmon net out there in the main stream, we’re starting to go into the back sloughs for white fish and pike. That is another source of protein. I guess pound for pound, it’s a tremendous exertion of energy. But that’s what it is. And that’s what we’re going to do.

A lot of folks up and down the Yukon are doing similarly. If folks don’t get a moose —which, you know, is very difficult — they’re going to be staring into October with nothing in their freezers. I think that scares a lot of people.

Lori Townsend: As you’re talking to Yukon River community residents, what are you hearing about their concerns for winter protein, and how they plan to try to help their families have enough to eat this winter?

Ben Stevens: Well, what we’re hearing is a lot of fear. And as an Alaska Native man, my job is to help feed the people. That’s what I have grown up doing. But I think that there’s fear way down deeper inside folks than I have ever sensed in my life. I’ve been around, I’ve experienced some things, I’ve experienced fear before in our people. But nothing has is so deep as this fear. I think that as we cannot harvest food from the land in the waters, it’s the fabric of our culture coming apart. That’s essentially what it is.

Lori Townsend: Meanwhile, as you’re probably aware, Bristol Bay is seeing the largest sockeye run in history right now. Is Tanana Chiefs Conference working to get fish from Bristol Bay or other areas for residents along the Yukon? Could that be part of at least the short-term solution for this winter?

Ben Stevens: Absolutely. We’re looking at all options in front of us. But you’re right: It is only a short-term solution. And it is not a solution that can be carried into the future. Because we should not be given up our fish in Steven’s Village to buy fish from the system out there in the marine environment. Does that make any sense? We should be able to take our families to the fish camps, have our kids pull that fishnet, have them process, and that play, go straight on to the fire.

There’s something strong, there’s something very, very spiritual about that thing that our people survive on. It’s not just sustenance for your tummy, it’s sustenance for your soul. It’s family ties that are being strengthened.

Lori Townsend is the news director and senior host for Alaska Public Media. You can send her news tips and program ideas for Talk of Alaska and Alaska Insight at ltownsend@alaskapublic.org or call 907-550-8452.

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