This has been the worst salmon fishing season on record for the Yukon River.
King salmon, a regional favorite, have returned in low numbers for years. But now a typically stable species, chum salmon, has also collapsed this year. Subsistence fishing on the lower Yukon River for both species is now closed. Residents, like Jason Lamont, who usually depend heavily on the fish are pivoting toward other ways to get protein.
“I started fishing on the Yukon when I was 6 years old,” said Lamont. “There was one point, me and my grandpa were coming down here for supplies and we had a summer chum jump into the boat. But those days are gone.”
Lamont is from Emmonak and lives off of subsistence food, which in past summers has meant salmon. His family doesn’t buy meat from the store: Salmon caught during the summer will help carry his family through the winter.
“We used to target 300 fish to put away,” he said. “We’d get that in about two to three hours. Nowadays in our freezer we have only one fish so far, and we’re lucky to have it.”
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Elder Herman Hootch also relies on subsistence food. Like Lamont, Hootch is from Emmonak, near the mouth of the Yukon River.
“We learned from our parents that food from the store is not healthy,” Hootch said.
Neither Hootch nor Lamont have been able to subsistence fish for chums or kings on the Yukon this year because of closures.
The Yukon River flows from Canada into Alaska. In order for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to open subsistence fishing, over 300,000 summer chum salmon first need to be counted in the river.
Normally, that number is met without a problem. On average, the run size is 1.7 million summer chum, as counted by a sonar in Pilot Station.
But last year, the run suddenly dropped to just 700,000 fish. And this year, that number shrank to a fraction of the average run size: just 153,497 fish.
Hootch and Lamont are now missing a critical part of their diet. To make up for the lost protein, they’ve gone to some pretty extreme lengths.
“I had to go 100 miles north just to get my subsistence needs,” Hootch said.
He traveled to the Norton Sound area to harvest chum this summer, but fishing wasn’t great there either. According to state fisheries biologist Kathrine Howard, chum numbers have been dismal all over the Bering Sea area since last year. Howard theorizes climate change is responsible for the decline.
But with subsistence fishing at least open in Norton Sound, Hootch made the journey.
“But that first trip, I didn’t have any luck,” Hootch said.
The second time Hootch did have some luck, catching about 100 chums. He estimates each round-trip cost $500. That means with all his expenses added up, each chum cost him about $10. It was expensive, but cheaper than groceries in Emmonak. And he wasn’t the only one trying his luck there.
“What surprised me this year was the whole delta of the Yukon was up in Norton Sound,” said Hootch. “We saw hundreds of nets up there. And I said, ‘Holy cow, that’s the first time that this ever happened.'”
Lamont has also ventured into new waters. He’s been taking his river-going skiff out into the testy waves of the Bering Sea.
“There’s a small group of us who are crazy enough to go out there and start harvesting food,” Lamont said.
But they’re not targeting salmon. They’re going for cod and other ocean species, learning in real-time what ocean fishing entails. Lamont said he sometimes takes his boat as far as 50 miles off the coast. Most boats that go out that far are several times larger than his small skiff.
“And we go out there to the same size ocean, but the storms are the same too,” Lamont said.
But Lamont is determined to not give up on his Yup’ik culture’s subsistence traditions.
“You either gotta adapt or lose it,” he said.
Three hours upriver by skiff, in the community of St. Mary’s, folks don’t have the same option to travel all the way out to Norton Sound. Instead, they’re supplementing their diet with extra groceries and more whitefish, and saying they’ll try to bag extra game meat.
Recently, at the St. Mary’s boat harbor, Bay and Walky Johnson were on their way out to pick berries. Their boat was one of the only skiffs leaving the harbor that day. The rest of the boats bobbed along the shore, empty of fishing gear.
Asked how the couple will fill their pantry for the winter, Walky said, “We’ll go after other species of fish.”
“Definitely more moose,” said Bay. “We hope to get fall chum, but I doubt it. Fall chum are good for canning. Also when making more dry fish. But we didn’t see any last summer, so I doubt we will see any this summer either.”
The state has no plans to open subsistence fishing for fall chum. An international treaty with Canada governs salmon fishing on the river, and this year, not enough fish will pass through to meet treaty numbers.