Who does the salmon in Area M belong to?

Exterior: a man in a boat looks out at a net in the water.
Fritz Charles’ family caught only reds and chinook on the Kuskokwim this year. (Sharon F. Charles)

This is the second in a three-part series about a place known as Area M where subsistence and commercial interests collide. Read part one here.

Each year, wild pacific salmon overwinter in the North Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Alaska. Come June, many migrate past the Aleutian Islands and Alaska Peninsula on their way to spawn in coastal Western Alaska rivers and lakes. Alaska Native people living on these river systems have subsisted off of the salmon for thousands of years, building whole cultures around this prized protein. Since at least 1911, commercial fishermen along the Alaska Peninsula have intercepted some of the salmon on the way to their spawning grounds.

For decades, subsistence users have asked for greater restrictions on the commercial fishery that intercepts their fish so that their stocks remain protected and their freezers remain full. But commercial fishermen say that they also depend on the fish. Their own families would go hungry and their communities would collapse if they were restricted from harvesting the salmon.

In the summer of 2021, a new development caused the tension to heat up. A massive chum salmon crash in the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim region meant that subsistence users like Fritz Charles had a more difficult time filling their fish racks. Charles said that the commercial fishermen are at least partially responsible for the collapse.

“They catch our chum salmon that are bound here,” said Charles.

Area M fisherman Kiley Thompson sees it differently.

Graph: Number of Chum Salmon Intercepted in Area M in June

“Fish are common property in the state,” said Thompson.

Each group has been using a decade-old study to boost their claims to the fish. Subsistence fishermen like Charles point out that more than half of the chum salmon caught by Area M fishermen are bound for Western Alaska rivers according to a geneticist from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. But commercial fishermen note that they are likely only taking a small fraction of the river runs bound for the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim area specifically, less than 1%. It was difficult for scientists to determine exactly how much they were taking, because Western Alaska summer chum salmon are genetically indistinct from one another. This less than 1% figure is also echoed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

For Charles, that’s beside the point. The Area M Commercial fishery has continued to take about the same amount of chum since at least the 1980s, while the counts on the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers have crashed to next to nothing.

“They’re intercepting our fish, whether it’s half a percent, that’s 1% too many,” said Charles.

But Thompson said that without salmon fishing, his Aleutian town of Sand Point would literally disappear.

“This community lives and dies by commercial fishing,” said Thompson. “We’ve had a hard time with the groundfish fisheries in the winter, the cod collapse. We’re facing the same situations and we need the June fishery.”

Graph: Annual Value of Area M Purse Seine Fishery

Thompson’s argument is why Gunnar Knapp, an economist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said that it becomes a question about economic trade-off. On the one hand, Yup’ik culture is at stake. On the other hand, the economy of entire towns.

“From an economic point of view, you’d look at that trade-off between shutting one fishery to enhance some returns,” said Knapp. “How big a hit are you asking Area M to take, and how much would taking the hit actually benefit the Western Alaska river users?”

Graph: Area M Drift Gillnet Fishery Annual Revenue

Annually, the Area M June commercial fishery is a multimillion dollar industry. 2021’s catch was valued at $78,242,146 in total, 33% of which went to out of state fishermen. Thompson said that the value of the fishery doesn’t end there.

“Normally on the closures there would be an extra 150 guys in town, spending money at the restaurant and, you know, the bar and the stores and things like that,” Thompson said. “When they’re not here, it definitely hurts.”

Graph: Area M Set Net Fishery Annual Revenue

But Charles thinks that the economics are less important than his culture.

“They’re there for the money, they’re not there for the subsistence,” said Charles. “And all the legislators and senators, they’re going to listen to somebody that has money, not the end users like me. We’re low on the totem pole.”

Commercial fishing is almost non-existent on the Kuskokwim, and the commercial chum fishery on the Yukon, which used to employ hundreds, closed over two years ago. Though the decade-old genetics study says Area M is taking less than 1% of chum salmon from Arctic, Yukon, and Kuskokwim rivers, desperate subsistence users are begging the government to take every action possible.

But Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang said that he doesn’t want to take major management actions yet, pointing to a new genetics study that’s underway.

“We’re trying to go back and verify what we found out 10 years ago,” said Vincent-Lang. “In this last year, we actually went out and put together a budget to actually sample the chums that were caught in the Alaska Peninsula fisheries.”

Subsistence users say that they can’t wait for another study. The fish runs have hit record lows for two years in a row and their culture is at stake.

In part three of the series, we’ll look at what science can tell us about whether more restrictions could work.

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