How Alaskans on the lower Yukon River are faring 2 years into the chum salmon crash

a woman in a blue shirt stands in an empty smokehouse
St. Mary’s Elder Sophie Beans stands inside her empty smokehouse. (Olivia Ebertz/KYUK)

Maggie Westlock picked up a few things for dinner at the AC store in Emmonak, near the mouth of the Yukon River. In her cart she had grapes, coleslaw, sandwiches and some canned ham.

These are not the foods she and her family of eight prefer to eat. During a normal summer, she would be filling her family’s dinner plates and chest freezers with lots of wild chum and chinook salmon that they catch themselves. But fishing for those two species on the Yukon has been closed for two summers because of a sudden and severe collapse.

That means Westlock’s diet is changing. Her family is relying more on store-bought food. Her grocery bill has gone way up, and inflation is making things far worse.

Westlock rolled her cart over to the freezer section.

“I’ll show you something,” she said.

She picked up a small pack of ribs, less than two pounds worth.

“This one is $37.10,” Westlock said.

On the other side of the store, things were even more dire.

“The detergent is very expensive! $62.99, that’s Tide and that Kirkland is $55.99. Expensive, I tell you. And look at these pampers, Huggies: $84.99. One box,” Westlock said.

Her final bill was $81.81 for just five items.

Residents 100 miles upriver in St. Mary’s are feeling the loss of salmon, too. Elder Sophie Beans lives on the bank of the Andreafsky River, one of the Yukon’s salmon-spawning tributaries. She said when there was fishing, her whole block would be orange and smoke-filled.

“Full of kings and fish,” Beans said.

And now?

“Nothing! Nobody’s cutting,” she said.

Beans stood inside her empty smokehouse. The leftover smell lingered in the wooden walls, but it’s been two years since her smokehouse held fish.

a graph shows how the summer chum run has sunk significantly in recent years

Officials say they’ve had to close subsistence fishing for both chum and chinook to try to protect the dwindling numbers.

Last summer, the Yukon’s summer chum run sank to just a tenth of its average size. This year, numbers ticked up slightly for chum but collapsed even more for chinook, the Yukon’s most prized species. Normally, families would put away hundreds of both species to get through the winter.

“My son when he went drifting one time he caught 700 chums and it took us three days. Seven totes!” Beans said.

And that wasn’t even including the kings.

Beans uses every part of the fish from the head to the tail. She makes culunaq and egamaarrluk.

Beans usually keeps three chest freezers full of salmon, but now only one has salmon in it. It’s only about a third full. That fish is from two years ago, when fishing was still allowed. She and her husband are now rationing, taking fish out for special occasions only.

Scientists point to warming seas

Scientists have been scrambling to figure out why Western Alaska chum and chinook stocks are crashing. They’re starting to hone in on one primary cause for the chum collapse: recent marine heatwaves in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska. Katie Howard from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said that’s linked to climate change. There have always been marine heatwaves, but the recent ones are different.

“They were just bigger, they were geographically larger, they were more intense,” said Howard. “And they lasted over a much, much longer period of time than is typical. And so that is what has been tied to a changing climate — that it’s more extreme when it happens. And the other expectation is that they may occur more often.”

But Howard said scientists aren’t exactly sure what’s impacting wild chinook, and that species has been on the decline in many Alaska rivers for a decade now.

Many residents also point to another driver behind the low returns of both species: commercial fisheries in the Bering Sea. State and federal managers have allowed these commercial fisheries to continue to operate, even as they have placed more stringent measures on Yukon River subsistence users.

Frozen donated salmon coordinated through the state is some of the only fish people on the lower Yukon river will eat all year. (Katie Basile/KYUK)

The state says it wants to keep studying the fish before it takes action against commercial fisheries, but most subsistence users say they don’t have time for years-long scientific studies. Many want the state and the feds to more strictly manage the commercial fisheries now.

Some scientists argue that the numbers are now so low that getting each and every spawner back to the Yukon River matters. Howard said she is getting concerned, and this issue will only get more urgent as time goes on.

“If, over the course of more than five years, you’re not getting enough fish to the spawning grounds to replenish the population, you really start to become very concerned,” Howard said.

The low chinook runs are well past that five-year mark.

Higher grocery bills, less protein

Across town in St. Mary’s, in a small house with a view of the Andreafsky and Yukon rivers, Jolene Long and Troy Thompson live with their six young children.

Thompson used to work as a commercial fisherman and has now been out of work for two years. He said they’re relying much more on the store and are spending two or three times as much on groceries compared to when the salmon ran abundantly.

To feed their family of eight, they spend about $400 to $600 per week. They don’t eat much protein these days.

“When they do get a little bit of fish, they just gobble it up,” said Long.

three kids stand around a table outside as an adult shows them how to cut a fish
Nicole Long, 11, practices cutting fish for the first time in two years with her mother, Jolene Long. (Katie Basile/KYUK)

The salmon crash also means it has become more difficult for parents to pass on their Yup’ik culture to their kids. Long used to cut fish with her oldest daughter every summer. Now her daughter barely remembers how to cut.

She did get a little practice after most tribal members in St. Mary’s received a couple of donated salmon each from the state.

For many in St. Mary’s, that small amount of donated salmon is the only taste they’ll get all year.

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