On the Yukon, Alaska and Canada are bound together by salmon – and their collapse

Exterior: salmon hanging up to dry
Yukon river residents are going on four years of severe chum and chinook subsistence harvest restrictions. (Shane Iverson/KYUK)

The Yukon River covers a lot of ground on its nearly 2,000 mile journey to the sea. Its headwaters are in the mountains of northern British Columbia, just 50 miles from Skagway. From there, the river winds north through the Yukon, crosses the border near Eagle and flows all the way across Interior Alaska until it finally reaches the Bering Sea. 

And for as long as anyone can remember, salmon fed everyone along its course. 

“For most of our lives, it was king salmon,” said Rhonda Pitka, First Chief of the village of Beaver in the upper Yukon Flats. “That was the majority of our diet, and what we traded and what we processed.” 

Pitka remembers busy childhood summers with her family at their fish camp about ten miles outside the village, helping her grandmother catch and process fish. 

But today, she can’t continue that tradition with her own family. 

Rhonda Pitka, first chief of the Yukon River village of Beaver, speaks at an event in Fort Yukon. (Courtesy Rhonda Pitka)

Since the mid-1990’s, runs of king and chum salmon — the two primary species harvested on the Yukon River — have become more unpredictable. King salmon numbers have seen a long, slow decline, while chum runs have sometimes seemed to bounce back, only to fall again. Now, both species are in a historic collapse. 

In the last four years, the numbers of king and chum salmon in the river have dropped so low, state and federal fisheries managers have all but closed subsistence fishing. The causes of the decline aren’t fully understood, but researchers say a parasite targeting kings and warming waters due to human-caused climate change are possible factors. Harvesters also blame salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea commercial pollock fishery and the large commercial chum salmon fishery off the Alaska Peninsula known as “Area M.”

The closures have been devastating for communities along the river, said Pitka, who remembers trading salmon for caribou or muktuk with relatives in Arctic Village and Utqiaġvik back when fish were abundant.

“It’s been a real challenge for families to get enough food for the winter and enough food to share,” Pitka said.

The salmon collapse is changing life on the Yukon — and not just in Alaska. 

Communities along the upper Yukon, stretching deep into Canada, have borne the brunt of the salmon collapse, in part because only a fraction of the fish make it that far upriver. Some Canadian First Nations have restricted fishing for decades. 

Still, the U.S. and Canada depend upon each other to conserve this vital resource. 

Pitka serves on the Yukon River Panel, a body of representatives from both Alaska and Canada that advises fishery managers on both sides of the border. The panel was established by the landmark Yukon River Salmon Agreement, a treaty the U.S. and Canada signed in the early 2000s after more than a decade of negotiations. The treaty aims to ensure a healthy salmon population and access to fishing for communities in both countries. 

It’s been a challenge to discuss resource allocation for a river that’s not actually meeting anyone’s subsistence needs, Pitka said.

“Our Canadian counterparts haven’t fished for at least 20 years, if not longer,” Pitka said. “And that’s a tragedy all in itself. It’s been really difficult. It’s been really tense.”

As part of that agreement, Alaska committed to letting a certain number of fish cross into Canada, said John Linderman, the panel’s U.S. co-chair.

“Each country has its own responsibilities under the treaty agreement,” Linderman said. “For Alaska, one of our most important responsibilities is to annually provide to the Canadian border the escapement goal and the Canadian harvest share.”

That means allowing enough fish to make it back to their spawning grounds to ensure a healthy salmon population and, in better years, ensuring an additional number of fish cross the border to allow a fair harvest up and down the river.

Those requirements can sometimes sound like a burden for Alaskans, said Holly Carroll, the Alaska subsistence fisheries manager for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service – especially during the last four years, when managers have heavily restricted subsistence fishing. But, she said, that’s the wrong way to look at it.

“People will say, ‘Just let us fish. I don’t take more than I need, my family does not take more than I need.’ And every family will tell you that, and they mean it and they are honest,” Carroll said. “But here’s the problem: when our runs are too small to meet everyone’s needs, we have to close.” 

Lately, there aren’t even enough salmon returning to the river to ensure healthy runs in the future. And that means everyone on the river  — Alaskan and Canadian — has had to sacrifice. 

The treaty keeps both sides working together to protect their salmon. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy, Pitka said.

She recalled a potlatch after two recent deaths in Stevens Village, near her village of Beaver. It was painful to hold such a gathering without its traditional center.

“It was so hard to see families not have salmon to give out at potlatch,” Pitka said. “There should have been salmon on everybody’s plate. They should have been able to give salmon out to visitors that were leaving.” 

“That’s the cultural connection that we’re missing right now,” she said. “The ability to share and to feed our families our cultural foods.”

a portrait of a woman outside

Kavitha George is Alaska Public Media’s climate change reporter. Reach her at kgeorge@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Kavithahere.

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