Once again the salmon are returning in lower than desired numbers to the Yukon River draining Alaska's vast Interior, but in the aftermath of last year's disaster it looks better to some.
"It's all relative," said Jack Schultheis, the general manager for Kwik'pak Fisheries in Emmonak.
Little over a year ago, Emmonak and other villages on the lower Yukon appeared on the verge of death. Then Gov. Sarah Palin was joining evangelist Franklin Graham, son of celebrity preacher Billy Graham to prevent starvation as Western Alaskans wrestled with a tough choice on whether to spend money for food or to buy fuel to heat their homes to prevent freezing to death.
The summer of 2008 had been a bad one along the river. Commercial king salmon fisheries -- the economic mainstay of villages on the low river -- had been reduced to almost nothing because of weak runs. It was hard to imagine 2009 could get worse, but it did. King salmon fisheries were closed, and the subsistence fisheries that provide food to get people through the winter were restricted as well. Scientists' inability to explain exactly why the salmon weren't returning or what the future might hold only added to anxieties.
"You couldn't get any worse from last year or we'd have nothing," Schultheis said. So merely being allowed to fish was a plus. "Generally, it was a good to fish," he said. "Just the attitude. It got everyone thinking there was hope, and it got some money into the community."
He estimated the 800 or so holders of commercial permits for the Yukon averaged $3,200 in income on king salmon and early chums, which Kwik'pak markets fresh around the country as "Keta salmon." The fishermen could make more on fall chums if it is decided that enough of those fish are coming back to allow a commercial fishery.
About 93,000 have entered the river so far. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game figures it needs about twice that to swim past its electronic counter before it can allow a commercial fishery. "I've got guarded hope," Schultheis said.
Even without the additional fish, though, fishermen are vastly better off than they were last year when the average earnings per permit was $700. Ten years ago, however, they were averaging $17,000.
Their fortunes have fallen with the salmon, and no really knows what has happened to the fish. Bycatch of young salmon in commercial trawls for pollock in the Bering Sea, climate change, disease and shifts in food sources have all been blamed from time to time. Or it could be the runs are just naturally cyclic. Native oral histories are rich with tales of people starving because of periodic crashes in Yukon salmon returns, and large oscillations have been documented even in recent times.
How to fish at fish camp Fish camp owners pass down their methods from generation to generation. In our visits to four different fish camps, we were surprised to find the fish tasted different at every camp depending on how long the salmon were smoked, what part of the fish was used, and what wood had been used in the smokehouse. Read the rest of the story
"The Yukon (return) goes up and down like no other," said Dan Bergstrom, the state's Yukon regional supervisor for commercial fisheries. The summer chum fishery collapsed in 1998 and by the year 2000 had been declared a "species of concern" -- something tantamount to an endangered species -- by the Alaska Board of Fisheries.
"It seems so bad," Bergstrom said. "We were thinking, 'Is it going to be like this for 20 years?'"
That was in 2000. Six years later, the Yukon saw a record return of summer chums.
"It can turn around," he said, if managers can put enough spawning salmon on beds scattered along almost 2,000 miles of river. It is no easy task. Commercial fishermen nearest the mouth of the river seem to want always more fish. Their livelihoods depend on it.Upstream, there is an equal demand from subsistence fishermen of all sorts, who say their very survival depends on getting enough fish. And upstream from them there is Canada, to which the U.S. holds a treaty obligation. It does not appear that obligation will be met this year.
As of this past week, only 15,400 kings had pinged by a sonar counter on the river about 20 miles short of the border. More are expected to come, but state fisheries managers are projecting they will fall about 5,000 fish short of the minimum goal of 42,500 across the border. The Canadians are already complaining the state's projection might be optimistic.
That has Bergstrom and his staff rethinking the decision to open the lower river fishery in July. They thought commercial fishermen on the lower river would catch mainly summer chums in that opening and they did, a couple hundred thousand of them.
But they also got about 10,000 kings. The king catches were great news for lower river fishermen. The big, Omega-3-rich fish are highly prized in the market. Fishermen were getting about $5 per pound for kings, compared to the 70 cents per pound for chums. But the loss of the kings in the lower river created a problem that rippled on upriver where Fish and Game asked fishermen to voluntarily cutback on their fishing to try to allow kings to reach Canada.
That didn't sit well. Middle and upper river fishermen subsequently demanded Fish and Game hold off on the commercial harvest of fall chums, just now arriving in the Yukon, to allow more of those fish upriver to supplement weak king catches. Tim Mowry, a writer for the Fairbanks Daily New-Miner, reported there was some tension when Interior fishermen teleconferenced with Fish and Game on the situation.
"There's people in Tanana that have not met their subsistence needs," Faith Peters in Tanana said during the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association teleconference with the Department of Fish and Game. "We need to be thinking about what people here really need, and that's food for the winter."
Gerald Nicholia in Tanana chimed in that he'd caught only one king all summer and needs to catch fall chums: "I'm really relying on that to make it through the winter."
What was a little bit good for Schultheis and the commercial fishermen who deliver to the business he helps the village run in Emmonak was a little bad for others on upriver.
"When you have not enough fish, it's hard," Bergstrom said. Almost everyone along the big, brown river that pulses through the heart of Alaska now understands, at least in theory, that enough salmon have to escape fishermen to reach the spawning beds to keep the salmon coming back generation after generation, he said, but it is hard for most people to understand the trade-offs necessary to make that happen.
It is normal to want to catch fish. It is not normal, unless you are a fisheries biologist, to worry about what the death of those fish will do to the river as a whole.
After 25 years of working with Yukon fisheries, Bergstrom said, he has noticed people developing a better recognition of the needs of fellow fishermen up and down the river. But in the heat of the moment, it is still easy for a fisherman to lose sight of almost everything but the fact he -- or she -- isn't fishing.
Nobody likes to sit on the beach. It is, as Schultheis noted, tough on the psyche and, in some cases, the pocketbook. Not to mention the stomach.
Contact Craig Medred at firstname.lastname@example.org.