Lower Yukon River Residents Missing King Salmon This Year
Fishing is closed on the Yukon River. For the second year in a row, the king run is so low that many subsistence families won’t get to taste the fatty, prized fish. Fishermen say that the tightening regulations are changing their diets and their culture.
Nick P. Andrew Jr. wistfully describes a bygone time in the Lower Yukon village of Marshall when the kings ran in abundance, and people had busy drying schedules and bellies full of salmon.
"In the years past, when we were targeting king salmon for subsistence, the smokehouses were full. The sweet aroma of smokehouses blanketed the village," said Andrew Jr.
He said that smell is absent this year. It’s not that there are no king salmon running in the Yukon, but the numbers are too low to meet the legal escapement goals. And state fishery managers say that it’s too early to tell how the chum run will be this summer. For these reasons, the state has closed subsistence salmon fishing on the Yukon River. During the closures, only 4 inch gillnets of 60 feet in length are allowed, nets designed to catch whitefish, not salmon.
At a Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association meeting, a subsistence fisherman who introduced himself as Eric from St. Mary’s described the vibe in his village.
"Very sad to see empty fish camps. And I noticed, like, most villages everybody's sitting at home wondering what to do, and wondering if we're gonna have fish for subsistence this year. Kind of scary for a lot of people," he said.
Stanley Pete, in the coastal village of Nunam Iqua, concurred.
"There are no fish hanging on the racks. I've been receiving numerous calls in regards to when are they going to have an opportunity to get out on the river to try to harvest some fish for consumption," said Pete.
Subsistence fishermen, like Andrew Jr., say that without salmon, their diet has changed.
"Here in Marshall, it's basically moose meat. It's basically what we buy at the store. And yeah, it is affecting our diet. There's a large staple missing," said Andrew Jr.
Andrew Jr. said that this means that his culture is changing too.
"Our traditional way of life is affected. It's a cultural impact. Its impact on our overall well-being, including our emotional well-being," he said.
Plus, Andrew Jr. said that supplementing his diet with meat from the village store is getting costly, and prices have gone up since the pandemic. For vegetables, Andrew usually eats from his garden. But this year, the weather has been so cold and rainy on the lower Yukon that his potatoes and turnips are stunted. He hopes that the fall chum run will put salmon back on fish racks.
During the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association meeting, one subsistence fisherman from Russian Mission said that while his dogs can live off of whitefish year round, people can’t.