Yukon and Kuskokwim River residents tell state to send salmon fishery disaster money directly to subsistence users
Millions of dollars in federal fishery disaster funding has been allocated to Alaska salmon fisheries, including on the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers, for low salmon runs over the past two years. Now, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is charged with creating a plan for how to spend that money. The department held a meeting on May 11 via Zoom to gather public input on how to shape that plan. About a dozen people from the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers testified and presented a unified message: give the money to the people living along the rivers.
In their testimony they made it clear: money is no replacement for salmon, but it helps.
“The monetary value of subsistence, it’s hard to put a price on that. It’s not only the value of the fish, but the value of the cultural relevance that is being lost,” Executive Director of the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association Serena Fitka said during testimony.
Salmon runs have remained low on the river for years. The Yukon River salmon fishery has received at least two other salmon fisheries disaster declarations in the past decade. Last year, record low salmon runs prevented any subsistence or commercial fishing, and runs are expected to remain low this summer.
“With the high cost of living in these rural communities and gas prices skyrocketing, the communities are going to be hit hard this year. And we’re looking at another year where closures are going to be in place, another year where people’s freezers are going to be empty, another year where the fish racks are going to be empty, another year where fish camps are going to be empty. Families are not going to be coming together to put fish away,” Fitka said during testimony.
The Yukon and Kuskokwim River residents who called into the meeting hope this funding can offset some of those costs. The callers advocated for giving the funding directly to the people living on the rivers who are unable to fish for salmon or meet their subsistence harvest needs.
“The disaster funding should go directly to the people, to the individual people who live in the region that are affected. We don’t need all this money or part of the money going to the nonprofits. The nonprofits eat up the money. The study groups eat up the money. We are too studied enough," Napaskiak Tribal Council Member Stephen Maxie said during testimony.
However, others did advocate for funding for salmon research in addition to individual payments to subsistence users.
“We would like to recommend that there be increased research involving the 33 villages on the Kuskokwim River, and that we make sure that all of the factors are researched in why the salmon are not returning as they used to in the past," Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission Chair Mike Williams Sr. said during testimony. The commission represents the 33 tribes along the Kuskokwim River.
Federal fishery disaster funding takes a long time to reach its destination. Even though the funding is for low salmon runs in 2020 and 2021, the money will likely not become available until 2023.
And the money will be split across six Alaska fisheries. The U.S. Department of Commerce allocated $55,928,849 for Alaska salmon fishery disasters that occurred in 2020. That includes fisheries in the Yukon River, Kuskokwim River, Norton Sound, Chignik, and Southeast Alaska. It also includes the 2021 Yukon River salmon fishery. So, that nearly $56 million has to spread widely.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is accepting public comments via email on how to spend this funding. The comment deadline is June 15. You can send you comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.