The lower Yukon River, one of the nation’s poorest regions, has one major industry: chum salmon fishing. The summer fishery usually opens at the beginning of June, but this year it didn’t open until July. KYUK visited Kwik'Pak Fisheries in Emmonak, the only company buying lower Yukon salmon, to talk with people about the late season’s economic impact.
It’s 1:50 p.m. on a July afternoon. The final commercial fishing opening of the summer starts in 10 minutes. A line of open skiffs stretches out from Kwik'Pak's gas dock, waiting to fuel up.
“Five boats waiting,” Kenneth Lee, who’s running the pump, counts off. “Along with five that are parked.”
Fishermen and their families run into the Kwik'Pak store for snacks and supplies. They leave with candy bars, cases of Shasta soda, rope, and zip-close bags. Commercial fisherman Lamarr Lowe comes out unwrapping a special treat.
“Had to go get a nice Cuban cigar to sit back and relax, watch the net splash,” Lowe says, laughing behind gold-framed Ray Ban sunglasses. When asked if that means it’s going to be a good opening, he responds, “That’s what we’re all hoping for.”
Commercial fisherman Lorraine Joseph is fishing with her father and hopes to net a couple hundred fish today, but she won’t be able to catch up to where they usually are this time of year.
“But we’re making some money,” she says before climbing in her boat.
Lee, the man pumping gas, is also a commercial fisherman, but he’s sitting out this opening because of a torn net. Earlier this year he bought a bigger boat, and to pay it off, he lined up a summer job clerking at the Kwik'Pak store.
“I take care of parts, deliveries,” he explained.
Lee planned to commercial fish during openings, clerk at the store the rest of the days, and be debt free, riding around in his new boat by the end of the summer. But things didn’t go as planned. He, like the rest of the fleet, had to sit out June and wait for the fish.
“I was like everybody else, wondering when the fishing season going to open,” Lee remembered. “It was a little odd for me.”
The delay gave him plenty of time to meet his subsistence fishing needs, but it didn’t give him any cash. Unlike most fishermen, Lee has a full-time job during the rest of the year, working as a teacher’s aide. Most Yukon fishermen rely on commercial fishing as their main source of income for the year. That money pays for the gas and supplies to subsist through the summer and into the winter. About a quarter of commercial fishermen aren’t fishing this year. They can’t afford it. Start-up costs can be a couple thousand dollars.
Lee says that he’s earned as much as $20,000 during a summer season, and as low as $8,000.
“Probably won’t even exceed $5,000 this year,” he estimated. “It’ll put a little hardship on me, making payments to bills, or all the bills, actually, some food on the table, gas to go get my subsistence gatherings, but I’ll find a way to manage.”
Darren Jennings works on a Kwik'Pak tender, a ship that collects salmon from fishermen on the river. The job started when the fishing did. Jennings supplements his income with mechanic work and trapping, but Kwik'Pak is his main paycheck.
“I’ve been doing subsistence. Food stamps helps a lot, stuff like that while we don’t have no job. I’ve got to feed my kids somehow,” he said.
The entire lower Yukon fishery, from the processing workers to the fishermen, is about 60 percent its usual size. That means around 250 people don’t have a job this summer. The fishery usually infuses about $10 million into the region’s economy. This year it won’t do even half that.
Jack Schultheis, Kwik'Pak Operations Manager, says that the summer fishery usually processes about 2.5 million pounds of chum salmon. This year it has processed about 800,000 pounds.
“I guess you could call it an economic calamity, [an] economic depression,” Schultheis said. “I don’t want to call it a disaster, because we did get the fish.”
With the month-and-a-half summer fishery compressed to less than two weeks, there was no room for error. But when the fishery finally opened, a series of unfortunate events hit, all outside Kwik'Pak's control.
“Not only was there a lack of production,” Schultheis explained, “but when we did finally get good production out of the fishermen, everything else seemed to go wrong for us.”
Multiple power outages fried crucial machinery, including an ice maker, forcing Kwik'Pak to fly in plane-loads of ice from Anchorage. One outage even cancelled a fishing opening.
For days, cell phones and internet shut down. Landlines were unreliable. Customers couldn’t contact Kwik'Pak and instead found salmon elsewhere. Other customers, like Whole Foods, had already dropped Kwik'Pak weeks before when the season didn’t open as scheduled.
To request a plane to either pick up fish or fly in ice, Schultheis would handwrite a note, which he would give to a pilot heading upriver, who would deliver it to a friend in a nearby village, who would then call the airlines.
Also that week, a historic heat wave swept Alaska. The lower Yukon River hit its highest recorded water temperature, and fishermen reported salmon floating dead in the water.
“It seems like it was a lifetime,” Schultheis said, looking back on the short fishery, “because we had so many problems with it. But we got through it.”
In the end, Kwik'Pak didn’t lose a single fish and it still has enough customers to buy its products. Schultheis says that they protected the company’s reputation, and hopefully the chance to earn a better income for the region next summer. There’s still potential for a commercial fishery on the fall chum this year, but that run is expected to be late and weak.