Area M: the place in the sea where Alaska commercial and subsistence interests collide
This is the first in a three-part series about a place known as Area M, where subsistence and commercial interests collide.
Kuskokwim fisherman Fritz Charles grew up in Tuntutuliak, on the lower river. There were so many fish then that his parents would put away literal barrels of them. His job as a child was to pack the dry fish tight in the barrels using a special method.
“Somebody would put me in the drum and start stomping on the fish so they can pack more in there. They put away two drums of salmon. One drum would mainly be king slabs, and the other one would be chums and reds. And that was our main diet for the winter back then,” said Charles.
Nowadays, there’s no more stomping on dry fish. There aren’t enough to put away a whole barrel.
“Now there's hardly any fish, and we can't fish anymore to support our subsistence lifestyle,” said Charles.
Chinook runs have been low in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region for a long time. And chum runs had been faltering as well, but they were still dependable until 2021.
In 2021, chum runs took a sharp downward turn. It was the worst year on record for them on the Yukon River, and it’s the same story on the Kuskokwim. This year the runs on both rivers are at their second lowest.
There are many theories behind the salmon crash. Most scientists have attributed it to issues out at sea. Many have theorized that climate change is negatively impacting the salmon’s ocean environment.
Subsistence fishermen say that salmon fishing in the ocean is hurting their chum run
Charles and many other local fishermen have another theory as to why the chum are crashing.
“They’re being slaughtered out at sea,” said Charles.
They’re concerned about one part of Alaska waters in particular, called Area M. Area M is a state-managed section of water near the Aleutian Islands. It’s called an intercept fishery because most fish caught there originated elsewhere. They must pass through Area M on the way back to their spawning grounds.
In June, oceangoing vessels there scoop up fish bound for coastal western Alaska. The fishermen primarily target sockeye, but they also catch and sell chum and chinook salmon. Area M fishing is different from bycatch, where commercial fishermen targeting non-salmon species discard incidental salmon catches. The battle over Area M heated up after the chum crashes began. There have been repeated clashes over regulating this intercept fishery for decades, but the battle gained new energy following last summer’s chum crash.
In 2021, 153,497 summer chum salmon swam up the Yukon River. That’s compared to an average of about 1.7 million summer chum. The river was missing about 1.5 million fish. At the same time, Area M commercial fishermen caught 1,168,601 chum at sea while subsistence fishing on the rivers was closed. In the midst of the smallest chum run western Alaska subsistence users had ever seen, Area M fishermen were catching more than ever before.
Even the Alaska Commissioner of Fish and Game, Doug Vincent-Lang, who has been hesitant to over-restrict the Area M commercial fishery, acknowledged last year’s record high numbers.
“We got surprised, as it got added up at the end of the season, just how large that harvest was,” said Vincent-Lang.
Charles and other subsistence users say that Area M commercial fishermen are stealing their livelihoods, taking food that they believe belongs in their rivers and their freezers. The Bethel and Kusilvak Census Areas, where the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers flow, are some of the poorest regions in the United States and people depend on fish for feeding their families.
But the Area M fishermen believe they have a claim to the fish, too.
This brings us to the crux of this decades-long dispute: to whom do these fish belong?
Charles said that the fish belong to the Yup’ik people. The Yupiit have been stewards of the fish for thousands of years. Plus, he said, he only takes what his family needs to survive on the land.
“We need our fish, and we're the end-users. They're there just for the money,” said Charles.
He said that fishing for salmon is his culture. And with the low runs, it’s been harder and harder to pass his traditions on to his children.
Commercial fisherman say that without the Area M June fishery, they’d have little income
Over in Area M, Safron Kusnetsov surveys the scene from his 50-foot Polar Marine.
“I'm fishing in the Ilnik section, near Stroganoff Point. Today looks like the sun's out,” said Kusnetsov.
Kusnetsov is a fisherman from Voznesenka, a town near Homer. He said that like Charles', his culture depends on fishing too. Like Charles, he grew up fishing.
“I am an Old Believer. Culturally, gill netting is a way of life for Old Believers,” said Kusnetsov.
Old Believers are from a branch of Russian Orthodoxy that fled persecution in Russia long ago and eventually ended up in Alaska.
“They came to Alaska mostly because it was a lot like Russia. A lot of culture and heritage is still very Russian here. They felt connected to that. And they were looking for a similar climate to grow traditional foods and someplace with the ability to live off the land,” said Kusnetsov.
Kusnetsov said that if the June fishery were to be shut down or more tightly regulated, it would be a devastating blow to his community and to his livelihood.
“There's a saying here that 90% of our annual income is earned in two weeks when the hot run hits,” said Kusnetsov.
Kusnetsov mainly targets sockeyes, but he sometimes catches chums and chinook, too.
Do the subsistence fishermen in the Y-K Delta or the commercial fishermen in Area M have a greater claim to the chum? About a decade ago, a comprehensive salmon genetics study of the Area M fishery confirmed that most of the chum caught in the region, around 60%, are bound for Coastal Western Alaska. But when you start to break that number down further, that’s where things get complicated.
In part two of the series, we’ll look at what science can tell us about whether commercial fishing in Area M is truly taking a toll on Western Alaska salmon populations.