Alaska salmon catch hints at climate change chaos

This summer, fishermen in the world’s largest wild salmon habitat set a record 65 million sockeye from Bristol Bay in Alaska, breaking ...


This summer, fishermen in the world’s largest wild salmon habitat set a record 65 million sockeye from Bristol Bay in Alaska, breaking the 2018 record with over three million fish.

But on the Yukon River, about 500 miles to the north, there was an alarming lack of salmon. This summer’s chum comeback was the lowest on record, with only 153,000 fish counted in the river at the Pilot station sonar – a stark contrast to the 1.7 million friends who ran last year. Returns of king salmon were also at a critical level this summer – the third lowest on record. The yukon fall run also promises to be rare.

The disparity between fisheries is worrying – a possible indicator of the chaotic consequences of climate change; competition between wild fish and hatchery fish; and bycatch in commercial fishing.

“It’s something we’ve never seen before,” said Sabrina Garcia, research biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “I think we’re starting to see changes due to climate change, and I think we’re going to continue to see more changes, but we need more years of data.”

The weak upwelling has had a ripple effect on communities along the Yukon River and its tributaries – the Andreafski, Innoko, Anvik, Porcupine, Tanana and Koyukuk rivers – causing a devastating blow to people who depend on salmon for food. staple, as a sled dog food and as an integral and enriching cultural tradition spanning millennia.

“We have over 2,000 miles of river and our number is so small,” said Serena Fitka, executive director of the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association. “Where are all our fish?” This is the question that hangs over everyone’s heads.

Because extremely low returns of chinook and chum salmon did not meet escapement goals, the Alaska Department of Fisheries and Game banned food, commercial and food fishing throughout the Yukon, leaving nearly 50 communities with virtually no salmon.

“When we have a disaster of this magnitude, where people worry about their food security, they worry about their spiritual security, they worry about the ability of future generations to continue our way of life and our culture – our leadership is very anxious, ”said Natasha Singh, General Counsel for the Tanana Chiefs Conference, a tribal organization representing 42 villages in an interior region of Alaska almost the size of Texas. “Our people are very anxious. They want to stay Athabascan-Dene. They want to stay native, and that’s in danger.

This isn’t the first time salmon have made their way up the Yukon River and its tributaries, but this summer’s record numbers are particularly distressing. Much of the Yukon River carries only two of the five species of salmon found in Alaska: chinook and chum.

“When a species collapses, we’re a little shocked, but we’re fine because we know we can eat from the other stock,” said Ben Stevens, director of the Tanana Chiefs Conference’s tribal resources commission. . “But, this year is unprecedented in that we have no inventory there. They are both in the tank.

The Chinook Salmon in the Yukon River have been in decline for decades, decreasing in size and quantity over the years. The region is also experiencing massive salmon mortality. In 2019, thousands of chum carcasses washed up on the shores of the Yukon River and its tributaries, which scientists attributed to heat stress water temperatures of nearly 70 degrees, about 10 to 15 degrees warmer than typical for the area.

While warming waters can create an inhospitable habitat for salmon, some research indicates that the heat benefited Bristol Bay sockeye salmon, increasing the food supply for young salmon.

Some fish processors donate surplus Bristol Bay fish to communities along the Yukon. SeaShare and other Alaskan fish processors coordinate donations and more salmon is expected to be shipped in the next few weeks.

“It is so heartwarming to see our fellow Alaskans reach out and donate,” Stevens said. “I’m just a little sad that we allowed the situation to get so bad.”

Mr. Stevens is a Koyukon Athabascan from Stevens Village, a small community northwest of Fairbanks, Alaska, where the Trans-Alaska Pipeline crosses the Yukon River. He visited the area last month to hear how communities are coping with low descents. He said people fear a winter without food and the consequences of disconnecting land and animals. With the loss of fish also comes “the incredible loss of culture,” Stevens said.

Meat harvested from the land is a staple food for people living on Alaska’s highway system, whose communities are only accessible by boat or plane. High shipping costs and long travel times make fresh food in village shops prohibitive and limited; the custom of harvesting food with friends and family dates back thousands of years.

No salmon also means no fishing camp – an annual summer practice where families gather along rivers to catch, cut and store salmon for the winter, and where important life lessons and values ​​are imparted to the next generation.

“We go out and pass our tradition down thousands of years, from young to old,” said PJ Simon, Chief and President of the Tanana Chiefs Conference. “It’s our soul. It is our identity. And it is from there that we draw our courage, our know-how, for everything that has led us to where we are today.

19-year-old model and activist Quannah Chasinghorse visits her family’s fishing camp every summer. Ms. Chasinghorse is Han Gwich’in and Oglala Lakota, and she is from Eagle, Alaska.

“Every time I go out to a fishing camp I notice something new that is different – because of climate change, because of so many different things – and it breaks my heart because I want to be able to bring my kids. , and I want them to see how beautiful these lands are, “Ms. Chasinghorse said.” I want to see the younger generations fishing, laughing, having fun and knowing what it’s like to work hard on the land . “

The future of the Yukon salmon runs remains uncertain. But there is still time for fishermen in the region to adapt to the effects of climate change and different management approaches, said Ms Singh, the lawyer. If the salmon are allowed to bounce, then “our children will be fishermen,” she said.

“We should not conclude that climate change is going to change our fisheries to the point where we have to give up our identity,” Ms. Singh said.

Stevens said that state and federal natural resource managers “need more indigenous science” and more “traditional principles of resource management at play right now.”

“I think we need people to know that the last great salmon run on this globe, the last wild, is about to end,” said Stevens. “But, we can stop it.”

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Newsrust - US Top News: Alaska salmon catch hints at climate change chaos
Alaska salmon catch hints at climate change chaos
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