Yukon River smokehouses should be filled this summer with oil-rich strips of king salmon - long used by Alaska Natives as a high-energy food to get through the long Alaska winters. But they're mostly empty.
The kings failed to show up, and not just in the Yukon.
One Alaska river after another has been closed to king fishing
this summer because significant numbers of fish failed to return to
spawn. The dismally weak return follows weak runs last summer and
poor runs in 2007, which also resulted in emergency fishing
"It is going to be a tough winter, no two ways about it," said
Leslie Hunter, a 67-year-old store owner and commercial fisherman
from the Yup'ik Eskimo village of Marshall in western Alaska.
Federal and state fisheries biologists are looking into the
King salmon spend years in the Bering Sea before returning as
adults to rivers where they were born to spawn and die. Biologists
speculate that the mostly likely cause was a shift in Pacific Ocean
currents, but food availability, changing river conditions and
predator-prey relationships could be affecting the fish.
People living along the Yukon River think they know what is to
blame - pollock fishery. The fishery - the nation's largest -
removes about 1 million metric tons of pollock each year from the
eastern Bering Sea. Its wholesale value is nearly $1 billion.
King salmon get caught in the huge pollock trawl nets, and the
dead kings are counted and most are thrown back into the ocean.
Some are donated to the needy.
"We do know for a fact that the pollock fishery is slaughtering
wholesale and wiping out the king salmon stocks out there that are
coming into all the major tributaries," said Nick Andrew Jr.,
executive director of the Ohagamuit Traditional Council. "The
pollock fishery is taking away our way of living."
Since 2000, the incidental number of king salmon caught has
skyrocketed, reaching over 120,000 kings in 2007. A substantial
portion of those fish were bound for western Alaska rivers. If
those fish had lived, an estimated 78,000 adult fish would have
returned to rivers from the Pacific Northwest to Western Alaska.
Efforts to reduce bycatch are not new. In 2006, bycatch rules
were adopted allowing the pollock fleet to move from areas where
lots of kings were being inadvertently caught, thereby avoiding
large-scale fishing closures. Then, 2007 happaned, and it was back
to the drawing board.
Last April, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, the
organization that manages ocean fish, passed a hard cap on the
pollock fishery. Beginning in 2011, the portion of the fleet that
participates in the program is allowed 60,000 kings a year. If the
cap is reached, the fishery shuts down. Those who don't participate
have a lower cap - 47,591 fish.
The loss of the kings is devastating village economies. These
are the same Yukon River villages where spring floods swept away
homes, as well as boats, nets and smokehouses. There's no money to
buy anything, Andrew said.
"It is crippling the economy in all of the rivers where we
depend on commercial fishing for income," he said.
Bycatch plays a role but is not the only reason for the
vanishing kings, said Diana Stram, a fishery management plan
coordinator at the council.
Herman Savikko, an Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist,
agreed. He pointed to changing ocean currents, plankton blooms and
even the carnivorous nature of salmon. River conditions could be
changing, too, he said.
A lot isn't known about what happens to king salmon in the
ocean, Savikko said. "Once the fish enter the marine environment
it just is a big black box," he said.
In a good year, Kwik'pak Fisheries L.L.C. in Emmonak on the
lower Yukon employs between 200 and 300 people. This summer, only
about 30 people have been hired. Kwik'pak is the largest employer
in the region.
General manager Jack Schultheis said when the king fishery was
shut down, the summer chum salmon run was curtailed as well, even
though a good number of chums were returning to the river.
The lower Yukon villages are economically devastated, he said.
Fishermen used to get between $5 million and $10 million from
the fishery. Last year, it was $1.1 million.
That means instead of making between $20,000 and $30,000 in the
1970s, fishermen are making just a few thousand dollars now, and
that in villages where fuel costs $8 a gallon, milk is $15 a gallon
and a T-bone steak costs $25, he said.
It's hard to see the villages in such economic hardship but the
Yukon should be managed conservatively until the problem of the
disappearing kings is better understood, Schultheis said.
"For 50 years, it was an extremely stable fishery," he said.