As waters warm, Alaska experiences salmon booms and busts

Chaotic salmon returns leave some Alaskans with an abundance of salmon, and others with none.

 

Every June, Serena Fitka goes home to her Yup’ik community of St. Mary’s, Alaska, near the confluence of the Yukon and Andreafsky rivers in the southwest part of the state. Usually, she helps her family fish for salmon and preserve it in the smokehouse for the leaner winter months. But this year, that didn’t happen: This year, there were no salmon to catch.

“I could feel the loss,” she said. “I didn’t know what to fill my days with, and I could sense it was like that for everyone along the Yukon River.”

There are five kinds of salmon in Alaska: Chinook, sockeye, chum, coho and pink. Chum is the most harvested fish on the Yukon, but both chum and chinook are crucial to the lives and culture of the roughly 50 communities around Alaska who rely on the river and its tributaries for subsistence.

Chum salmon fry migrate out to sea near Cordova, Alaska. In one study of chum, researchers found that the fish were eating things outside their usual diet, like jellyfish, and, because of that, likely didn’t have enough energy stored in their bodies to survive the winter.
Design Pics Inc./Alamy Stock

Around the state, chinook counts have been declining for a decade, but this year’s run is the lowest ever recorded. Chum counts took a nosedive in 2021, and this year’s count is the second-lowest on record; as a result, state and federal fishery managers have closed chum fishing on the Yukon. This will affect more than 2,500 households in the region that rely on chum to feed their families. “That annual harvest is gone,” said Holly Carroll, a Yukon River subsistence fishery manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Scientists haven’t figured out why chum and chinook runs have been so poor in parts of western Alaska, but many theorize that warming ocean conditions are impacting the salmon early on in their life cycles — and some local subsistence fishers believe that commercial fishing operations in other parts of the state could be contributing as well.

Warmer waters have caused a downturn in chinook and chum numbers across the Pacific, and those changes are hurting salmon in the Yukon as well. In one study of chum, researchers found that the fish were eating things outside their usual diet, like jellyfish, and, because of that, likely didn’t have enough energy stored in their bodies to survive the winter. “That’s associated with these marine heat waves that we've seen in the Bering Sea as well as the Gulf of Alaska,” said Katie Howard, a fisheries scientist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Salmon Ocean Ecology Program. During marine heat waves, chum eat prey that is easier to catch, but often less calorically dense. Drought in the spawning grounds of Interior Alaska and Canada could also contribute to lower numbers of chinook, since it leads to lower water levels and makes the water warmer.

Meanwhile, nearly 400 miles south in Bristol Bay, a warming climate might actually be helping salmon runs instead, said Jordan Head, a state biologist working in the region. Bristol Bay fishers have harvested over 57 million sockeye this year, breaking the all-time record of 44 million fish set in 1995. The region has seen over 74 million sockeye return so far this season, the largest number in the fishery’s history. With the warmer temperatures, the lakes are frozen for less time, and the juvenile sockeye may have been able to grow larger and be more competitive as they enter the ocean, thereby increasing their odds of survival. But as the Bering Sea continues to warm, it too could see the same salmon declines as the Yukon.

Many people in the Yukon region believe that fisheries management also plays a role in which areas see increases or declines, said Fitka, the executive director of the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association. In particular, subsistence fishers are frustrated because commercial fishers are allowed to catch salmon in Area M, a state-managed section of waters south of the Alaska Peninsula and west of Bristol Bay.

Some of the fish caught there are passing through on their way to spawning grounds in the Yukon. Area M fishery operations have been controversial for decades, but clashes have intensified since the 2021 salmon season. Typically, about 1.7 million chum migrate up the Yukon River, but last year, only 150,000 appeared, while commercial fishermen in Area M caught nearly 1.2 million chum at sea. While Area M fishers harvest some chum salmon destined for the Yukon River and its tributaries, this does not alone explain the poor returns, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which says that a majority of the chum harvested in this fishery are not destined for the Yukon drainages.

“It’s traumatic.”

“It’s a huge loss of food, but most importantly — and we’re hearing this every week from tribes, from people who live on the river — the most traumatic thing is a loss of culture, traditional identity,” said Carroll, the Yukon fisheries manager. “It’s traumatic.” Linda Behnken, the executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, said the dwindling salmon numbers in the Yukon-Kuskokwim area are a climate justice issue, but also an opportunity to build community. “Everybody in Alaska cares about salmon and recognizes the importance of maintaining healthy salmon runs and how important that is to culture and food security and to the economy of this state,” says Behnken — and that presents an opportunity for connection.

A load of salmon donated by the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association is offloaded to go to communities with low salmon runs.
Bethany Goodrich

In an effort to share the salmon wealth, programs like Fish for Families have popped up to distribute Bristol Bay’s surplus fish to communities across Alaska that are experiencing dismal salmon returns.  

Volunteer coordinators work with local fishers to acquire the salmon, process it and package it into 50 pound boxes, which will be flown to remote communities in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and Chignik, an area in Southwest Alaska. About 5,000 pounds of salmon have been donated to the four communities in Chignik, and the program has four communities in the middle and upper portions of the Yukon River lined up for future deliveries.

George Anderson is a fisherman and president of Chignik Intertribal Coalition, a group of tribal members and Chignik fishery stakeholders that formed in 2018 when sockeye runs failed in the area. Donations to Chignik started in 2020, when COVID-19-related supply chain disruptions combined with record-low salmon runs prompted a food shortage in the community. That year, the community received more than 30,000 pounds of sockeye from Bristol Bay. Families receive the fish whole so they have the option to process the salmon to their liking and share their cultural traditions with younger generations. 

“We’d really, really prefer to be harvesting our own fish that are coming here,” Anderson said, but he and other Chignik families are grateful for the donations. “We’re learning all the time that there is always a surprise around the corner, whether you don’t have enough or if you have too much.”

“We’re learning all the time that there is always a surprise around the corner, whether you don’t have enough or if you have too much.”

After two years of no chum fishing, Fitka said people in the Yukon region have turned to harvesting other species. In addition to small amounts of pink and sockeye salmon, fishers in the Yukon River and its tributaries are also catching sheefish, grayling, burbot, pike and whitefish. “We have to rely on what we have,” Fitka said.

Carroll, the Yukon River fishery manager, is hopeful that the salmon will recover in the long run. Western Alaska’s chinook and chum crashed simultaneously around 2000, she said, but both species saw large returns within a few years. Today, a warming ocean and poor food quality for chum could make it harder for them to bounce back, but overall, salmon are resilient. “I think we’ll be fishing for those species again,” Carroll said. “I just hope that folks can kind of hold on to that, and toe the line and try to find other food sources, other ways of practicing their cultural traditions until we can get back to fishing.”

Victoria Petersen is a freelance journalist living in Anchorage, Alaska. Previously, she was a reporting fellow at The New York Times and a High Country News intern.

We welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field Seminars for adults: cultural and natural history of the Colorado Plateau. With guest experts, local insights, small groups, and lodge or base camp formats....
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
  • ACTING INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS DESK EDITOR
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
  • GRANTS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
  • ALASKA SEA KAYAK BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND EVENTS PROGRAM COORDINATOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
  • PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT FACILITATOR
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
  • LAND STEWARD, ARAVAIPA
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
  • DEVELOPMENT WRITER
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
  • CONNECTIVITY SCIENCE COORDINATOR
    Position type: Full time, exempt Location: Bozeman preferred; remote negotiable Compensation: $48,000 - $52,000 Benefits: Major medical insurance, up to 5% match on a 401k,...
  • EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT
    ArenaLife is looking for an Executive Assistant who wants to work in a fast-paced, exciting, and growing organization. We are looking for someone to support...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Mountain Lion Foundation is seeking an Executive Director. Please see our website for further information - mountainlion.org/job-openings
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • SPRING MOUNTAINS SOLAR OFF GRID MOUNTAIN HOME
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
  • MAJOR GIFTS MANAGER - MOUNTAIN WEST, THE CONSERVATION FUND
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
  • NATURE'S BEST IN ARAVAIPA CANYON
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....
  • HEALTH FOOD STORE IN NW MONTANA
    Turn-key business includes 2500 sq ft commercial building in main business district of Libby, Montana. 406.293.6771 /or [email protected]