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Here's how people on the Lower Yukon River are faring two years into the chum crash

Frozen donated salmon coordinated through the state is some of the only fish people on the lower Yukon river will eat all year
Katie Basile / KYUK
Frozen donated salmon coordinated through the state is some of the only fish people on the lower Yukon river will eat all year

Maggie Westlock is at the AC store in Emmonak near the mouth of the Yukon River. She’s picking up a few things for dinner. In her cart she has grapes, coleslaw, sandwiches, and some canned ham.

These are not the foods she and her family of 8 prefer to eat. During a normal summer, Westlock would be filling her family’s dinner plates and chest freezers with lots of wild chum and chinook salmon they catch themselves. But fishing for those two species on the Yukon has been closed for two summers because of a sudden and severe collapse.

That means Westlock’s diet is changing. Her family is relying more on store bought food. Her grocery bill has gone way up, and inflation is making things far worse.

Westlock rolls her cart over to the freezer section.

“I’ll show you something,” she says.

Maggie picks up a small pack of ribs, less than 2 pounds worth.

“This one is $37.10,” says Westlock.

On the other side of the store, things are even more dire.

“The detergent is very expensive! $62.99, that’s Tide and that Kirkland is $55.99. Expensive I tell you. And look at these pampers, huggies: $84.99. One box,” says Westlock.

The final damage is $81.81 for five items.

Residents are feeling the loss 100 miles upriver in St. Mary’s too. Elder Sophie Beans lives on the banks of the Andreafsky River, one of the Yukon’s salmon-spawning tributaries. She says when there was fishing, her whole block would be orange and smoke-filled.

“Full of kings and fish,” says Beans.

And now?

“Nothing! Nobody’s cutting,” says Beans.

Beans stands inside her empty smokehouse. The leftover smell lingers in the wooden walls, but it’s been two years since her smokehouse held fish. Managers closed subsistence fishing for both chum and chinook both those years to try to protect their dwindling numbers.

Last summer, the Yukon’s summer chum run sank to just a tenth of its average size. This year numbers ticked up slightly for chum, but collapsed even more for chinook, the Yukon’s most prized species. Normally, families would put away hundreds of both species to get through the winter.

“My son when he went drifting one time he caught 700 chums and it took us three days. 7 Totes!” said Beans.

And that wasn’t even including the kings.

Beans uses every part of the fish from the head to the tail. She makes culunaq and egamaarrluk.

Beans usually keeps three chest freezers full of salmon, but now only one has salmon. It’s about a third full. That fish is from two years ago, when fishing was still allowed. She and her husband are now rationing, taking fish out for special occasions only.

Scientists are pointing towards warming seas as being a major cause of the chum crash

Scientists have been scrambling to figure out why western Alaska chum and chinook stocks are crashing. They’re starting to hone in on one primary cause for the chum collapse: recent marine heatwaves in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska. Dr. Katie Howard from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game says that’s linked to climate change. There have always been marine heatwaves, but the recent ones are different.

“They were just bigger, they were geographically larger, they were more intense. And they lasted over a much, much longer period of time than is typical. And so that is what has been tied to a changing climate - that it's more extreme when it happens. And the other expectation is that they may occur more often,” said Howard.

But Howard says they’re not exactly sure what’s impacting wild chinook, and that species has been on the decline in many Alaska rivers for a decade now.

Many residents also point to another driver behind the low returns of both species: commercial fisheries in the Bering Sea. State and federal managers have allowed these commercial fisheries to continue to operate, even as they have placed more stringent measures on Yukon River subsistence users.

The state says it wants to keep studying the fish before it takes action against commercial fisheries, but most subsistence users say they don’t have time for years-long scientific studies. Many want the state and the feds to more strictly manage the commercial fisheries now.

Some scientists argue that the numbers are now so low that getting each and every spawner back to the Yukon River matters. Dr. Howard says she is getting concerned, and this issue will only get more urgent as time goes on.

“If, over the course of more than five years, you're not getting enough fish to the spawning grounds to replenish the population, you really start to become very concerned,” said Howard.

The low chinook runs are well past that five year mark.

For many people on the Lower Yukon River, a small portion of donated chum salmon is the only taste they'll get all year

Across town in St. Mary’s, in a small house with a view of the Andreafsky and Yukon rivers, live Jolene Long and Troy Thompson and their six young children. Thompson used to work as a commercial fisherman and has now been out of work for two years. He says they’re relying much more on the store, and are now spending 2-3 times more on groceries, compared to when the salmon ran abundantly. To feed their family of 8, they spend $400 to $600 per week. They don’t eat much protein these days.

“When they do get a little bit of fish, they just gobble it up,” said Long.

The salmon crash means it’s become more difficult for parents to pass on their Yup’ik culture to their kids. Long used to cut fish with her oldest daughter every summer, now her daughter barely remembers how to cut.

But tonight’s her night to practice. Most Tribal members in St. Mary’s have just received a couple of donated salmon from the state.

For many people in St. Mary’s, this small amount of donated salmon is the only taste they’ll get all year.