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Yukon River mushers struggle to feed dog teams after poor salmon runs

Oct 7, 2020

Weak king and chum salmon runs this year compelled the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to halt subsistence fishing entirely in some parts of the Yukon River, leaving many mushers like Moore without their main source of dog food. (Photo courtesy Alaska Department of Fish and Game)

Mushers on the Yukon River are struggling to feed their dogs because of weak king and chum salmon runs this year.

Pat Moore is one of nine mushers that live in the Yukon River village of Tanana. He has about 20 dogs in his yard, and was trying to sell most of them when the coronavirus pandemic shut intrastate travel down in March.

“I've got no market in the lower 48, and nobody in Alaska wants to take a chance on them because they don't know when the next race is going to be,” Moore said. 

It takes about 4,000 salmon to feed all the dogs in Moore’s dog yard. He mixes it up a little with kibble and red meat, but mostly salmon fills his dogs’ bellies. 

But the weak king and chum salmon runs this year compelled the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to halt subsistence fishing entirely in some parts of the Yukon River, leaving many mushers like Moore without their main source of dog food. 

Another one of those mushers is Gerald Alexander in Fort Yukon. He said that he is feeding his dogs mostly dry food, which is expensive to ship to Alaska bush communities located off the U.S. road system. 

“It costs so much for a bag of Friskies. Actually 32 pounds for $60 a bag,” Alexander said. 

Friskies is a brand of dry dog food. Alexander, who is also on the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, reached out to its director, Stephanie Quinn-Davidson, for help. 

Quinn-Davidson said that Yukon River communities rely on two types of salmon for their food: the kings and the chums. These communities have turned more to chum salmon over the years as king salmon runs have dwindled.

"Now the fall chum didn't didn't come in at all,” Quinn-Davidson said.” And there's been no fishing.”

Quinn-Davidson said that these are the lowest harvest numbers in two decades. So she pleaded for help for the mushers through Twitter earlier this month. 

“I've been really surprised at the response that we've gotten. I don't even know how many times now I've had professional identified mushers reach out to me and say, ‘we want to help you, you know, we'll put you in touch with the dog food companies that that we use.’” Quinn-Davidson said.

But so far, only one dog food company is actively figuring out how to ship dog food to Yukon River mushers. Davidson hopes for more. 

Back in Tanana, Moore says that the dog food shortage could kill mushing altogether in the small Yukon River community. 

“A lot of us are kind of long in the tooth. And this is going be the final nail in the coffin, I think,” Moore said.

Moore has enough food to make it through December, three months away. But soon he and other mushers will have to make tough choices about the future of their dogs.