Disastrous chum salmon run leaves Yukon River mushers without food for dogs

Published: Oct. 5, 2020 at 4:29 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - When Courtney Agnes left for a 10-day moose hunt, she was preoccupied with worries about feeding her dog team. Agnes is from Tanana, a community along the Yukon River. The river was forecasted to have 800,000 to 1.1 million fall chum salmon. Instead, initial estimates from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game show there was less than 300,000 chum, making it the worst fall chum salmon run on record.

The chum salmon is important to Agnes' life. Not only does she subsistence fish, but she uses the salmon as a bartering tool. On a typical year, she trades the chum for muktuk from her cousins in Utqiagvik, halibut and herring eggs from her cousins in Angoon and salmonberries from friends in Unalakleet.

While she wasn’t able to partake in these traditions this summer, Agnes is most concerned about how mushers in Tanana will feed their dogs. Chum salmon is a key component of dog food for Yukon River teams, and now mushers are struggling to find a replacement.

“I’m worried about the other kennels we have here in Tanana, that’s why I’m advocating for the entire village," Agnes said.

In Tanana alone, Agnes estimates there are 150 dogs between six kennels, and only two of those kennels primarily race dogs. The rest are used for transportation to traplines and for hauling wood and water.

Anthony Shewfelt is a musher in Fort Yukon. He’s been running his dog team since he was 12 years old. He passed the tradition on to his daughter when she was 12 to teach her dedication and responsibility. If mushers on the river can’t feed their dogs, he’s worried the tradition will disappear as people try to sell off or cull their animals.

“To me, it’s like passing on a tradition, a healthy tradition because a lot of the Native traditions are dying off, like the language for instance,” Shewfelt said. “So if we don’t have fish to feed our dogs, that’s another tradition that’s going to go away.”

When Stephanie Quinn-Davidson, the director of the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, realized there wouldn’t be enough salmon for mushers, she posted a call for help on social media asking dog food companies if they could donate.

“We have funding where we’ve been able to purchase salmon for human consumption for elders and people most in need in our villages, but we don’t have a source of funding to purchase salmon for dog teams,” Quinn-Davidson said. “So that’s why I put out a call on social media.”

She’s since heard back from Purina, which said it would donate some of its 30/20 Salmon & Rice Formula, but Quinn-Davidson said even that won’t cover all of the mushers in Tanana and Fort Yukon.

Agnes' father, Pat Moore, said the two purchased 3,000 pounds of meat, two pallets of dry dog food and went around local establishments to ask for freezer-burned meat to feed their 34 dogs.

“I’ve got it figured that we’ve got enough food to maybe last us until December, and then we’re out of money and we’re out of food,” Moore said.

Lowest run on record

Coho and fall chum salmon are seen by a fish wheel near the Tanana River in 2018.
Coho and fall chum salmon are seen by a fish wheel near the Tanana River in 2018.(Courtesy of Jeffrey Estensen)

Fish and Game did not expect to have a run this low, but once summer chum salmon numbers started coming in, management officials were tipped off that the fall chum run may also be small.

“They’ve been able to utilize these salmon for generations and build up these dog teams,” Quinn-Davidson said. “And for whatever reason, the salmon didn’t come in this year.”

Jeff Estensen, Yukon Area fall season manager, said there is nothing in the river itself that would hurt the chum salmon run. However, he noticed that 4-year-old salmon, which normally make up around 70% of the fall chum salmon run, were missing.

This year was the first time in his 10 years as a fall season manager that he had to completely close the fishery. The management plan for the river says there needs to be at least 300,000 salmon to allow fishing, Estensen said. Subsistence fishermen were still allowed to use a 4-inch mesh gillnet to catch whitefish and pike, but they were not allowed to keep salmon.

Shewfelt normally uses a fish wheel to get the salmon he needs for the year, but he was only allowed to use the 4-inch mesh gillnet, which made it much harder to catch fish.

“I know it’s not perfect, it’s not ideal, it’s not as efficient and not as desirable as running a fish wheel and just getting what you need for dog food within a matter of days, but the idea of allowing them to do that, is at least they can try to get something,” Estensen said.

While this is the lowest run on record, previous years have left mushers in similar binds. In 2009, one musher told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner that he had to sell two of his dogs, give two away and kill one because the chum salmon run was insufficient.

Estensen said there’s no indication that next year’s run will be as bad, and populations have usually rebound in years after a poor fall chum salmon run.

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