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‘Utter collapse’: Alaska’s congressional delegation hears impacts of salmon failures

Alaska's congressional delegation heard from key stakeholders about the impact of salmon run failures on the Yukon and Kuskokwim River.
Published: Dec. 8, 2021 at 4:24 PM AKST
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - Alaska’s congressional delegation hosted a roundtable meeting on Wednesday to hear about the impacts of the Yukon and Kuskokwim River salmon collapse.

Key regional stakeholders spoke about the loss of food, culture and economic well-being from the run failures. Subsistence fishing was shut down on the Kuskokwim River early in the summer. Smokehouses and freezers are bare.

“It’s our soulfood, especially in our times of need,” said Chief PJ Simon of Tanana Chiefs Conference.

Vivian Korthuis, CEO of the Association of Village Council Presidents, said the 2021 summer chum salmon season should be seen as a warning sign.

“The canary in the coal mine,” she added.

The big question is why the fish didn’t come back. Too much bycatch? The impact of warming waters due to climate change? No one knows for sure.

Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game again pledged to find out and do more. Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, said there needs to be more research dollars invested into what is happening close to shore where most salmon in Alaska is harvested.

Salmon failures have impacted Chignik for four years, said George Anderson, president of the Chignik Intertribal Coalition. The coastal community is heavily reliant on commercial fishing and has been devastated.

“We no longer have a stable economy,” Anderson added.

Alarm bells sounded in communities along the Yukon River this year when chum salmon failed to return and subsistence fishing was closed for that species. Data from Fish and Game shows that 70% of the Yukon area’s subsistence salmon harvest from 1994-2016 has been made up of chum salmon, but it’s not helping that king salmon aren’t returning, either.

In Chignik, it’s the sockeye salmon that aren’t returning.

Bristol Bay is the outlier. The world’s most productive sockeye salmon fishery is projected to be even more productive next year with record returns.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said she has heard “the cries” from Alaskans for action, especially from subsistence users with empty fish drying racks. Salmon has been sent out to communities on the Yukon River, but challenges with food remain.

Vincent-Lang said hunting seasons have been extended in some parts of the state so people don’t go hungry. Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration is considering whether to send out more salmon, he added.

There were calls for better fisheries management and hopes of no finger pointing during another day of meetings on Thursday.

Heads of tribal groups and regional organizations wanted to convey the scale of the challenge facing an estimated 50,000 Alaskans. Ragnar Alstrom, executive director of the Yukon Delta Fisheries Development Association, stressed this should not be seen as a salmon run failure. That understates the crisis.

“It was an utter collapse,” he said.

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