Four years after the Yukon salmon collapse, one Interior Alaska village wonders if it will ever be able to catch fish again.
Without salmon, Gwichyaa Zhee misses his heart.
“It’s not good,” said Linda Englishway, sitting on the couch in her home not far from the Yukon River. Englishwe is an old woman who has lived in the village all her life.
There are signs of fall in the English home — a pot of apples and cinnamon on the stove, a tray of cranberries waiting to be processed. Fall also usually means salmon on their journey upriver, but this year, the run is a fraction of the size it used to be.
Without fish, nothing in the village is the way it is supposed to be, Englishwe said. The smokehouses, usually filled with salmon drying for the winter, are empty. Even the city smells different.
“It smelled so good, it smelled like those fish,” Englishway said. “Oh, I was sitting outside and smelling something.”
Gwichyaa Zhee is the Gwich’in name for Fort Yukon. The village is located on the upper Yukon River about 150 miles northeast of Fairbanks. It is home to fewer than 500 people, mostly Gwich’in Athabascan people, many with deep ties to other communities along the river and in Canada. The tiny homes, many of which have large deer antlers mounted above the door and snow machines or four-wheelers in the yard, sit on a sprawling network of dirt roads and flat tundra. People here used to share food with each other.
Life in Gwichyaa Zhee revolves around the Yukon River, a wide, braided river as it runs through the city. Its silty waters barely make a sound through the shell islands and sandbars. This river was full of fish and crowded with families traveling back and forth from the fish camp, Englishwe said.
“Everyone was visiting each other along the river,” she recalled.
Now, the riverfront is quiet, except for a few hunters out trying to hunt moose.
Inglishoe is one of 15,000 people who live along the Yukon River and are feeling the effects of the salmon collapse, from the Bering Sea to the river’s headwaters in Canada.
The river’s king salmon run, once strong, has been in a long, slow decline since the 1990s. The paths of chum salmon were also unpredictable. But in the past four years, both species’ paths have suddenly crashed.
Researchers are still not sure exactly what caused the collapse. Scientists say climate change may play a big role, raising the temperature of river water and potentially affecting the availability of prey species in the sea. Many people along the river also blame bycatch from the Bering Sea ship fleet and commercial salmon fishing along the Aleutian Range.
This year, king salmon were less than a fifth of their normal size. This summer, for the fourth year in a row, fisheries managers closed nearly all fishing operations along Alaska’s Yukon River to try to ensure as many fish as possible reach their spawning grounds.
This means that in Gwichyaa Zhee, there is no salmon to eat, and no salmon to store for the winter.
Michael Peter worries that young people – his children – are losing part of their identity.
Peter is the second president of Gwichyaa Zhee. He grew up learning to fillet fish from his grandmother. Summers at fish camp connected him to his community, the river, and his family from a young age. But now, he said, instead of spending the summer working together on the river, people are at home.
“A lot of our young people are kind of lost, not eating our traditional foods and not showing them our traditional values, educating them, going to hunting camp,” Peter said.
Peter said that for him, Fish Camp was a “spiritual awakening.” He worries that younger generations are missing out on their opportunity to continue the tradition.
The collapse of salmon has also made daily life more difficult. Without fish, people have to rethink what they eat. Many families hunt more, but fueling a boat to hunt moose or hunt geese can cost $9 per gallon, Peter said. Buying groceries at your local AC store costs three times what it does in Anchorage.
Year-round work is limited at Goichia Zhe, and Peter says that without fish it is difficult to make ends meet.
“A lot of people are migrating to the city,” he said.
For people in Goichia Zhi, the salmon collapse is just one of a series of external threats.
Recent floods have destroyed fish camps up and down the river. Such floods could become more common, as climate change brings more unpredictable spring river breaks and extreme weather. Peter is also concerned that oil development such as the Willow Project and proposed mining in the Brooks Range will threaten the caribou herds his community depends on for a living. These projects have support from some local communities and Alaska Native leaders, although Peter and others see them as a threat.
“We seem to be under attack all at once, with no regard for our future – our children, our land, our animals, our air, our water and our climate,” Peter said. “The earth can only bear so much.”
Peter and other residents want Alaska Natives to have more control over how the river and other resources are managed. Currently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game set limits on subsistence hunting when hunts do not meet escape targets and quotas set out in a decades-old treaty with Canada.
Peter represents Yukon Flats on the executive board of the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which develops recommendations for fishery management. He and other Yukon residents are seeking to establish tribal co-management rights for salmon in the Yukon River. They look to the Kuskokwim River, where 33 federally recognized tribes work in partnership with state and federal agencies to make management decisions, as a model.
“We shouldn’t be struggling to survive, but we are survivors and we are resilient,” Peter said. “We’ve been here, we’re not going anywhere, and this has always been our home. And who are the country’s better managers than the people themselves?