Threat to Salmon Imperils Alaska’s Culture

By Hannah Beutler, Stanford University

Standing chest deep in the cold waters of the Kenai River, I can see salmon skim the surface of the water farther out in the middle of the river. I feel the tug in the big net I hold in the current and run up on shore with the net in tow to pull out the salmon. Glistening on the sand, this fish is one of the many my family will catch this summer to keep us fed throughout the year.

Subsistence salmon fishing is at the core of many residents’ livelihood; integrating fish wheels, dip netting and fish smoking into many Alaskans’ everyday life. Salmon are more than food or just fish – they are a way of life to many Alaskans. Almost everyone in Alaska has a story about salmon – the first time they caught one as a kid, the biggest king (Chinook) salmon they ever reeled in, or the smoked salmon dip recipe that they have perfected.

Credit: Conservation Biology News

Salmon define the seasons, the meals and the traditions. But the salmon population is threatened and their numbers have decreased substantially, which may threaten the culture that relies on them.

Along the banks of the 2,200-mile length of the Yukon River, native Alaskan tribes have caught the migrating salmon every summer for generations. Salmon are necessary to feed the 33 communities along the river. Myron Naneng is a native Yupik from Hooper Bay. “[I catch] 50 to 60 Chinook salmon and at least 100 chum or red [salmon] every year,” he says. In the Yupik language the word for fish is Neqa, which literally means food.

It has been estimated that nearly 50,000 Chinook salmon, the largest of the salmon family, were caught for subsistence on the Yukon annually. During 2014, the number of salmon swimming up the Yukon fell so low that Chinook fishing for subsistence purposes was closed by the regulatory department for the summer.

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Scientist believe climate change is playing a role in negatively impacting fish populations in the state, including change in spring river melting, increased riverbank erosion, warmer winters, higher rates of forest fires and droughts. According to Deena Jallen, a fisheries biologist at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G), last year Chinook made up only 2 percent of salmon harvests on the Yukon River.

The dwindling fish numbers are straining the communities. Fish camps pop up along the riverbanks as families from towns move out to catch their salmon during the short Alaskan summer. “The king salmon drive the whole tradition of the fish camp lifestyle, [but] the fish camp lifestyle used to exist and doesn’t anymore,” says Stan Zuray, who has been working on researching and counting salmon since the 1970s.

There is some good news, however. On May 8, Alaska’s Governor Bill Walker signed into law Alaska Wild Salmon Day, establishing Aug. 10 as a day to celebrate the state’s rich fishing history. And, ADF&G recently discovered a slight upward trend in Yukon juvenile Chinook abundance. That should lead to higher numbers of salmon returning upstream. Yet, the issues of climate change aren’t disappearing any time soon. What the communities of Alaska will have to face to adjust to the changes ahead are yet to be determined. 

Hannah Beutler grew up in Seward, Alaska where she learned how to fish at young age. She is now studying Atmosphere/Energy Engineering at Stanford and will continue her education there with a MS in Earth Systems next year. She hopes to apply her education and interests to working in resource management of fisheries and forestry in Alaska in the future.