Oct 10, 2022

Salmon shortages in Alaska’s Yukon River are changing Native ways of life Transcript

Salmon shortages in Alaska's Yukon River are changing Native ways of life Transcript
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For the second year in a row, a severe and sudden salmon collapse is impacting Indigenous residents on Alaska’s Yukon River and causing food insecurity. Read the transcript here.

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Speaker 1: (00:00)
And now a story from Alaska, where conditions on the Yukon River are forcing native people to change how they live and eat. The river has faced major salmon shortages in recent years, and that’s blamed on warming waters. Olivia Ebertz of Alaska Public Media has this report.

speaker 2: (00:18)
In Emmonak near the mouth of the Yukon River, Yupik elder, James Kameroff is bringing home a box of frozen donated chum salmon. Chum was one of the most abundant types of salmon on the Yukon until its numbers unexpectedly crashed last summer. This chum is likely the only chum his family will eat this year.

Speaker 3: (00:40)
It’s going to help us taste salmon in the winter months. We prefer to get our own salmon put away for ourselves, but since we don’t have it, I’m happy for these.

speaker 2: (00:52)
Normally in summer, Yupik families like Kameroff’s catch, smoke, and put away hundreds of these fish for the winter in a process known as subsistence fishing. But now, that’s not allowed due to the collapse. State scientists have attributed the salmon crash to marine heat waves caused by climate change.

speaker 2: (01:11)
Now, most lower river residents will only get one or two state-donated salmon the whole summer. And no donation can replace the loss of a way of life. More than 15,000 Alaskan native and First Nations people are experiencing this loss from the Yukon River’s mouth to its headwaters in British Columbia.

Speaker 3: (01:31)
Culture wise, it’s not going to be the same anymore, because all the work I used to do in the subsistence, helping my parents, my kids, or my grandchildren, are not able to do that now.

speaker 2: (01:45)
The many Yupiit who used to work in the Yukon River’s fish industry are now taking whatever summer jobs they can get. Captain Darren Jennings and first mate, Justin Kameroff used to work as drivers for a fish processor, hauling fresh catches down river to the plant. Now, they’re taking donated frozen fish up river to deliver to Lower Yukon tribes.

speaker 2: (02:06)
On the way up river, Jennings stops off at a fish camp, where some friends are staying for the summer. Allen Afcan, like most lower river Yupiit, it grew up spending summers at fish camp, but most of the nearby camps are empty now. His neighbors would rather stay in the village now that there are no chums and kings to process.

Speaker 4: (02:29)
This rack would be full from front to back and we’d get all our subsistence done in no time.

speaker 2: (02:43)
This year they can only use a handful of their nets. The smaller ones geared towards whitefish and a species of salmon called humpies. Neither species is as nutritious or tasty as chum and Chinook. Afghan spends time that would otherwise be used for fishing, repairing his nets. He has barely seen chum and Chinook this summer. Last summer, the annual up river migration of chum salmon dropped to a 10th of its average size. This year, the annual king migration dropped to about 20%. There’s no quick solution for a climate change caused issue like this one, but many river residents are calling for an end to regulations that allow Bering sea commercial fishermen to scoop up salmon bound for the Yukon River in a process known as bycatch. Some scientists say, with a crash this drastic, getting every female fish back into the river matters a whole lot.

Speaker 5: (03:38)
[inaudible 00:03:38]

speaker 2: (03:38)
Up River from Emmonak in St. Mary’s, the Long Thompson family receive a box of several frozen chum and sockeye salmon donated from the state of Alaska.

Speaker 5: (03:48)
Oh and it’s cut already. See what this, since they already headed and gutted it, we go down this way and then take the guts out. Cut the head off, open it this way and clean that blood out.

speaker 2: (04:04)
It’s been two years since Jolene’s, 11 year old daughter Nicole has had the opportunity to cut fish, so she’s a little out of practice.

Speaker 6: (04:11)
Pretty sad though, we have to wait for fish to come one or two at a time. If we had a lot more, I’m pretty sure she’d have it down a little quicker. Really do miss Fish Camp.

speaker 2: (04:26)
This is hardly enough fish to last the family through the winter. They plan to eat it the very next day. For PBS News Weekend, I’m Olivia Ebertz on the lower Yukon River.

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