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Episode 23: Fishing on the Yukon

By KTVA Alaska 10:47 PM October 4, 2015

This program is about fishing, but it’s also about determination – an exploration of one of the most challenging economic frontiers in Alaska.

Years ago, king salmon were the icon of the Yukon, as well as the “money” fish.

There was a time when runs were strong enough to support both commercial and subsistence harvests. But in recent years, the kings have been off limits to even subsistence fisheries, as the state struggled to meet its treaty obligations with Canada, to allow enough kings to reach their spawning grounds across the border.

As it became clear kings were no longer a commercially viable fish, Kwik’Pak, the fisheries plant in Emmonak, began to focus on chum salmon, which run at the same time as the kings.

Kwik’Pak is owned by the Yukon Delta Fisheries Development Association, the community development quota (CDQ) group for six villages in the region.

CDQs were economic engines championed by the late Sen. Ted Stevens to give coastal communities a share of the Bering Sea fisheries.

Kwik’Pak, using Bering Sea profits, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars marketing Yukon chums as Arctic Keta, prized by Europeans, who value the unusually high oil content of the salmon.

But when fishing for kings was restricted, that also meant there was no fishing for chums. The gillnets fishermen used caught both species, so Yukon fishermen had to watch millions of chums swim away until the king run passed.

Then, with the blessings of the Alaska Board of Fisheries, fishermen began experimenting with gear that had never been used commercially on the Yukon — dip nets and beach seines. The gear is not as efficient as the drift gillnets, but it does allow for the release of kings alive, and at least there’s opportunity to catch some salmon.

And that they did.

This year, Yukon fishermen used dip nets to catch more than a quarter-million fish — or about 1.4-million pounds — hours and hours of grueling work.

Our program this weeks features two fishers — Stanley Pete from Nunam Iqua, who ran a small beach seining operation this summer with his wife and two kids — and Tiffany Agayar from Alakanuk, a single mom who dipnets.

Also part of the conversation this week is Jack Schultheis, who manages the Emmonak fish processing plant.

Nothing about developing an economy in Rural Alaska is easy, but that doesn’t mean people on the Lower Yukon aren’t trying.

The fishing season may be over, but we hope this edition of Frontiers brings back the grit and the sweat of summer — and appreciation of what it takes to build an economy off the Alaskan road system.

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