• Forecast
  • News Tip
  • Categories
Temperature Precipitation
Estimated read time
6m 11s

Season of sacrifice on the Kuskokwim River continues

By Rhonda McBride Photojournalist: John Thain - 9:42 AM June 10, 2014
BETHEL –

All you have to do is listen to KYUK, the public radio station in Bethel to hear the anxieties that permeate the region. For months, the ongoing king salmon crisis on the Kuskokwim River has dominated the airwaves.

“I am going on 70,” said one man on a recent call-in. “For elders who are older than me, it’s really hard to adapt to any other food than what they’re used to.”

Bev Hoffman, co-chair of the Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group, calls in regularly.

“I prefer kings too. All of us do,” said Hoffman on the radio. “We love our kings, but are we going to love them to death?”

The working group is an advisory board for state and federal managers. When the salmon are running, they meet regularly to talk about the run strength and fishing opportunities.

In the past few years, the meetings have been especially contentious.

The 2013 season went down as the worst on record, with fewer than 49,000 kings, or Chinook salmon, making it up the Kuskokwim River to their spawning grounds.

Scientists say 65,000-120,000 kings must escape to ensure an adequate return.

In a normal year, 80,000 are harvested on the Kuskokwim for subsistence, the largest king salmon subsistence harvest in the state. But this year, fishery managers say it’s not likely that critical escapement goals will be met, leaving very few kings for subsistence.

“It’s going to be a real difficult June,” said Hoffman. She believes the king crisis falls hardest on those who live in the upper reaches of the Kuskokwim drainage, where the only fish they see are those that get past the gauntlet of gill nets in the lower river.

Hoffman’s wooden fish racks are behind her house on the outskirts of Bethel. Except for a few sled dog harnesses, they’re completely empty.

For as long has she can remember, her family has always dried and smoked king salmon.

“Normally, our family will put up 80 kings,” said Hoffman.  But last year, they only put up four. And the year before that, none.

Instead, to protect the kings, her family has targeted other species of salmon — red, or sockeye salmon, and cohos, also known as silvers, which run later in the summer.

Still, it’s hard not to miss the kings. Hoffman reached up to point to one of the logs on the fish rack.

“This usually has fish hanging here, the whole way across,” said Hoffman. “They’ll hang. They’ll get a good bead of oil going down.”

The oil from the rich, fatty kings is what people in these parts prize, because they’re hearty fare in the coldest weather, especially when hunting and fishing.

Just as chicken and beef are the mainstay of the Western diet, kings are what sustain the people in Western Alaska.

The fish are usually cut into slabs or narrow strips — and when dried and smoked, stay preserved through the winter. Sometimes they’re dipped in seal oil or served with Pilot Bread crackers.

Although there are other fish to eat, the loss of the king salmon is hard for Hoffman to talk about. She starts to tear up when asked about the impact on her family.

But talk about the salmon, Hoffman must. As co-chair of the working group, she must help to keep tempers in check and guide some difficult discussions – and most important of all, talk about what needs to be done to protect the kings.

In times of shortage there are always disagreements, whether it’s between upriver and downriver fishers — or between the working group and state and federal managers.

Sen. Mark Begich sat in on a recent meeting, where members up and down the Kuskokwim told the senator the burden of conservation falls too heavily on the people who live along the river and not enough on Bering Sea trawlers ,which catch king salmon while fishing for other species.  They asked him to put more focus on the ocean, where the king salmon spend five to seven years, before returning to spawn.

“We’re very concerned that we have better science in the Bering Sea,” said Henry Mitchell, one of the working group members.

Begich told the group he’d like to see the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Act – now in the process of being rewritten – include a subsistence component.

“When you put the users together, there’s only one that survives on the food – in the sense that when you open the door, your grocery store is not in a building, it’s in the water,” said Begich.

For now, it’s up to those who live along the Kuskokwim to save the kings.

In order to understand the enormity of it, you have to be affected. You have to see it first hand,” said Esai Twitchell, a Native leader from Kasigluk, a village on the Johnson River, a tributary of the Kuskokwim downriver from Bethel.

Twitchell said the emotional consequences are already being felt, that people are not as social as before.

“You see villages that are not so upbeat,” said Twitchell. “Right now, they’re not very about happy about not having any fish.”

The economic consequences of empty fish racks are only beginning to be felt.

Bev Hoffman said urban Alaskans can get a sense of what the subsistence fishery means to households by visiting the New Sagaya fish market in midtown Anchorage.

“Put a dollar value on 80 fish, times an average value of 30 pounds,” said Hoffman.

According to New Sagaya managers, a net-caught fish averages around $12 a pound. At 30 pounds a fish, that amounts to about $360 per fish.  If you multiply that by 80 fish, the number needed to feed an extended family, it adds up to almost $29,000.

For many, the worth of a full fish rack has no price tag, as does the cultural value of sharing the catch, which will soon be put to a test.

In a rare step, the federal government has taken over management of the subsistence fishery from Aniak to the mouth of the Kuskokwim, about a 200-mile stretch of river.

Although the state has control over navigable waters, the Alaska National Interest Lands Act allows federal fishery managers to take over management of waters adjacent to wildlife refuges under certain conditions.

It’s a move some communities along the river have pushed for, because it would limit the king salmon fishery to federally qualified subsistence users.

Federal managers are planning to allow a “cultural and social” harvest of 1,000 kings, to be allocated among 32 communities adjacent to the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge. The State of Alaska will continue to manage the fisheries above Aniak. The amount of fish per village would be a fraction of the normal subsistence harvest.

Some of the smaller villages will be limited to a harvest of 12 fish.  The allocation for larger communities averages between 30-60 kings – in most cases less than what even one household would normally catch for its winter supply of kings. Although Bethel has a population of about 6,000, its allocation is set at 100, based on tribal membership.

Permits will be given to each tribe, which will in turn select someone to harvest and distribute its allocation of kings.

Federal managers will begin this process in just a few days, another reminder that while the fish are few, the demands in this season of sacrifice are huge.

Latest Stories

  • Sports

    Iditarod champion uses treadmill to keep team in shape

    by Dave Leval on Jul 29, 22:03

    Dallas Seavey often takes his mushing dogs for a walk but says he never leaves home. In fact, the dogs of the defending Iditarod champion don’t even leave their front yard, thanks to a treadmill Seavey installed two months ago inside a 50-foot refrigerated trailer. It’s Seavey’s way to keep his dogs active, especially during […]

  • News

    Anchorage in Transition: Denis LeBlanc explains plans to increase public safety

    by KTVA CBS 11 News on Jul 29, 21:36

    With the election of Anchorage’s new mayor, Ethan Berkowitz, comes a new administration. All this week during the 6 p.m. Evening News, KTVA be interviewing newly appointed department heads about their plans for the future of Anchorage. Wednesday, we were joined by Denis LeBlanc, the new fire chief for the Municipality of Anchorage. LeBlanc says […]

  • News

    One Percent for Arts program keeps Kodiak artist busy

    by Heather Hintze on Jul 29, 21:10

    Metal artist Mark Witteveen is undertaking a massive project: A mountainous map of Kodiak. “For each elevation of 500 feet it will have an additional layer on top,” he explained as he hammered out some seams holding two big sheets together. It’s a piece for Kodiak High School through the One Percent for Arts program, […]

  • News

    As Anchorage sports season starts, neurologist urges concussion awareness

    by Liz Raines on Jul 29, 20:43

    Tad Martynowicz has been wrestling since he was in elementary school. Now a senior, he’s going to have to sit this season out. A concussion in December ended his wrestling career, for good. “The last thing I remember was going in for a single leg,” Martynowicz said, recalling ge couldn’t remember anything for about an […]

  • News

    Recent quake reminds Alaskans to be prepared

    by Eric Ruble on Jul 29, 20:29

    Alaska residents are accustomed to earthquakes, but Tuesday’s shaking has even longtime residents talking. The 6.3 tremor was centered about 145 miles southwest of Anchorage and could be felt throughout Southcentral Alaska. “It’s the biggest one I had felt in a long time,” said JR Richardson, who moved to Anchorage 12 years ago. However, experts […]

  • Weather

    Evening News Weather, July 29

    by KTVA Weather on Jul 29, 19:52

    Kenai Peninsula/Prince William Sound Expect mostly cloudy skies for the Kenai and Prince William Sound. Some isolated showers are possible. Highs will be in the low to mid-60s.   Southeast Rain chances will be likely for the Panhandle with highs in the upper 50s to around 60 degrees.   Interior/North Slope For the Interior, a […]

  • News

    AEDC releases 3-year outlook on Anchorage economy

    by Alexis Fernandez on Jul 29, 19:47

    The Anchorage Economic Development Corporation released its three-year economic outlook Wednesday to give residents a better idea of what’s ahead, especially as lower oil prices are at the forefront of many minds in Alaska. “We got a solid situation to build upon,” said Bill Popp, executive director of AEDC. Popp says most industries are healthy […]

  • Crime

    Police plead for more info on Alano Club shooting that left Anchorage teen dead

    by KTVA CBS 11 News on Jul 29, 17:43

    One Anchorage detective says the level of teen violence in the area has reached an “outstanding” level. “I don’t recall, at a time period since I’ve been in the unit, the level of violence with juveniles being involved in our cases,” said David Cordie, who has spent seven years with the Anchorage Police Department. So far […]