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.