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A drop in Yukon River salmon has hurt Alaska communities' food supply


The salmon runs in the Yukon River in Alaska this year were bleak. King salmon has been on the decline there for many years. But this year, chum salmon, which many rural communities depend on for food and income, have been counted at numbers too low to harvest. Opinions vary on causes, but many researchers agree that climate change plays a role. Serena Fitka, executive director of the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association, joins us from her home in Valdez, Alaska. Thank you so much for being with us.

SERENA FITKA: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Well, I gather you grew up in the village of St. Mary's on the Yukon River. Tell us, please, what things look like there this year.

FITKA: Well, I brought my kids out - my family out this summer, and we go there every summer to subsistence fish with my family. And it was very dismal. We usually stay out there for about six weeks. I've traveled to Marshall from St. Mary's, and the river was barren. There's no boats.

SIMON: And let's understand this very - well, in very blunt terms. This is a food shortage for many families, isn't it?

FITKA: Yes, it is because salmon's a very large - an important staple in all the community's lives. Every community on the Yukon - we have 42 communities on the Yukon River from the coast to the border. And that's not talking about the First Nations in Canada that also depend on the salmon runs. They were not able to harvest any salmon this year. It was the first time in history no one was able to put their nets in the Yukon River. And so many went without filling their freezers and smoking, drying, cutting their fish for the winter. We did receive donations from Bristol Bay. The state of Alaska also provided donations to the communities on the Yukon River. However, it does not replace the traditional lifestyle and the traditional preparation that everyone does on the Yukon River.

SIMON: And help us understand, Ms. Fitka - the salmon is a food source, but it's also a kind of cultural resource in the area, isn't it?

FITKA: Yes, it is. It's very important. It's our lifestyle. It's our identity as native people to work with what we're given and prepare our foods that are given to us from the river. I'm Yup'ik. And the Yup'ik peoples depend on fish just like people depend on beef from the store. And you go further up the Yukon River, and there's other native cultures that are very similar in how they catch and process their fish and have - the Athabascan, the Gwichʼin also practice harvesting their fish. So it's their lifestyle, and it's very hard to not be able to practice our fish culture.

SIMON: Yeah. How are people eating this year? What are they going to do?

FITKA: So the people on the Yukon River are hunting more. We've encouraged the people to stock up on moose and caribou and larger game. We've also asked them to harvest nonsalmon species.

SIMON: Ms. Fitka, are you concerned that salmon scarcity is going to get worse in the future as the climate does?

FITKA: It is of great concern, and we don't know what's going to happen in the future. We don't know how severe or how impactful the climate is going to change our ways. You know, you talk about warming temperatures in the river. And when I was in St. Mary's a few years ago, it was hot - and not only the air temperature but the water temperature. Fishermen were stating that on the main stem, the temperatures were 70 degrees, and that is beyond crazy. All I could think of was the fish. And that summer, people found fish belly up floating down the Andreafsky River, which is a tributary. There's been reports of fish belly up in the Koyukuk River and other tributaries along the Yukon. And that to me is very concerning and very scary for not only the fishermen but our next generations.

SIMON: Ms. Fitka, what can be done? What kind of help do you think the communities could use?

FITKA: Well, our - YRDFA has a very successful program that we run, and it's in-season salmon management teleconferences. And they bring fishermen and management together, and the community members and the fishermen are able to report out what's going on in their communities, how their subsistence runs are. And then management is also there to listen to all those concerns and to also answering questions the fishermen may have. These last few years, we've been hearing a lot of questions about what's going on and what's happened to our fish. So I think more research needs to be done not only in the ocean but in the spawning grounds of our salmon. We're talking about climate change, and we're talking about high temperatures in the water. And those spawning areas are crucial for our salmon.

SIMON: Serena Fitka is executive director of the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

FITKA: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.