Yukon salmon populations are falling. The cultural damage is vast.
Indigenous communities in the Yukon are struggling to survive in a changing climate. Their stories provides an important warning, no matter where you live.
Perspective by Bathsheba Demuth
September 15, 2022 at 4:30 p.m. EDT
In summer, the Yukon River teems with life. Ducks and geese raise their young in quiet sloughs. Moose graze amid shoreline willows. Beavers splash along the muddy banks. Concealed by waters milky with glacial silt, hundreds of thousands of salmon surge upstream from the Bering Sea toward the river’s origins in northwestern Canada, bound for the streams where they were born, will lay their own eggs and will die.
Where there are salmon in the far north, there are people. A century ago, even a decade ago, families from the Indigenous communities along the river regularly spent weeks each summer at fish camp, the cabins and canvas tents that dot the riverbank near eddies where Chinook salmon congregate. Dog mushers set fish wheels — like windmills with mesh baskets that scoop up chum salmon — to feed their teams.
But this year, the fish camps are empty. The wheels sit on shore.
There are two primary salmon species in the Yukon: Chinook and chum. A good fall chum run might see 1.8 million fish reach the lower river, fresh from the Bering Sea. Fewer than 300,000 are expected in 2022. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimates that this year’s Chinook run is the lowest on record: Sonar logged only 44,581 fish entering the river. From the headwaters to the mouth, no one is fishing.
It’s not just because of prohibitions in Alaska and resolutions to keep nets dry by Indigenous governments in Canada’s Yukon territory. “There is no salmon to fish anyways,” says Georgette McLeod, who teaches the Han language for the Tr’ondek Hwech’in government in Dawson City, Canada. “We have no salmon passing through.” Speaking from 100 miles downriver in Eagle Village, Alaska, where she is chief, Karma Ulvi calls the salmon situation “an emergency at this point. Something has to change. Otherwise, we’re facing an extinction.”
The Yukon salmon crisis might seem remote, a problem for small communities scattered along a distant, subarctic river. But from the causes to the impacts, the fate of these fish has resonances both local and global. It is a story of how climate change and biodiversity loss intertwine — and what it means to survive and imagine the future amid rapid ecological flux. The transformation of lands, suddenly and without easy recourse, in ways that alter what they mean and how we dwell within them, is not restricted to the Yukon. It could come soon to your garden or favorite orchard, to the place where you live and its capacity to nourish, both in caloric and cultural terms. Understanding such change in one place — along a river where shifts in the populations of just two fish species have sweeping effects across societies and ecosystems — is important, and provides a warning, no matter where you live.
Salmon are critical to people along the Yukon in part because of how they bring the wealth of the Bering Sea — one of the most productive ecosystems in the world — into the continental interior. In late winter, chinook and chum eggs hatch in the riverbed gravel nests dug by their mothers. By early spring, the fry wriggle free; chum swim directly for the ocean, while chinook spend a year in freshwater before migrating to the Bering Sea. Once in saltwater, both species transform: doubling size in a single summer, putting on enough muscle and fat over two or three or sometimes even five years to power themselves back upriver.
It is that sea-raised protein and lipid that has long nourished Yukon communities, from Yup’ik at the mouth, to middle- and upper-river Koyukon, Gwich’in, Han and Tutchone, to headwater Tlingit villages. In the 1800s, salmon fed the colonial fur-trading outposts of the British and Russian empires, then Klondike gold prospectors. For much of the 20th century, salmon powered people and dog teams.
Today salmon remain critical. “They’re important to our health,” Ulvi says. “They give healthy food that sustains us through the winter.”
In communities like Eagle Village, where road access is seasonal or nonexistent, groceries are expensive. Fishing, as with subsistence hunting and berry-picking, is not a hobby; it is a necessity. “You can’t sustain life without the salmon,” McLeod says.
Beyond calories, salmon make community. In camp, Ulvi explains, “the elders are cutting fish, telling stories, teaching kids — practicing traditional ways that make everyone really happy.” For communities dealing with more than a century of colonial pressures, from introduced epidemics to forced education in residential schools, fish camps help transmit culture between generations — like the rich linguistic specificity for salmon. Along the river, species are met with precise names, rather than the blanket term “salmon”: Chum are “noolaaghe” in Koyukon; Chinook are “t’a” in Tlingit, “luk cho” in Han, “kiagtaq,” or “summer fish,” in Yup’ik. When translator Amuqan Julia Jimmie must render the general term “salmon” in Yup’ik, she says “neqet kiagmi kuigmin itetulit” — “the fish that enter the river in the summer.”
People along the river, like St. Mary’s Yup’ik Elder George Beans, worry that chances to pass knowledge down are growing rarer — that things they know could end with them. Beans says the thought fills him with emptiness. He fears that his own skills will atrophy. “The more you sit on something or you don’t do anything for a while, you tend to lose some of that yourself,” he says.
Language around salmon has already changed. For Beans’s two granddaughters, the word “fishing” conjures separate images. The older girl remembers when she could target kiagtaq with a wide net, pulling in many at once while learning how to provide for her family and her elders. But the younger granddaughter has been alive only during a time of low kiagtaq runs. When she hears “fishing” she thinks first of manaq’ing, or ice fishing. It’s more of a pastime than a means of sustenance.
The disappearance of fish makes living along the river harder — more expensive, with less connection to the land. “We have to think about what we can do to keep people from leaving rural communities,” says Sonja Sager, a subsistence fisher in Eagle, Alaska. “This truly is more than food to us. There’s a very deep emotional connection. When we’d pull in a fish, we’d say ‘Mahsi’ cho,’ which is a Han way of saying thank you.” Sager grew up fishing chum for her dog team. Now it costs $400 per year to feed each dog kibble. “I feel like I’m watching the way of life I follow fading away,” she says.
On the lower river, Beans’s family buys more of what they eat. All along the river, Alaska Natives and First Nations peoples who have lived on the Yukon for generations are leaving — trading traditional villages for cities where it’s harder to live off the land but easier to afford life.
“If you want to put an umbrella over all of it, that’s the changing climate,” Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Katie Howard says. In the Bering Sea, warming waters are radically altering the ecosystem where salmon mature. New species compete with salmon for food, or prey on immature chum and Chinook. Chum are eating more squid, which are newly plentiful but not nutritious. Chinook might also be underfed and suffer more from ichthyophonus, a parasite that infects the heart and other organs and could become more acute when fish are stressed by heat. Near Tanana, Alaska, fisherman and dog musher Stan Zuray estimated in July that 30 percent of the Chinook he had seen this summer were riddled with the disease.
Meanwhile, “Western Alaska sockeye and pink salmon abundance has been the exact opposite, at record or near-record levels,”says Department of Fish and Game regional manager John Linderman. University of Alaska Fairbanks biologist Peter Westley says the sockeye’s food grows more abundantly in the warmer lakes where they spawn. Readily available food “turbocharges” the young fish, fattening them quickly, so they go to sea hardier and faster. It’s been a boon to the Bristol Bay salmon fishery. But Westley warns that the sockeye’s fate could change too.
Such uncertainty — year-to-year shifts in populations of not only salmon but caribou and migratory birds — is a constant theme of conversations along the Yukon. In the Gwich’in community of Fort Yukon, Alaska, people report seeing fewer ducks and porcupines. This summer saw early, massive wildfires all along the river — historically large ones in the lower river’s tundra. In Marshall, Alaska, near the Yukon’s mouth, Elder Nick P. Andrew Jr. says he has seen the moose population explode over his lifetime, as a warming climate has allowed the bushy willows that they eat to grow on what was open tundra.
As the salmon have failed to return, hungry bears are overcoming their fear of villages to fill their bellies at dumps. Andrew has seen them in Marshall. During blueberry season, word of a black bear near a patch in St. Mary’s spread fast at the grocery store. “The bears, like we humans, rely on salmon,” says Andrew. Now they must find alternative ways to fatten up before hibernation.
Howard echoes Andrew’s observation. “Salmon are food for a lot of other animals, and they decompose, and that feeds into the terrestrial system,” she says. What is at stake as salmon decline are diverse human ways of life — and also how bears, eagles and even trees nourish themselves.
The relationships among rising atmospheric carbon, the changing Bering Sea and the long chain of ecological transformations now spreading upriver implicate people who will never set foot near the Yukon. Small communities like St. Mary’s, or Eagle Village, or Teslin, Canada, are not drivers of climate change but instead suffer the consequences of carbon, most of it burned in wealthy regions far to the south.
Then there’s the word heard everywhere on the river: “bycatch.” Yukon Chinook and chum are not major commercial species, but in the ocean, both end up in pollock trawl nets. Alaskan pollock is one of the most widely consumed fish in the United States. If you’ve eaten artificialcrab or McDonald’s filet-o-fish sandwiches, it probably started as a pollock in the Bering Sea.
The pollock fishery prides itself on sustainable management, and official estimates put the Yukon salmon bycatch at only 1 percent of the more than 30,000 Chinook and 300,000 chum caught in pollock nets each year. Yet the North Pacific Fishery Management Council has not restricted chum bycatch, even as the run enters a third historically low year. As Ulvi and Sager both point out, this means subsistence fishers who need the salmon the most must stop fishing first.
It’s a politically salient issue in Alaska. On Aug. 31, Mary Peltola became the first Alaska Native representative in Congress, with an explicitly “pro-fish” platform. Peltola, who is Yup’ik and has fished since childhood, wants more action in the face of “total ecosystem collapse” at sea. Her concerns echo those of people along the Yukon and in the 19,000-member Facebook group “STOP Alaskan Trawler Bycatch,” who discuss salmon and many other species — including king crab, orcas and bearded seals — troubled by industrial fishing.
Scientists Howard and Westley say the Yukon River could reach a point where assuring that each and every chum and Chinook can return to its spawning grounds will matter for the species’ survival — if the fishery isn’t already there.
“Climate change is going to take a long time to fix, if we can fix it,” Ulvi says. “But trawling and bycatch is something we can fix now.”
What might it take to help every noolaaghe and kiagtaq return? Howard hopes more research will make a difference. Sager wants people to remember that the mining boom for metals used in green tech could affect salmon. “Every stream in these hills is a salmon stream. Every mine is a stroke against that,” she says. Ulvi recommends talking to your senator about sound environmental and climate policy — and “asking Indigenous people along the Yukon and letting our voices be heard more.”
For people along the Yukon, one answer is in finding ways to maintain relationships with the salmon, the river and the land. Stanley Njootli, a Gwich’in elder living on a tributary of the Yukon, observes that in the past there was more fishing of pike and other species that eat immature salmon. “Maybe we need to get people back out on the land as part of the solution,” he says.
Down at the mouth of the river, George Beans said his elders taught him to diversify their catches. “They always said if you want the fish, game and the birds, not only that, but the plants, if you want them to be around, you can’t just concentrate in one area and/or one species for a long time. Otherwise they won’t reproduce. Conservation was one of their teachings,” he said.
Ulvi is getting ready for a culture camp, where she will teach children to cut salmon — sockeye sent north from Bristol Bay, for this year at least. Part of what she hopes to impart is the value of salmon beyond economic measures.
Sager and her children are going out to fish for pike.
“These are big things we’re confronting,” McLeod says, “from climate change to disease to loss of habitat. What do we do to flip that? One of the small ways we can do that is to celebrate the salmon.” McLeod is teaching people in her community a Han song with the chorus “luk cho anay” — “Chinook salmon come.”
“I feel that we need to take this song and sing it more often and more intensely,” McLeod says, “and make sure that people know the salmon are important to us. We just hope that one day that we’ll hear good news about the salmon returning.”