As chinook salmon numbers have gone down, suicide rates have gone up, says Douglas Karlberg.
The veteran fisherman runs a small fishery and processing plant in Kaltag, Alaska, a remote Athabaskan village 725 kilometres upriver.
Like many remote villages along the Yukon River in Alaska, Kaltag is completely dependant on salmon.
And it is not the only village that has plummeted into severe alcoholism and suicide as the fishery collapsed. Suicide rates in Kaltag are six to nine times the national average. Young men ages 15 to 24 are the most affected, said Karlberg.
Everyone in the small, aboriginal community wears a hat or jacket with the words, “In memory of…” stitched on it.
“It’s become a culture of death,” he said. “The consequences to the villages are so horrific it really shocks the conscience, but it isn’t seen by the outside world.”
Karlberg doesn’t live in Kaltag, but he works there.
About ten years ago, after a friend told him the community and children really needed it, Karlberg started Yukon River Gold, a small fishery and processing plant.
The young people employed there are lucky.
But Karlberg doesn’t have enough work for everyone and many are forced to rely on handouts to support their families.
The high suicide rate is linked to the shame that comes from accepting handouts, he said. And leaving the village to work is not an option.
Karlberg’s employees told him they can’t leave their families and elders behind to find work elsewhere.
This month, the Yukon River Panel – an international committee tasked with managing the salmon – met in Whitehorse. At the meeting, Yukon First Nations called for a fishing moratorium on the Yukon River, to let the chinook recuperate.
Karlberg is worried his plant and fishery are included in this demand.
They shouldn’t be, he said.
Yukon River Gold hasn’t harvested a single chinook salmon in four years, said Karlberg.
And it was recognized as one of the world’s top 11 “greenest” fisheries last month by global magazine Seafood International.
Only using fish wheels – which capture fish live – the fishery can release the chinook virtually unharmed.
So the chinook can continue upriver to their spawning grounds, while other salmon species that are not at risk, like chum, can be harvested.
“Fish wheels don’t work at the mouth of the river, but anywhere upriver they’re fine,” said Karlberg. “On the upriver portions outside of the mouth – if that were all fish wheels, we wouldn’t have a conservation problem today.”
But gill nets are cheaper, he said.
When the US government declared the fishery in crisis, issuing a $5-million-relief fund at the end of last summer, the money went to buying smaller gill nets.
And Kaltag didn’t receive a cent.
“They gave the guys money that killed the most kings, and the guys that killed the least chinook got nothing,” he said, adding that the “incentive” was completely backwards. “They asked us to behave right, then penalized us for doing it.”
Like many Yukon First Nations, Karlberg points to two main groups as the cause of the chinook decline: the billion-dollar, Bering Sea trawling fisheries and the commercial, recreational and illegal chinook fisheries in Fairbanks.
“Those two groups want more resources than the river will put out,” he said. “Really, what’s going on is that you have two very politically powerful groups and they’re powerful for two reasons. One, they have a lot of money to provide to politicians and, in the case of Fairbanks, they have a lot of votes. The villages have no political power at all.”
While the Bering Sea fisheries’ chinook bycatch and the river’s commercial fisheries have been restricted in the past few years, Karlberg points specifically to the illegal fisheries in Fairbanks, and the political strength in the city that fosters it.
King salmon are bought and sold on the streets of Fairbanks on a regular basis, he said. And when one fish can go for a couple hundred dollars, or $35 to $50 per pound, it’s easy to understand why, he added.
Like the Yukon, Alaskan First Nation fisheries are constitutionally protected. They are referred to as subsistence fisheries. Within the legislation, “customary trade” is also protected.
The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which guides federal management of subsistence fisheries, defines customary trade as “the exchange for cash of fish and wildlife resources … to support personal or family needs; and does not include trade which constitutes a significant commercial enterprise.”
On one side, you have urban aboriginal people arguing it’s their only way to make a living or to get fish and that they’ve been doing it forever, said Alaskan deputy assistant regional director of subsistence management Polly Wheeler. But on the other, people are noticing the profits are as large as an official commercial fishery, she said.
“People feel it is pretty unregulated,” said Wheeler. “But the federal board is not in the business of telling people what they can do with those fish once they’re caught,” she said. Defining “a significant commercial enterprise” is the board’s business, she added.
And it has tried.
For years, a federal group attempted to agree on a definition, to no avail, she said.
Now, with Yukon River chinook becoming more rare and therefore more valuable on international markets, the US federal government has not stopped trying.
Currently, a federal investigation into the illegal fisheries is taking place. It is continuing from a three-year, undercover investigation that presented its findings to the Federal Subsistence Board in November.
Now, regional advisory councils, made up of local villagers, have been tasked with investigating and providing recommendations on what to do about the illegal fisheries.
But Karlberg is not optimistic.
Without the relief money, Yukon River Gold is facing closure.
In a letter to the federal government requesting some of the remaining relief money, Karlberg expressed his concern that closing the plant will only lead to more suicide and devastation in the community.
“Hope is the single most precious ingredient missing from these villages,” he wrote. “This simple processing plant is this community’s dream. They have a lot of hope invested in this facility.”
Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at