Salmon vanish into two different realities

Chester Fields has 19 dogs and very few fish left to feed them. He's worried he may have to kill some of those dogs if he doesn't have enough food for them over the winter. It's either that or watch them go hungry, he said.

Chester Fields has 19 dogs and very few fish left to feed them.

He’s worried he may have to kill some of those dogs if he doesn’t have enough food for them over the winter.

It’s either that or watch them go hungry, he said.

Fields is a musher living in Fort Yukon, Alaska, who counts on salmon and chum harvests to get his family and his dogs through the winter months.

He’s hoping that by trapping beaver or hunting moose he’ll be able to fill the gap. And a shipment of donated dog food ended up on his and other musher’s doorsteps this week. But how long that food will continue to trickle in is uncertain.

Normally Fields has at least 1,000 fish stored away for the winter months, but right now he only has about 400.

In the summer and fall, conservation officers told subsistence fishers throughout Alaska to significantly reduce their catch.

This was in response to low salmon and chum runs being reported along the Yukon River.

“It’s been a bad fishing season and a late chum season,” said Michael Peter, chief of the Gwichyaa Zheh Gwich’in tribal government in Fort Yukon.

“This is probably the worst it has ever gotten.”

This summer they didn’t fish what they normally do, “out of common courtesy to state law.”

But that might change next year even if restrictions are in place.

“They come here and tell us you can’t eat these fish. It’s not right, it’s just not right,” said Fields.

“I’m going to fish anyway (next year) whether they like it or not.”

Peter has said the same thing.

“We’re Gwich’in Athabascan – we’re indigenous – it’s our right.”

In August, the Alaskan government requested disaster relief funding from Washington. They have yet to be told whether they’ll receive that money.

But this week Alaska Governor Sean Parnell announced his government will spend $1.3 million next year to research the movement and management of Western Alaskan salmon stocks.

“The decline in stocks is a very serious concern,” said Parnell’s fish policy adviser Cora Campbell.

“(The governor) wanted to try to find out more about those stocks and what might be available so that way we can provide as much harvest opportunity as possible.”

Part of the concern came from the sonar station in Eagle, Alaska, which missed a lot of fish moving from Alaska through to Canada.

This year 68,000 chinook salmon passed through the station – double the number from last year.

Part of the proposed research will go to “improve operations” at the sonar station and see whether the station needs to be relocated.

The challenge now will be how to balance providing the needed fish to feed Alaskans while still allowing enough salmon to pass through the Canadian border to spawning creeks.

“The (restrictions this summer) certainly had a very, very significant impact on the people living along the river and who rely on salmon,” said Campbell.

“The point of these new research projects is to give Fish and Game more and better information so that we can meet those same goals of sustainability and border passage obligations but at the same time provide as much harvest opportunity as we can.”

This week, Frank Quinn, area director for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, called Alaskans to see what the research funding will mean for people living along the Yukon River.

Much of the research Parnell has proposed – aerial surveying and genetic analysis of salmon to determine where they came from – is already being done in Canada, said Quinn.

However, researching the sonar station is something Canadians haven’t yet gone into.

Eagle, Alaska, musher Scarlett Hall wonders exactly where the problem lies.

This year, the Yukon was showing poor counts and put restrictions in place even though the run into Canada was quite high.

“Did we really have a very poor run or just a low run?” she said in an e-mail.

“There have been other years when we have been shut down because of poor runs and then come to find out the runs were not that bad.”

She believes a lot of the fish that could be taken up by subsistence fishers are getting taken as bycatch by pollock trawlers out in the Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea.

“So the subsistence fishermen and local commercial fishermen take the brunt when things should be watched more closely.”

But even though more fish passed through the sonar station this year, “Canada didn’t exploit that,” said Quinn.

The Yukon did a good job of managing its stocks even though it was faced with serious obstacles, like this summer’s flooding near Eagle.

“It was a really rough year along the river and we took management decisions to conserve stock … and we saw the results from that,” he said.

As a result of the low stocks over the last few years, Yukon First Nations have taken a voluntary reduction in their catch.

This year, they took fewer than 5,700 fish. “That demonstrates a great deal of leadership,” said Quinn.

“When we ask for voluntary reductions, that’s food coming off the table (for Yukon First Nations). That affects access to food security.”

Even though there may not technically be as many subsistence fishers in the Yukon as there is in Alaska, the situation here is not that much different from there, he said.

“Salmon is a food source to First Nation communities the same as it is for subsistence fishers in Alaska.”

Last week, scientists and government officials from Alaska and Canada met in Whitehorse for their post-season review.

At that meeting, $80,000 was set aside for a communications program to focus on the conservation of fish in Alaska.

“Hopefully that will send the message for the need for conservation,” said Quinn.

The Americans still haven’t finalized their subsistence harvest numbers for this year, but those numbers will eventually affect the pre-season forecast calculated by Alaskans and Yukoners in the spring.

Whether this year’s fishing slump will mean fewer restrictions, or people fishing regardless of restrictions, waits to be seen.

“Restrictions aren’t new in Canada,”

said Quinn. “But now folks on the American side are understanding the need.”

Contact Vivian Belik at