Salmon outlook poor for the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers

Posted: Sunday, June 03, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- People up and down the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers are getting ready to go fishing for king salmon, but the outlook is poor for the region.

Last month the Federal Subsistence Board closed sport and commercial fishing for kings and chums within federal waters. The state has told commercial fishermen not to expect to fish this summer on the Yukon. And there's only the possibility of a commercial coho opening on the Kuskokwim in August.

Even the subsistence catch has been cut back to just three or four days a week.

Some families say they will temporarily give up the nomadic tradition of moving to fish camps for the summer and stay in their villages. They may fish nearby when they can, or not fish for kings or chums at all.

Others are preparing to fish furiously when allowed. Some villagers say they will target other salmon species, such as cohos. If the fishing falls short, some families will try to make up the difference by later hunting more birds or moose, which could cause more competition for those resources.

''If we don't get enough fish, people are going to miss it,'' Ragine Pilot Attla, administrator for the Louden Tribe in Galena, told the Anchorage Daily News.

Attla said she still plans to go to her fish camp about 15 miles from the village because it is tradition and she needs to feed her family. If she can't catch enough salmon, her family may try to get another moose, or more ducks or geese.

''You can't afford to feed your kids out of the store,'' she said.

Others also worry about the loss of a cultural tradition. ''Fish camps are a training ground and for getting kids out,'' said Gilbert Huntington, a fisherman in Galena.

Monty Millard, a fisheries coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said he thinks most people accept the restrictions as necessary. ''People have seen how bad it is,'' he said.

They won't go hungry, he said, ''But it's still very difficult. That first taste of fresh salmon is so important.''

In Emmonak on the lower Yukon, Mary Ann Immamak said she plans to set up her fish camp near her home as usual, because five or so families depend on salmon caught there.

''I have to think positively that I will be able to cut fish this summer,'' Immamak said. ''But it's really scary. I'm 63 years old, and we haven't seen a situation like this before.''

Although she and her husband can survive on Social Security checks, Immamak said she is worried about her relatives and neighbors who rely on income from commercial fishing.

''They will have nothing coming in to pay for water, electricity or heating, even gas,'' she said.

Subsistence opportunities and traditions vary from village to village across this huge region, but families commonly put several sources of income together to make ends meet.

In Western Alaska, commercial fishing and subsistence are often intertwined, with the sale of salmon or herring, for example, paying for moose hunts or to runs upriver to a subsistence fish camp.

It's not much, but it helps. On the Kuskokwim, for example, commercial fishermen made $4,500 on average from 1990 to 1999, according to state records. Last year that amount dropped to $2,000. The money helps to pay bills; it may buy an outboard motor or a family trip to Anchorage.

Up the Yukon in Mountain Village, Harry Wilde said he considered not setting up a fish camp because of the cost and the lack of fish but in the end decided it was important to go, much for the same reasons as Attla.

Wilde, chairman of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta Regional Advisory Council, said he had to weigh the money he will spend on gas against the fish they may or may not catch. He decided, ''We have to prepare for the winter. As soon as the ice goes out, I'll go.''

Further upriver in Kaltag, most families stopped going to fish camp four years ago, according to Richard Burnham, a commercial and subsistence fisherman and president of the Kaltag Fishermen's Association. The same holds true for other middle Yukon villages such as Anvik, Grayling, Nulato and Koyukuk, he said.

''Our commercial fishing is what allowed people to go to fish camp,'' Burnham said. ''Normally you'd see people up and down the river in fish camps, but now you don't see anyone there. It's been really sad to see. But there's no sense in sitting out in camp.''

On the Kuskokwim, the story is much the same, though little commercial fishing takes place above Aniak. Here, the king and chum runs have also crashed for several years, and what kings come in can't be commercially caught for cash. Like on the Yukon, people are making do, or looking for something new.

In Bethel, Greg Roczicka said he and his wife are planning to skip kings this year, and instead hope to get some silvers for drying into strips if the fall is warm and sunny. He said he has heard that other people also plan not to fish, to save salmon for those who really need it.

''We can get by without it, and I think a lot of people in Bethel are thinking along the same lines,'' he said.

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