Alaska has a plan to save its salmon but some Native leaders are wary | Alaska


Earlier this month Alaska officials announced a new plan they say could revive the Yukon River’s struggling salmon population. The 2,000-mile waterway that runs from Canada’s Yukon Territory to the Bering Sea has seen sharp declines in its Chinook, or king salmon, in recent years.

The new strategy aims to restore the number of fish that reach their northern spawning areas near the Canadian border to 71,000, up from about 15,000 that reached the Canadian border in 2023, by suspending commercial, sport, domestic and personal use fisheries in the Yukon River until 2030. Previously, fishing closures were revisited each year.

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But some tribal leaders say the closures unfairly burden Native communities, severing a crucial link to traditional culture, and that officials did not properly consult them while forming the plan.

“I understand the intent of the agreement was to protect salmon, but this is not the solution,” said Brooke Woods, former executive chair for the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission and a climate adaptation specialist at Woodwell Climate Research Center.

The fish face a cluster of overlapping challenges – commercial fishing in the Bering Sea, climate change and disease – that previous limits on subsistence fishing in the river have failed to overcome. Woods, who grew up fishing Chinook on the Yukon with her grandparents, said restrictions on subsistence fishing force tribes to “bear the brunt of conservation”.

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Indigenous stewardship is often the most effective way to preserve biodiversity. Yet tribal exclusion from these kinds of decisions is a persistent problem, both in Alaska and nationwide. Advocates like Woods say the approach isn’t just unfair – it’s ineffective.

‘Gasoline on the tension between the tribes and the state’

Subsistence harvests are only a small part of the problem, and cannot explain the lack of recovery, says Peter Westley, associate professor of fisheries at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “Most of the mortality that explains the ups and downs of the Chinook population is what happens in the ocean,” said Westley.

In the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea, hatchery fish have increased competition for resources, with hatchery pink salmon outnumbering Chinook roughly 300 to one. It’s a dynamic researchers describe as a “zero-sum game”. Boats trawling for pollock sweep up juvenile salmon in the Bering Sea, while commercial industries far from the mouth of the Yukon accidentally catch salmon en route to their spawning grounds.

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Part of the problem is that while the state manages salmon while they are in the Yukon, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council manages fisheries in federal waters off Alaska.

That’s why Westley said he was “very, very skeptical” that the new plan would work.

The new Alaska department of fish and game (AKFG) plan comes out just weeks after tribal leaders, frustrated by what they see as the state’s ongoing mismanagement, petitioned the federal government to take over management of the Yukon River.

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Normally, river management decisions like the one announced this month are made by the Yukon River Panel, an advisory group that includes Indigenous representatives from both the US and Canada. This time, they say many of the details were negotiated behind closed doors before the panel meeting. Woods, who sits on the panel, said she was surprised and alarmed by the lack of tribal input. “Our engagement and work were not honored or respected,” she said.

“They’re just forcing it on us,” said Charlie Wright, fish commissioner for the small town of Rampart and a member of the Dene’ Athabascan community. “We really need to do something about the salmon, but that’s not it.”

Vincent-Lang, the AKFG commissioner, said he “didn’t know if there was formal consultation”, but that he spoke with various tribal members about the plan and noted that it provides some opportunities for harvest for ceremonial and cultural purposes. He said restoring the salmon population would require a “wide range” of steps, including reducing bycatch, building conservation corridors and “providing cultural opportunities in the face of rebuilding”.

The loss of salmon imperils not only food security in off-the-road communities, where supplies are cripplingly expensive, but important cultural ties, said Eva Burk, a member of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council’s advisory panel and part of the Dene’ Athabascan community.

Burk said that in recent years she and Wright, her partner, had had to adapt their traditional recipes, purchasing a different species of salmon from Bristol Bay to serve to elders and other tribal members.

She agrees with aspects of the plan, like its emphasis on habitat and stock restoration activities, but says it won’t meet its objective “unless there are targeted regulatory changes in the marine environment”. Yet last week the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration denied a request from tribal groups to reduce the Bering Sea pollock industry’s bycatch of salmon to zero.

Ultimately, Burk said any plan to restore Yukon salmon must involve Native input. “If we’re actually at the table, designing that new future, then maybe there’s a chance that it can truly be sustainable,” she said.

Residents like Burk and Wright have spent years sounding the alarm that salmon have been getting smaller, returning younger and carrying fewer eggs. Their detailed, local knowledge can provide insights into how conditions are changing. Wright, for example, suspects that some of the salmon who don’t have the bodily reserves to make it all the way to Canada may be finding alternate creeks, and is currently working with biologists in Fairbanks to figure out if that might offer clues into how salmon are adapting.

There’s precedent for successful co-management of Alaskan wildlife, said Congresswoman Mary Peltola. Peltola, who is Alaska Native and was executive director of the Kuskokwim Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, a group of 33 tribes, when it signed a 2017 agreement with the state to co-manage the Kuskokwim River, south of the Yukon River.

That approach “has outperformed what is happening on the Yukon and elsewhere around the state,” she wrote in a statement to the Guardian. She described AKFG’s new plan as “imperfect”, but “better than the inaction we tend to see”. She added, “But meaningful interactions and efforts to reach Tribes must improve.”

The longer the crisis continues, the more rippling the consequences. Woods sits on panels and calls the governor’s office, advocating for tribal rights, stressful work that forces her to travel away from her family. For most of Woods’s children’s lives, the Yukon has been closed to them. This new plan ensures they will be young adults before it reopens, she said, fighting back tears. “It just means the world to me to have them learning in the smokehouse with their grandmother,” she said.

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