Salmon are vanishing from the Yukon River — and so is a way of life

As waters warm, Alaska Native families confront a world without the fish that fed them for generations.

As temperatures in western Alaska and the Bering Sea creep higher, the salmon population of the Yukon River has plunged. KYUK photo by Shane Iverson.

This article was published by Grist on Nov. 9, 2023.


Serena Fitka sat in the cabin of a flat-bottomed aluminum boat as it sped down the Yukon River in western Alaska, recalling how the river once ran thick with salmon. Each summer, in the Yup’ik village of St. Mary’s where Fitka grew up, she and her family fished for days on end. They’d catch enough salmon to last through winter, enough to share with cousins, aunts, uncles, and elders who couldn’t fish for themselves.

“We’d get what we need, and be done,” Fitka said, raising her voice above the whir of the outboard motor and the waves beating against the hull. “But now there’s nothing.”

The boat skirted the river bank as Fitka glanced out the window, her face shielded from the mid-July sun. Gray water, thick with glacial silt, lapped against the land’s muddy edge below a summer palette of green: dark spruce needles, light birch leaves, and willows a shade in between. A bald eagle soared 10 feet above the river, scanning the water.

“I thought this wouldn’t happen in my lifetime,” Fitka said. “I thought there would always be fish in the river.”

Serena Fitka sits in the cabin of an aluminum boat on the Yukon River in western Alaska. Grist / Max Graham

There have been salmon in the Yukon, the fourth-longest river in North America, for as long as there have been people on its banks. The river’s abundance helped Alaska earn its reputation as one of the last refuges for wild salmon, a place where they once came every year by the millions to spawn in pristine rivers and lakes after migrating thousands of miles. But as temperatures in western Alaska and the Bering Sea creep higher, the Yukon’s salmon populations have plunged.

State and federal fishery managers have resorted to drastic measures to save them. In 2021, for the first time in Fitka’s life, regulators prohibited all fishing for the river’s two main salmon species — king and chum — even for subsistence. For the better part of three fishing seasons, thousands of Yup’ik and Athabascan fishers have been banned from catching the fish that once kept their families fed.

“We grew up with fishing, cutting fish, smoking fish all our lives,” Fitka said. “And to have it taken away just like that — without warning, without mentally preparing yourself — is traumatizing.”

A chum salmon caught in July on the Yukon River near Russian Mission, a small Yup’ik village in western Alaska. Grist / Max Graham

All five species of Pacific salmon swim in the Yukon, but Fitka’s family and the thousands of other Indigenous people who live on the river rely mainly on kings and chum. The kings usually arrive at the mouth of the Yukon in early June. With a range that extends from California to Russia’s Far East, they’re the biggest, fattiest, and priciest species, selling for more than $40 a pound at high-end grocery stores in the lower 48 states. Around the same time come the chum, a less fatty, more abundant cousin of the king.

Staggering numbers of both species have disappeared in recent years. Two decades ago, for instance, more than 200,000 kings would make it back to the Yukon to spawn each year. This summer, scientists counted just 58,500, which was slightly better than the previous summer’s meager tally, the worst on record.

The Yukon’s chum swim up the river in two distinct runs, a summer run that starts in early June and a “fall” one that starts in late July. Although the summer run showed signs of a rebound (the nearly 850,000 chum allowed for a brief window of fishing), the fall run comprised only 290,000 chum, less than one-third its historical average.

map showing villages along the Yukon River in Alaska and Canada
The Yukon River bisects Alaska as it flows 2,000 miles from Canada to the Bering Sea. Grist

Salmon are vital to the river’s Yup’ik and Athabascan communities as a source of nutrients and a symbol of cultural identity. Dense with protein and fat, Yukon kings are highly nutritious. To swim as many as 2,000 miles upriver, against the current — the world’s longest salmon migration — the fish put on huge stores of fat, some bulking up to 90 pounds. (Their journey is equal to running an ultramarathon every day for a month without stopping for a snack.)

“There’s nothing richer than a Yukon king,” said David Walker, a longtime fisherman and the water plant manager in the Deg Xit’an Athabascan village of Holy Cross.

Such a nutritious food source is especially important to the people living in one of the most remote regions in the United States: Many villages along the Yukon and its tributaries have no more than a few hundred residents and are accessible only by river boat or small plane. That isolation makes the cost of goods exorbitant and fresh produce scarce. A gallon of gas in the small Holikachuk and Deg Xit’an village of Grayling costs $8. Twenty miles downstream, in the smaller village of Anvik, a tin of spam sells at the only store in town for $7.95.

“Our food and fuel — everything has to be brought in by barge or by airplane — so that really increases the cost of living,” Fitka said. “That’s why we’re so reliant on our fish and our animals that we harvest.” According to a 2017 survey by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, every household in rural western Alaska makes use of fish, and people in the region eat an average of 379 pounds of wild food each year.

The grocery store in Grayling, a small village along the Yukon River in western Alaska. Grist / Max Graham
Salmon also embody a custom that has brought relatives and neighbors together for generations. Across more than 1,000 miles, from Yup’ik villages at the mouth of the river to Han and Gwich’in fish camps near the Canadian border, Alaska Native families spend much of their summers at the river’s edge, hauling in fish, carving them into filets or strips, hanging them to dry, smoking, eating, and sharing them. 

Fitka’s job is to help protect this tradition. She’s the executive director of the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association, a nonprofit that advocates for salmon conservation and subsistence fishing rights along the river. On the boat in July, she was leading an educational exchange with a handful of visitors from the upper Yukon in Canada, where the lack of fish has been devastating for several First Nations.

In Old Crow, a village of 200 people in the Yukon Territory, the town’s sonar station on the Porcupine River, a tributary of the Yukon, counted just 349 king salmon last year, according to Katherine Peter, fisheries and harvest support coordinator for the Vuntut Gwich’in First Nation. So this summer, the Vuntut Gwich’in government shut down all fishing for any species for the first time, in an attempt to help as many salmon get up river to spawning grounds as possible.

As the boat cut through chop on its way to Russian Mission, a Yup’ik village about 100 miles upstream from St. Mary’s, we passed a handful of fish camps tucked away from the bank. The river would usually be abuzz with fishing activity in mid-summer: outboards humming, nets drifting, and smoke billowing from smokehouses dotting the shore. But that July day, we were the only people on the water.

Anglers along the Pacific coast of North America have been staring down steadily diminishing salmon runs since the start of the millennium. In Washington state, overfishing, pollution, and habitat loss have shrunk Puget Sound’s population of king salmon to one-tenth its historic size. California’s rivers, like the Klamath and Sacramento, used to support millions of king and coho salmon. Those stocks have thinned to just a few hundred thousand. The shortages prompted the federal government to shut down California’s king salmon season this year for the third time in 15 years.

On the Yukon, the first real dip in numbers occurred in 1998, when roughly 100,000 fish returned to spawn, about half the size of a normal run. Two years later, the run fell by half again.

The collapse put pressure on governments to conserve stocks. In 2001, the state of Alaska narrowed windows for subsistence fishing from 7 days to 48 hours and took unprecedented steps to restrict commercial fishing, which families on the Yukon depend on for income. The Canadian government restricted the commercial king salmon catch, which all but disappeared.

The closures came at a high cost for the region’s economy. Average earnings for people who fish for a living on the lower river dropped from more than $10,000 in the 1990s to about $2,000 after 2000. In Dawson City, a small outpost on the upper river that was the Yukon Territory’s commercial fishing hub, the salmon industry “washed away,” said Spruce Gerberding, who grew up fishing as part of his family’s business near Dawson.

A boat cruises down the Yukon River between the villages of Holy Cross and Russian Mission in western Alaska. Grist / Max Graham

Since then, the situation has grown more dire. The number of kings crossing into Canada routinely fails to meet the goal of 42,500 agreed upon by U.S. and Canadian officials under the Yukon River Salmon Agreement. (That treaty, finalized in 2002, aimed to make sure enough salmon would reach their spawning grounds in the Yukon Territory and British Columbia each year.)

The collapse of the Yukon’s chum was more sudden. Runs regularly numbered in the millions until 2020. That year, anglers and scientists alike were astonished when the usual droves of chum failed to appear. A year later, both the summer and fall runs had dropped to their lowest levels on record — each below 500,000.

The disappearance of so many chums and kings has been the subject of growing scientific inquiry. For years, the vanishing kings posed an ecological mystery because the Yukon flows mostly unimpeded — untouched by the sort of industrialization that has destroyed salmon habitat in California, Oregon, and Washington. The river’s salmon don’t have to contend with large-scale dams that block passage to spawning grounds, clear-cuts that destroy streams, or mega-farms that siphon off water.

But salmon are notoriously difficult to study. They spawn in fresh water, then spend most of their lives far out in the Pacific, an area dubbed the “black box” because it’s so vast and poorly understood. Most salmon research — in Alaska and along the entire Pacific Coast — is focused on streams and lakes, where it’s easier to study their habitat, sample the water, and count stocks.

Scientists have recently made progress in unraveling the mystery in the Yukon, and their main suspect is climate change. As humans pump greenhouse gases into the air and cause global temperatures to rise, salmon are getting hit on two fronts: Both their saltwater feeding habitat and their freshwater spawning grounds are rapidly heating up. Marine heat waves in the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska are becoming more frequent, and the Yukon itself, like other northern rivers, is warming twice as fast as streams farther south.

“Salmon are cold-water species, so when temperatures go up, their metabolism increases, so they need more energy to just be, just live,” said Ed Farley, an ecologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center. “That means they’re going to have to feed more.”

At the same time, hot spells in the ocean and melting sea ice have set off a cascade of changes, forcing salmon to find new food. When the Bering Sea heats up, juvenile chum don’t nab as much of their usual, nutrient-dense prey, like krill, tunicates, and small fish. Instead, they settle for jellyfish, which proliferate in warm seas and carry less fat. Salmon wind up burning more energy while consuming fewer calories, and struggling to pack on the fat necessary to survive in the open ocean and, later, complete their long journey up the Yukon.

During recent marine heat waves, scientists found chum with empty stomachs and smaller fat reserves — “by far the lowest we have ever seen in the 20 years of monitoring salmon in the northern Bering Sea,” said Katie Howard, who leads Yukon River salmon research at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

“The chum, pretty much as soon as they hatch, they migrate out of the river,” Howard said. “They’re tiny, tiny, tiny fish. They’re probably less prepared to deal with this big change, with higher temperatures and different food available.”

It’s more complicated for kings. Juveniles spend more time maturing in fresh water than chum. That extra year lets them fatten up before they head out to sea, giving them more energy and a better chance at survival in the warming ocean, Howard said.

Still, even though kings aren’t dying at sea in the same way that chum are, they are returning to the river younger, smaller, and increasingly malnourished. That makes them susceptible to rising river temperatures, which force the fish to burn through fat reserves more quickly.

They are also dealing with a new disease that appears linked to rising temperatures. A parasitic protozoa called Ichthyophonus, which is harmless to humans but eats away at fish tissue, has been showing up in more and more salmon, their hearts speckled with white bumps. Scientists aren’t sure exactly what’s causing the spike in infections. What they do know, according to Howard, is that the onset and severity of the disease seems to increase in warm waters.

Compared to other king salmon populations struggling with climate change, lack of nutrients, and disease, those in the Yukon are doing especially poorly. Howard has an idea about why: They’re the farthest north, and they migrate the farthest in fresh water.

In rivers to the south, Howard said, some fish populations have shifted their migrations earlier in the season when the water is cooler. That’s not an option for Yukon kings because they’re so far north that the summer season isn’t long enough to accommodate such a move. They can’t swim under the ice that covers the river into May, Howard said.

“They’re going to be the first ones to struggle,” Howard said, “because they are already at the extreme of what salmon can do.”

When salmon from the Yukon River feed in the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska, they need to navigate more than unusually warm waters. Some end up in the nets of commercial fishing boats, hundreds of miles from villages on the river. Massive trawlers in the Bering Sea accidentally scoop up salmon while targeting pollock and other species. Smaller vessels farther south, in a commercial zone off the Alaska Peninsula called Area M, catch and sell salmon, including chum and some kings from the Yukon. Much of the chum intentionally caught at sea gets frozen, sent to processors in China and elsewhere in Asia, then packaged and sold in chunks at grocery stores in the U.S. and Europe.

Many people on the Yukon feel angered by this double standard. Why do federal and state regulators prevent them from fishing, both commercially and for food, but allow big businesses to catch salmon in the ocean — sometimes incidentally, sometimes for profit?

“I don’t know why they shut us down. We’re not the problem,” said Ronald Demientieff, an elder in Holy Cross. “You have to regulate us because they killed them in the ocean? We’ve been regulating our fish way before Fish and Game came to this place.”

“Nothing can replace the fish,” said Tessiana Paul, an administrator at the tribal government in Holy Cross, Alaska. Grist / Max Graham

The trawlers, which make up the biggest fishery by volume in the U.S., deploy gigantic, billowing nets that sometimes scrape across the bottom of the ocean as they wrangle pollock — the meat used in McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish. Their nets can span the length of four football fields, large enough to capture hundreds of thousands of salmon as bycatch over the course of a season, including Yukon kings and chum.

Scientists are quick to say that these fisheries can’t be blamed for the Yukon’s salmon declines. The math just doesn’t check out. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, trawlers in the Bering Sea catch about 20,000 king salmon each year, and roughly half of those come from western Alaska. In 2021, about 50,000 chum from western Alaska and the Yukon wound up in the pollock nets, a number that’s well short of the 1.5 million that disappeared that year.

“If you look at how many fish they’re catching [that are heading] to western Alaska, it cannot explain anywhere near the decline in the chum salmon that just occurred,” Farley said. “It’s a small number of fish from western Alaska being caught in the bycatch.”

Salmon strips dry beside Anastasia Larson at her family’s fish camp in Russian Mission, Alaska. Grist / Max Graham

Even though bycatch doesn’t appear to be a major driver of the salmon shortage, Yukon salmon are still swimming into large nets at sea at the same time that communities  along the river are being told to keep their nets out of the water. In 2021, when Alaska Native families on the Yukon weren’t allowed to fish for chum or kings, Bering Sea trawlers incidentally scooped up more than 18,000 western Alaska kings and 51,500 chums. Not all of those were from the Yukon, but some were, and others were from stocks on rivers like the Kuskokwim, where there have also been severe shortages and fishing bans in recent years.

“Whether it’s 1 per cent or 0.25 per cent — or whatever per cent [of bycatch] they’re trying to say that reaches the Yukon — that is a per centage that we need,” Fitka said. “We need it in the river if we want to rebuild our stocks.”

In Area M, fishing businesses had a banner season in June 2021, hauling in more than 1.1 million chums. State biologists aren’t sure exactly how many of those were headed back to the Yukon, though it was likely a small fraction. Researchers estimated a year later that the Area M fleet caught about 5 per cent of the chums bound for western Alaska, while people along the river weren’t allowed to catch a single fish to eat.

Unlike Indigenous nations in other places such as Washington state, Alaska Native communities on the Yukon don’t have treaty rights to fish. Under state and federal law, subsistence fishing in Alaska is given priority over other uses like commercial fishing, but Alaska Natives aren’t given priority over other groups. The lack of specific rights — and the lack of control over management decisions — has left tribal leaders with little recourse except to push state and federal officials to adopt stricter conservation measures on fishing companies at sea. That requires navigating a maze of agencies and regulators: The Alaska Board of Fisheries and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game regulate salmon fishing in Area M; those two along with the Federal Subsistence Board and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have jurisdiction over the Yukon River; and the federal North Pacific Fishery Management Council and NOAA Fisheries oversee pollock fishing in the Bering Sea.

Two Indigenous organizations — Tanana Chiefs Conference and the Association of Village Council Presidents — are suing the federal government over its management of the Bering Sea pollock industry, including the amount of bycatch that’s allowed. A federal rule already exists that limits the pollock fleet’s incidental catch of king salmon, but there’s no cap on chum. In October, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council met and agreed to weigh options to reduce chum bycatch, including a limit on fish specifically from western Alaska.



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