Where commercial and subsistence fishing interests in Alaska collide
There have been clashes over Zone M regulations for decades, but the battle heated up after the Yukon-Kuskokwim chum crashes began. This is the first in a three-part series.
Kuskokwim fisherman Fritz Charles grew up in Tuntutuliak on the lower reaches of the river. There were so many fish then that his parents were literally storing barrels of them. His childhood job was to pack dry fish into barrels using a special method.
“Somebody would put me in the drum and start stomping the fish so he could put more in. They put two drums of salmon away. One drum would be mostly king slabs, and the other would be chums and reds. And that was our main diet for the winter at the time,” Charles said.
Nowadays, we no longer trample dried fish. There’s not enough to store an entire barrel.
“There are hardly any fish, and we can no longer fish to support our subsistence lifestyle,” Charles said.
Chinook returns have been low in the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta region for a long time. And buddy runs also faltered, though they remained reliable through 2021.
In 2021, buddy races have taken a steep decline. It was the worst year on record for them on the Yukon River, and it’s the same story on the Kuskokwim. This year, returns on both rivers are at their second lowest.
There are many theories behind the salmon crash. Most scientists have attributed it to problems at sea. Many have speculated that climate change is having a negative impact on the ocean environment of salmon.
Subsistence fishermen say fishing for salmon in the ocean is hurting their run
Charles and many other local anglers have another theory as to why the buddies are crashing.
“They are being slaughtered at sea,” Charles said.
They are concerned about a portion of Alaskan waters in particular, called Area M. Area M is a state-managed section of water along the western Alaska Peninsula and the east of the Aleutians. This is called an interception fishery because most of the fish caught there come from elsewhere. They must pass through the M area on their way back to their spawning grounds.
In June, ocean-going vessels pick up fish there bound for the west coast of Alaska. Fishermen mainly target sockeye salmon, but they also catch and sell chum salmon and chinook salmon. Fishing in Area M is different from bycatch, where commercial fishermen targeting non-salmon species discard bycatch of salmon.
There have been clashes over M-zone regulations for decades, but the battle heated up after the buddy crashes began.
In 2021, 153,497 summer chum salmon made their way up the Yukon River. That compares to an average of around 1.7 million Summer Buddies. The river was missing about 1.5 million fish.
At the same time, commercial fishermen in Area M caught 1,168,601 chum at sea while subsistence fishing in the rivers was closed. Amid the smallest chum run western Alaskan subsistence users have ever seen, M-zone anglers were catching more than ever before.
Even Alaska Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang, who has been reluctant to restrict Area M commercial fishing too much, acknowledged last year’s record numbers.
“We were surprised, as it added up at the end of the season, how big this crop was,” Vincent-Lang said.
Charles and other subsistence users say commercial fishers in Area M steal their livelihoods, taking food they believe belongs in their rivers and freezers. The census areas of Bethel and Kusilvak, where the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers flow, are among the poorest areas in the United States, and people depend on fish to feed their families.
But the fishermen of zone M think that they also have a right to the fish.
This brings us to the heart of this dispute that has been going on for decades: who owns these fish?
Charles said the fish belong to the Yup’ik people. The Yupiit have been stewards of the fish for thousands of years. Also, he said, he only takes what his family needs to survive on the land.
“We need our fish and we are the end users. They’re in it just for the money,” Charles said.
He said salmon fishing is his culture. And with the low series, it was more and more difficult to transmit its traditions to its children.
Commercial fishermen say without June’s M-zone fishery they would have little income
In Area M, Safron Kusnetsov surveys the scene from his 50-foot Polar Marine.
“I fish in the Ilnik section, near Stroganoff Point. Today it looks like the sun is out,” Kusnetsov said.
Kusnetsov is a fisherman from Voznesenka, a town close to Homer. He said that, like Charles, his culture also depends on fishing. Like Charles, he grew up fishing.
“I am an old believer. Culturally, gillnets are a way of life for Old Believers,” Kusnetsov said.
The Old Believers come from a branch of Russian Orthodoxy that fled persecution in Russia long ago and eventually ended up in Alaska.
“They came to Alaska mainly because it looked a lot like Russia. A lot of culture and heritage is still very Russian here. They felt connected to it. And they were looking for a similar climate to grow traditional foods and a place with the ability to live off the land,” Kusnetsov said.
Kusnetsov said if the June fishery were to be closed or more strictly regulated, it would be a devastating blow to his community and their livelihoods.
“There’s a saying here that 90% of our annual income is earned in two weeks when the hot race hits,” Kusnetsov said.
Kusnetsov mainly targets sockeyes, but he also occasionally catches chums and chinooks.
Do subsistence fishers in the Yukon Delta or commercial fishers in Zone M have more right to chum? About ten years ago, a in-depth study of salmon genetics from the Area M fishery confirmed that most chum salmon caught in the region, approximately 60%, are destined for the west coast of Alaska. But when you start to break that number down further, that’s when things get tricky.
In part two of the series, we’ll look at what science can tell us about whether commercial fishing in the M-zone is really taking a toll on salmon populations in western Alaska.