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At a Glance

'At a Glance' offers a brief summary of key findings for each of the 13 Alaska Salmon and People regions.

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Select 'Dive Deeper' for an in-depth look into the patterns and processes leading to the diversity of the 13 Alaska Salmon and People regions we see today.

At a Glance:  Salmon as part of Kotzebue’s rich portfolio of resources

Straddling the Arctic Circle, the Kotzebue region is twice the size of West Virginia and categorized as among the driest areas of Alaska. Chum salmon is the primary species in this region and is harvested by local users in both subsistence and commercial fisheries.

Iñupiaq names for salmon

  • Sikayujak (king salmon)
  • Aqalugruaq (chum salmon)
  • Amaqtuq (pink salmon)

Below are key SASAP findings for the Kotzebue region – for the full story choose Take a Deeper Dive

Large quantity and quality of salmon habitat are likely to make this region a potential major producer as the climate warms.

The total abundance of salmon in the Kotzebue region ranks only behind the Arctic as having the fewest salmon of any region, at least currently. Despite this low abundance, the importance to people and thus the maintenance of high quality salmon habitat is vital. Chum salmon is the dominant species in this region, but it is unknown whether this and or other species will become more common in a warmer future. Currently, Kotzebue has the lowest evidence of a human footprint compared to other regions.

The northward expansion of human footprints in salmon producing areas and subsequent loss of salmon runs. Blue indicates low footprint, low loss, and red indicates highest footprint and highest loss. Jared Kibele and Rachel Carlson. 2018. Percent landcover per SASAP region and Hydrologic Unit (HUC8) boundary for Alaskan watersheds. Knowledge Network for Biocomplexity. doi:10.5063/F18G8J1V.

Residents participate in mixed cash-subsistence economies typical of rural communities in Alaska.

The foundations of subsistence persist, including sharing, social networks, and customary trade.

The Iñupiat of the Northwest Arctic have existed in the region for at least 4,000 years. The 20th century was marked by social, economic, technological, and climatic changes restructuring many aspects of everyday life, however subsistence culture has changed very little. The use of rifles and snowmachines changed the means by which animals were taken from the land and water, but underlying beliefs and institutions guiding how wild resources are processed, stored, and shared have remained relatively stable through time. Communities in the region are at the northern extent of the geographic distribution of most salmon species, and so salmon subsistence practices vary based on how abundant salmon have traditionally been in the local area.

Although monitoring is a significant component of local subsistence harvests, there is no annual harvest monitoring program for salmon in the Kotzebue District.

Based upon comprehensive household harvest surveys, salmon make up about 13% of subsistence harvests by residents of the communities of the Kotzebue District; land mammals (36%), fish other than salmon, and marine mammals (12%) make up the bulk of the subsistence harvests in this area. From 1994 through 2016, the subsistence harvest of salmon in the Kotzebue District averaged 69,188 fish (Fig. 1). Chum salmon comprised 93% of this harvest, followed by coho (3%), pink (2%), sockeye (1%), and Chinook (<1%).

Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Subsistence. Subsistence and personal use harvest of salmon in Alaska, 1960-2012. Knowledge Network for Biocomplexity. doi:10.5063/F18P5XTN.

Salmon stocks, particularly pinks, are relatively abundant and very few limitations on subsistence are needed.

Access to processors has restrained commercial fishing, primarily for chums. While state management predominates, the Kotzebue area encompasses parts of seven federal conservation units. Significant levels of subsistence fishing occur on the Noatak and Kobuk rivers, within federal conservation units like the Noatak National Preserve and the Kobuk Valley National Park, for example. Both systems provide for subsistence fishing with a variety of gear, generally, with no seasons, bag, or possession limits. In a minor difference, state regulations include bag and possession limits for the sport fishery and these apply to subsistence users fishing with rod and reel. Federal regulations do not apply these limits to those fishing with rod and reel. The commercial fishery for chum salmon saw a record harvest in 2018, but access to processors resulted in limitations during the season.

Ahnewetut Creek in the Kobuk River Valley, with river, sand dunes, and clouds. Photo: NPS

Ahnewetut Creek in the Kobuk River Valley Photo: NPS

Salmon fisheries of Kotzebue Sound have generated more than $65 million in revenue to harvesters since 1975 (2017 inflation-adjusted dollars).

Historically, the largest revenue share went to local urban residents residing in Kotzebue, followed by much smaller shares going to local rural residents and residents from elsewhere in Alaska. The commercial salmon fishery in this region provides important cash income for local rural subsistence cash-economies, similar to other western Alaska regions. The cash earned in commercial fishing supports cultural activities including subsistence fishing and hunting. Year-by-year fishing revenues have varied the most in this region since 1975 compared to any other region in Alaska.

Tobias Schwoerer. Regional commercial salmon permit earnings by residency status, Alaska, 1975-2016. Knowledge Network for Biocomplexity. doi:10.5063/F1WW7FZ2.


Case Studies

How We Eat Salmon

By Alex Whiting

Chum salmon predominate the catch of Kotzebue area salmon and are the most frequently eaten by far. The chum salmon found in the area are said to be qualitatively better than almost anywhere else they are found, due to the high level of oil, color (mostly bright salmon/orange) and texture of meat. They are almost all taken in gill nets adjacent to the community in brackish waters that are 50 to 100 miles or more from their upriver spawning locations. The majority are still bright silver in color and are taken a month or more from when they will spawn.

While these days salmon in the Kotzebue area are prepared for consumption in a multitude of ways like anywhere they are harvested (e.g. fried, baked, broiled), there are a number of ways salmon are prepared for eating according to local customs. One of these ways is to cut the salmon fillets keeping them attached together by the tail and score them vertically before hanging them on drying racks flesh side out (and out of the sun) for a day, or two, or three. As the salmon dries from the surface down through the meat, both the texture and flavor changes. Half-dried fish, as it is called, can be baked or roasted but it is commonly boiled and eaten with the addition of seal oil (most fish, no matter how it is prepared, is generally eaten with seal oil as a condiment). Another approach that is somewhat unique is to boil fresh salmon heads, eggs, and chopped up carcass and then eat these by taking out of the broth. The plain broth of boiled salmon (with the addition of onions, salt and pepper) is also a favorite of local people to drink with the meal and even to drink throughout the day like tea. Adding a flour slurry to boiled salmon is also popular and termed flour soup locally. Even just boiling heads and eggs separate from the meat is a frequent preparation. The gills and lower jaw or both sets of teeth are cut off before boiling. The soft cartilage, the fat behind the eyes and the cheek meat make for a variety of flavors and textures, although it takes some mouth work to clean off all the many pieces.

Fully dried salmon fillets which are scored vertically on the meat side and connected by the tail section remaining intact so that they can be hung over wooden poles, are still regularly made and almost always eaten with seal oil after they are fully dried. The skin side is hung on the outside for the first day or two to firm the skin, before turning it around to the meat side out. This keeps the meat from falling apart and the fillets from getting wrinkled. The eggs skeins can be dried separately and eaten as is. In the later part of the run female salmon are cut and hung with the meat on one side and the fully intact belly part (which is mostly full of eggs) hanging on the other side. This can be allowed to ferment (aged) as it dries if its not freezing out, or can be hung at colder temps to make a milder product. Either way they are eaten either frozen or dried with seal oil and no further cooking.

Placing cleaned salmon heads in a gunny sack and fermenting them in grass lined ground pits (next to the permafrost and covered with moss to keep them out of the sun and heat) for a week or more until ready, was also popular in the past, but a lot fewer people do this nowadays. It was important to keep them cool and let them age slowly. The salmon heads are eaten as is with no further cooking. Salting salmon bellies in wooden barrels and putting in cold storage ground cellars to be taken out and freshened with water before cooking throughout the winter, was also ubiquitous in the past, but today most people just freeze salmon in modern freezers for winter use, although some of the Elders still try and make some salt salmon every season.

Interestingly, most of the fish found in the region, except for salmon, can be eaten fresh-frozen (that is where you freeze the freshly caught fish and eat it later as frozen slices with seal oil). In order to eat frozen salmon this way, it has to be aged first. A lengthy and more detailed understanding of the variety of methods of preparation of salmon and other fish in the region can be found in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Subsistence Management Fisheries Resource Monitoring Program Final Report No. FIS02-023 titled: “Iqaluich Niġiñaqtuat, Fish That We Eat,” by Anore Jones.


Braem, N.M. and M. L. Kostick, in press.  Key Subsistence Fisheries in Northwest Alaska, 2012-2014.  Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Subsistence Technical Paper No. 433. Anchorage.

Burch, E. S. (1998). The Iñupiaq Eskimo Nations of Northwest Alaska. Fairbanks, Alaska: University of Alaska Press.

Fall, James A. et al. 2018.  Alaska Subsistence and Personal use Salmon Fisheries 2015 Annual Report.  Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Subsistence Technical Paper No. 440.  Anchorage.

Jenkins, D. (2015). Impacts of neoliberal policies on non-market fishing economies on the Yukon River, Alaska. Marine Policy, 61, 356–365.

Jones, A., & Fisheries Resource Monitoring Program (U.S.). (2006). Iqaluich niġiñaqtuat: Fish that we eat (Final ed.). Anchorage, Alaska: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Office of Subsistence Management, Fisheries Resource Monitoring Program.

Magdanz, J. S., Smith, H., Braem, N., Fox, P., & Koster, D. S. (2011). Patterns and trends in subsistence fish harvests, Northwest Alaska, 1994-2004 (Technical Paper No. 366). Kotzebue, Alaska: Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Subsistence. Retrieved from

Magdanz, J. S., Tahbone, S., Ahmasuk, A., Koster, D. S., & Davis, B. L. (2007). Customary Trade and Barter in Fish in the Seward Peninsula Area, Alaska (Technical Paper No. 328). Juneau, Alaska: Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Menard, J., Soong, J., Kent, S., Harlan, L., and Leon, J. (2017). 2015 Annual management report for Norton Sound, Port Clarence, and Arctic, Kotzebue Areas (Fishery Management Report No. 17-15) (p. 230). Anchorage, Alaska: Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Sobelman, S. S. (1985). The Economics of Wild Resource Use in Shishmaref, Alaska (Technical Report No. No. 112). Fairbanks, Alaska: Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

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