At a Glance: The Yukon, Alaska’s Largest Watershed – Dynamic change and connections over time
Larger than the state of Texas and home to the third longest river in the United States, the Yukon region is a governance mosaic of state and federal fisheries management.
Denaakk’e (Koyukon Athabaskan) names for salmon
Ggaal (king salmon)
Noolaaghe (chum salmon)
Saanlaaghe (coho salmon, or silver-colored fall chum)
Benhti Kenaga (Lower Tanana)
Khwyhts’en’ (fall fish, coho salmon)
Gath (king salmon)
Nahdlii (winter chum salmon)
Shii (coho salmon, or silver-colored, fall chum salmon)
Luk Choo (king salmon)
Below are key SASAP findings for the Yukon region – for the full story choose Take a Deeper Dive
Compounding the issues of declines in Chinook salmon abundance is a clear pattern of shrinking sizes of returning adult salmon.
In the Yukon region, the size of adult Chinook salmon returning to the river has declined by approximately 10% in the past three decades, and in some locations by nearly 20%. This change in size is mostly due to the fact that individuals are returning from sea at a younger age. Older fish tend to be larger, given they spend more time in the ocean feeding. While the factors causing the change in size and age are not fully understood, the consequences of the changes in size are clear for local subsistence harvesters, who end up with fewer meals and calories in the freezer. Whether the shrinking of fish may impede the recovery of salmon abundance is less clear.
Salmon in the Yukon and elsewhere are declining in both size and age of return to spawning areas
Though histories, practices, and management differ along the length of the Yukon, salmon continues to be a central part of life for the people of the region.
Salmon remains central to the social and economic systems of the region and fish camps are at the heart of people-salmon relationships. Families work together at fish camp, passing on valuable cultural and social teachings. However, many residents of the Yukon Region find it increasingly difficult to travel to fish camp for a multitude of reasons. Alaska Native Elders have expressed concern about what it means for younger generations to not join their families at fish camp, a place and time where important teachings about fishing, cultural heritage, and personal responsibility are passed on.
Photo: Tanana culture camp in 2016. By Stephanie Quinn-Davidson
Historically the largest subsistence salmon fishery in Alaska, Chinook runs are declining and have created management challenges and lower harvests.
Yukon River drainage subsistence salmon harvests have been historically the largest in Alaska. Since the mid-1990s, the abundance of Yukon River salmon stocks has fluctuated and subsistence harvests have declined. Consequences of reduced subsistence harvests linked to weak salmon runs and restricted fisheries include increased fishing costs, decreased earnings from commercial salmon fisheries, fewer fish wheels, increased drifting, decreased fish camp use, increased difficulties obtaining subsistence foods, maintaining dog teams without salmon as a food source which results in decreased use of sled dogs, and increased constraints on subsistence fishing from the need to engage in wage employment.
Subsistence Chinook Harvests on the Yukon River, 1990 – 2016. 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.
As the largest drainage in Alaska, the Yukon River encompasses a mix of jurisdictions. Recent challenges include equitably sharing the burden of conservation throughout the drainage.
State management is predominant in the Yukon River drainage, though federal subsistence management applies in 12 conservation units and four rivers designated as ‘Wild and Scenic’ under the 1968 congressional act. To minimize confusion, state and federal managers coordinate under a memorandum of agreement in consultation with stakeholder groups, including the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association (YRDFA). The Pacific Salmon Treaty provides for joint development with Canada of escapement goals and border fish passage objectives. Through YRDFA and the more recently established Yukon River Inter Tribal Fisheries Commission, local residents have worked to restore salmon stocks. Between 2000-2018, the Yukon River salmon fisheries were declared a disaster on four occasions.
Yukon River, Photo: USGS
The Yukon is the most profitable fishery in the Western region of Alaska north of Bristol Bay.
Since 1975, commercial salmon fisheries on the Yukon River have generated over $380 million for harvesters. Historically, the volume of salmon caught by the commercial fleet in most years has been smaller than the volume caught by subsistence fishing, underlining the importance of subsistence fishing in the region. Also, commercial fishing in this region plays an important role in generating cash to support traditional subsistence activity, which is also shown by the large proportion of revenue retained within the region through local rural permit ownership.
Tobias Schwoerer. Regional commercial salmon permit earnings by residency status, Alaska, 1975-2016. Knowledge Network for Biocomplexity. doi:10.5063/F1WW7FZ2.
I am a Criminal: Criminalization of Indigenous Fishing Practices
By Carrie Stevens and Jessica Black, Gwich’in
Introduction: Inequitable salmon stewardship
Alaska Native peoples experience well-being when out on the land: hunting, fishing, and gathering. This sense of well-being is amplified by core Alaska Native values of providing for family, sharing, and taking care of others. Alaska’s salmon, namely the king salmon [Chinook], are a foundation of Alaska Native cultures and ways of life. As expressed by Yupik Dr. Theresa John, Alaska Native peoples embody the animal which they harvest and take in. In this way, many Alaska Native people are Salmon People. This Indigenous way of life, often simplified to the term subsistence, is passed down generation to generation, year after year for thousands of years.
This way of life has been compromised; hundreds of years of colonization in Alaska, fueled by racism, has led to colonial laws and to the systematic disenfranchisement of Alaska Native peoples from the land and resources on which they intimately depend for their physical, social, cultural, spiritual, and economic well-being. The Alaska State Constitution was written with one Alaska Native in the room, and failed to provide for the state’s Indigenous peoples. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act stripped Alaska Natives of their aboriginal hunting and fishing rights with no compensation for these rights. The US Congress fell short with Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), in which they attempted to address the wrongs against the State’s Indigenous peoples. The State’s refusal to enact ANILCA has led to ineffective, inaccessible dual management system in which Alaska Native voices are marginalized at best and silenced at worst. A further matrix of additional federal laws and international agreements further disenfranchise Alaska Natives in any equitable decision-making related to their salmon relatives and Indigenous fishing practices. Alaska Native peoples are left with no equity, with little voice, becoming criminals who are ticketed and fined when hunting, fishing, and sharing.
Fishing as wellness: We are salmon
Innumerable technical papers, reports, and empirical research have clearly established that the Indigenous hunting, fishing, gathering, and sharing way of life is central to Alaska Native peoples’ well-being. This is recognized in the findings and declarations of Title VIII of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. Elders in the Yukon Flats highlighted this special relationship in Bridging Yesterday with Tomorrow; the elders and traditional hunters/fishermen all expressed the daily of practicing the traditional way of life, of gathering and eating traditional foods, of respecting and caring for the environment and how it provided for them, their well-being, and made them whole. Further community-based indigenous research clearly delineated “hunting, fishing, and gathering are essential elements of individual and community well-being for Gwich’in and Koyukon people” (Black, 2017).
Expression of this well-being has become increasingly difficult as the aforementioned laws and systemic disenfranchisement have impinged on Alaska Native peoples’ ability to gather and steward the land in ways that their elders and ancestors taught them. In order to share Native foods, which are an important element of well-being and informal governance, one has to have access to first hunt, fish, and gather and also share in the management of these activities. So it is not enough to just have access to these important salmon relatives [and other game relatives], but one must also share an equitable role in the management of these resources or even better steward these resources on their own terms.
Criminalization: Harassment and shame
US Fish and Wildlife data, Alaska Department of Fish and Game data, citation data, court data: if available, collected, and analyzed, all would demonstrate the undeniable trend — Alaska Native peoples are being harassed and criminalized for practicing their Indigenous ways of life. Fishermen and fisherwomen, hunters alike, are ticketed and fined for feeding their families. Dozens and dozens of cases have flooded Alaska’s courtrooms since the 1990’s, representing only a small fraction of the citations and fines issued. In June 2012, 61 salmon fisher people were issued citations on the Kuskokwim alone, with their nets being seized or cut (Ikutanet al. 2013). Court records show only 25 appearing in district court. This story is not one limited to the Kuskokwim, it spans the salmon fisheries of the state. Criminalization is prevalent amongst traditional Indigenous fisher peoples of the Yukon River, along the Copper River, within the Bristol Bay, and throughout Southeast.
The stories of those affected are the greatest testament to the extent and impacts of criminalization, and the internalization of criminalization, to Alaska Native peoples. You can travel to any Tribal community in Alaska, and you will find a story of criminalization of traditional Indigenous hunting and fishing practices. The stories are of humiliation, anger, fear, desperation, shame, frustration, and devastation.
The highly publicized case of former state senator and Tlingit fisherman Albert Kookesh demonstrates the inequity within the system. His criminalization for traditional fishing practices was front-page news, telling a story of misuse and overharvest. He fought his citation over 7 years at great personal cost, both financially and socially. He found himself accosted and scorned publicly. However, his vindication and win, highlighting the administrative failures of Fish and Game, barely made third page news. (Albert Kookesh, personal communication). The stories of harassment, of feeling less-than, of feeling bad, of feeling inadequate are pervasive. One of the most detrimental impacts of this criminalization is the Internalization of this criminalization.
“Now, I am being told I am wrong, my hunting and fishing are criminal. I don’t know what I will do if I cannot eat my traditional foods. I am 65 years-old and have been eating my food all of my life… Several tickets have been issued to me and other hunters by the F&W or F&G. I have had to go to court more than once. I am not doing anything wrong. I am not committing a crime. I simply fish and hunt on the land that has always belonged to us all… for years we are being told by others not familiar with our ways, how and when we are supposed to trap, hunt and fish.” Paul Herbert, Survival Denied
“It’s like we’re constantly being watched. We have to have all kinds of licenses, and you never know whether you’re on federal or state lands. It makes us feel like criminals…It wasn’t so bad long ago. But now there’s so much regulation, so many rules. It’s just making us look like we’re bad people for wanting to continue living the way we were brought up.” Wilma Pitka, Survival Denied
“Us native hunters have been made to feel like criminals just to honor our traditional ways and feed our families. A couple, three times I felt harassed by state and federal officers. One time a State trooper came to my work, to question me about my hunting and fishing. He made me look as if I were a fugitive, the way he conducted himself and did his business running around crazily in search of me. It was foolish and embarrassing at my place of work.” Walter Peter Jr., Survival Denied
Indigenous hunters and fisher peoples in various interviews shared how when they were out on the land they were aware every time a plane or helicopter flew overhead or a boat was coming down the river. They became anxious and paranoid. One young man, a Village Public Safety Officer for his community, shared a time when the anxiety got the better of him. He was out working on his fishwheel, and doing nothing wrong within current regulations. However, he was still anxious from the patterns of harassment in his community. He heard a plane, he became worried, he looked up and around, and he fell and twisted his ankle. This story illustrates the internalization of criminalization; it does not leave many active Indigenous fisher people, having a direct impact on their well-being.
The Path Forward: Creating Salmon Equity
Alaska Native well-being is tied to the ability to hunt, fish, gather and share. It connects Alaska Native people to the past and ensures the future is protected and cared for; this gives Alaska Native people a purpose, a reason to wake-up each day and live. Checking the smokehouse, traveling the trapline your grandfather trapped, feeding your sled dogs, harvesting a moose, sharing ones catch; all of these experiences are not quantifiable yet they are the only evidence that matters. These practices are embedded in traditional governance systems that provide for Alaska Native peoples and offer solutions for all Alaska’s people.
Criminalization of the Indigenous way of life has not only had far-reaching cumulative negative impacts for Alaska Native peoples and their individual and collective well-being, but detrimental impacts to healthy, thriving salmon and waters. The spiritual relationship and covenant between salmon and people has been broken and healing needs to be restored. The only way the healing can begin is by providing for equity in salmon stewardship, management, and decision-making.
Recognition and practice of Alaska Native self-governance. Allowing Alaska Native peoples to re-assume stewardship founded on Indigenous principles and spiritual relationship will reset the balance. This benefits all Alaskans–sharing and taking care of others is a central principle of Alaska Native peoples’ stewardship practices. Strengthening Alaska Native self-governance includes recognizing the work and the authority of the Yukon River and Kuskokwim River Intertribal Fish Commissions. The Commissions derive their authority from their member Tribal Governments, and their aim is to ensure healthy salmon and populations for all peoples who rely on them for wellness. They strive to bring Alaska Native fisher peoples together with state and federal agency staff to co-create a sustainable path forward.
Recognition and honoring racial equity in salmon management. Truthful conversations regarding Alaska’s salmon history will allow us to move forward as a more understanding and unified Alaska in caring for our salmon relatives. Our salmon relatives benefit the most when we come together, address our challenges as a state, and find our common ground to move forward. Numerous efforts are already being implemented on a statewide level, such as the work of First Alaskans Institute in their Alaska Native Dialogues on Racial Equity (ANDORE); the work of the Humanities Forum in the Salmon Fellows program; the work of UAF in Indigenizing Salmon Management and the Center for Salmon and Society; and the work of Salmon Connect.
Recognition, inclusion, and honoring Alaska Native peoples’ voices and expertise in regulatory and management decision-making. The complex and fragmented management system is largely inaccessible to Alaska Native peoples. The meetings are in urban centers, and the language and processes are complex, technical and untimely. The work of the Tanana Chiefs Conference Hunting and Fishing Taskforce is an important step forward, as it has been successful in catalyzing different generations of Tribal leaders to not only learn the process of engaging in and changing fish and wildlife regulations and management, but inspire them to work towards an Indigenous Self-Governance framework. The work of the Tribal Management program is also a critical link, providing culturally relevant workshops for Tribal Citizens on engagement in the regulatory processes of Board of Fish, Board of Game, and Federal Subsistence Board. Largely Indigenous fishing people are fighting to sustain and protect their way of life, creating equity in salmon management and stewardship, providing the opportunity for Alaska Native peoples to share their wealth of knowledge, expertise, and spirituality. This is for the benefit of the Salmon, the Salmon Peoples, and all Alaskans.
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