Alaska’s salmon ecosystems are the foundation for deep social and cultural relationships and values for people. Salmon are a cultural keystone species for many of the Indigenous cultures in Alaska. Salmon are vital as a subsistence resource contributing to the physical, social, cultural, spiritual, psychological, and emotional well-being of people in communities across the state. They also form the backbone of the commercial fishing economy and are highly valued for food procurement and resident and tourist recreation. Overall, salmon play integral and diverse roles in the society, cultures, and economies of Alaska.

In this state of knowledge synthesis of the social and cultural dimensions of salmon systems in Alaska, we explored three guiding topics:


  •    Social and cultural values and relationships between people and salmon.

  •    Trends in human populations and communities and uses of salmon.

  •    Key threats to salmon-dependent communities.


In consultation with our regional advisors, we gathered over 800 published sources of data on people-salmon relationships. We performed an automated keyword analysis of all of this data and thematically coded a subset to draft regional summaries. One of our major goals of this part of the project was to increase the visibility of important sociocultural dimensions of salmon systems that are often overlooked. Our work challenges the assumption that we do not have this kind of data; we have literally thousands of sources of data to speak to these relationships. But, we recognize that these dimensions are not always well-documented in written form or available data sources. We also generated a list of repositories of archival data, oral histories, and Indigenous knowledge. We are creating final products that highlight these relationships and would especially like to acknowledge and express our appreciation for our advisors, who have directed us to make the outputs useful and accessible for diverse Alaska stakeholders.

Deep relationships

People have been connected to salmon in Alaska for at least 11,800 years, and salmon continue to play key roles in the health and well-being of many of Alaska’s Indigenous cultures. Radical changes throughout time have impacted traditional ways of life and salmon-people relationships ranging from colonization (disease, slavery, boarding schools, resource extraction) to changes in resource access and management (federal and state governance shifts, tensions between fisheries users, privatization of access). These waves of change continue to transform relationships between people and salmon and fishing practices today.

Cutting King strips. By Jessica Black

Diverse relationships

The relationships people have with salmon in Alaska today are diverse. Even how we know salmon, what we think them to be, differs radically based on our culture. Think about what salmon means to you. How is that similar or different from other Alaskans’ beliefs about salmon

In our dialogues and review of published material, we see in many Indigenous worldviews, salmon are sentient non-human relations who give themselves to fishermen – and who demand reciprocal respect relationships. To show respect is to follow appropriate practices, to maintain good social relations, to care for the salmon who come properly. To think that humans are in control, that we can predict and manage them is offensive. In our review of recreational anglers’ values and assumptions, catch-and-release fishing is a sign of respect to the fish and other fishermen – the act of catching, and the enjoyment one gets engaging in the experience is the important relationship for some sportfishermen. Commercial fishermen have long built their livelihoods, develop their connections to place and raise their families around salmon fisheries and have deep dependence on these fish. While there are many examples,the point is that people in Alaska have long had and continue to have variable relationships with salmon, knowledge about salmon, and values about salmon. Our work aims to describe and draw attention to the diverse worldviews and relationships people have with salmon in Alaska and how sometimes conflict arises, often because this cultural diversity is not well understood.

Inequities in the salmon-people system have emerged as a critical point of consideration and are evident in colonialism and industrial extraction, the criminalization of subsistence, the dramatic loss of rural local fishing rights, and the graying of the commercial fishing fleet. The loss of fish camps and legal battles over subsistence rights have caused deep stress between traditional practices and resource management systems. Statewide, commercial fishing rights have been privatized and ownership has shifted toward urban and non-Alaskans, and many rural youth and communities struggle to gain access to sustainable fishing livelihoods. As one example, the Alutiiq/Sugpiag communities of the Kodiak Archipelago have seen an 84% decline in the number of young commercial salmon fishermen. These collective factors have motivated a concerted effort to better understand these issues and find opportunities for improvement.


“[A local fisherman] had been fishing in Togiak all his life as a drifter and a setnetter…But then the next year came around [Limited Entry] and he couldn’t fish because he didn’t — he never got any of the paperwork, you know, a lot of people didn’t speak English; English was a second language…yeah, nowhere near accessible. If you didn’t know how to exist in a western paperwork world, you missed out.” – Setnet fisherman in Dillingham, Oct 2014 [Graying of the Fleet study;]

“I feel like a criminal…I feel sick to my stomach. This is not right. We’re just sitting here, and seeing the fish, watching them go by. Then my cousin finally comes [to fish camp] with all her kids and they don’t even get to learn… so we had this paradigm shift because I had heard stories like this from downriver and never knew actually how it made them feel.” –Kuskokwim River subsistence fisherman commenting on how hard the closures were experienced at fish camp.

Plot depicting the loss of local, rural permits in the Bristol Bay salmon fisheries. Data: CFEC.
Aging trends of Alaska resident commercial salmon permit holders. Data: CFEC.

Group Members


Dr. Jessica Black

University of Alaska Fairbanks Alaska Native Studies and Rural Development and Tribal Management

Dr. Jessica Black holds a doctorate in Social Work from Washington University in St. Louis. She currently holds a faculty appointment at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Department of Alaska Native Studies and Rural Development and Tribal Management. Her research focuses on the intersection of governance and well-being, especially as it pertains to management of natural resources such as salmon.

Dr. Courtney Carothers

University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries & Ocean Sciences

Dr. Courtney Carothers is an Associate Professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Her research program partners with communities to study human-environment relationships, fisheries privatization processes, cultural values, equity, and well-being. Her research, teaching, and service works to advance goals of equity and decolonization in science, education, and resource management.

Dr. Rachel Donkersloot

Coastal Cultures Research

Rachel Donkersloot holds a degree in Anthropology and brings more than a decade of research experience in rural fishing communities across the North Pacific and North Atlantic. Her research concentrates on fishing community sustainability, rural well-being, marine resource governance, and contemporary youth in the Global North. She currently lives in Palmer, Alaska, and manages her own research and consulting firm, Coastal Cultures Research.

Jesse Coleman

University of Alaska Fairbanks

Jesse Coleman is a PhD candidate in Fisheries at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She joined the SASAP project in 2017 as a research technician, specializing in data analysis and visualization for the R1 Sociocultural and R2 Wellbeing working groups. Jesse is interested in synthesizing quantitative and qualitative data to better understand the sociocultural, political, economic, and biological dynamics of human-environment systems.

Danielle Ringer

University of Alaska Fairbanks

Danielle Ringer holds a MA in Political Ecology of Fisheries and works as a Research Associate for the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Her research focuses on holistic understandings of relationships between fisheries access and well-being within fishing communities, as well as processes to further incorporate human dimensions into fisheries resource management. Danielle grew up in Homer and now lives in Kodiak, Alaska.

Erika Gavenus

University of British Columbia: Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability

Erika Gavenus is currently a PhD student at the University of British Columbia's Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability and she holds a MSc in Global Health and Environment. Her current research considers the mechanisms through which coastal communities access local food resources, and how changes to access affect wellness. Erika grew up in Homer, Alaska and took part in the Lower and Upper Cook Inlet commercial salmon fisheries.


Caroline Brown

Alaska Department of Fish & Game

Patricia M. Clay

National Marine Fisheries Service

Jim Fall

Alaska Department of Fish and Game

Steve Langdon

University of Alaska Anchorage emeritus

Liza Mack

University of Alaska Fairbanks, Indigenous Studies

Julie Raymond-Yakoubian


Rob Sanderson Jr.

Central Council Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska

Ben Stevens

(Koyukon Athabascan)
Yukon River Intertribal Fish Commission

Alex Whiting

Native Village of Kotzebue