Beverly Hoffman grew up on the Kuskokwim River, a storied 700-mile waterway that flows from the Alaska Range to the Bering Sea. Now 71 years old, she says its fish have nourished her for most of her life—particularly the salmon, which is woven into family routines and tribal traditions.
Hoffman lives in Bethel, a small and isolated town in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region of southwest Alaska. With a population of just over 6,000 and no access by roads, residents rely heavily on the river for food and transport.
Different times of the year bring various species, but “salmon is the most important fish to our people,” she said. “We try to fish as much salmon as we can, but it will be very hard this summer.”
Over the last two decades, the number of salmon in the river has fallen sharply, particularly the Chinook (king) and chum varieties. Research carried out by Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game attributes the decline to a multitude of factors, especially rising temperatures in the Bering Sea, to which salmon are especially vulnerable.
A salmon’s journey in southwest Alaska begins at birth in an upriver spawning ground. It hatches in freshwater and matures for one year before migrating to the sea. Salmon can live in the ocean for one to five years before they make their way back up the river to spawn, then die.
In the Bering Sea, these salmon are not only susceptible to warming temperatures but risk being swept up as bycatch by commercial fishing trawlers and then treated as waste.
This means fewer salmon make their way back up the river to spawn each year. It is these upriver salmon that sustain subsistence fishers like Hoffman.
Under state law, Alaska’s subsistence fisheries along the Kuskokwim and Yukon Rivers are prioritized over commercial and sport fisheries when salmon stocks are low. But over the last few years, the numbers have been so poor that all have been closed, including subsistence fisheries, said Katie Howard, lead scientist for the department’s Salmon Ocean Ecology Program.
It is a sure sign that the salmon situation is dire, she said, as “commercial fisheries, sport fisheries and personal-use fisheries all get reduced to nothing before we even start thinking about reducing subsistence fisheries.”
Because of the distance traveled during a salmon’s life, the issue is not restricted to a single part of the river or one agency’s jurisdiction. “It is not just a refuge issue: it’s an upper-river issue, it’s a bay issue, and it’s an ocean issue,” said Kevin Whitworth, executive director of the Kuskokwim Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.
The commission represents 33 federally recognized tribes and has collaboratively managed salmon since 2016 within the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge alongside the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. While it has championed protective measures like stricter catch limits in subsistence fisheries, some of which lie within the refuge, there is little it can do about the groundfish trawling in the Bering Sea, much less climate change.
Below-average Chinook and poor chum numbers are expected in the Kuskokwim River once again this year, meaning that the harvest allowances set by the Department of Fish and Game for subsistence fishing are likely to be limited. Chum subsistence fisheries in the Kuskokwim River will be severely restricted or could even be closed this summer, the department has projected.
The impacts on locals will be acute, as such restrictions and closures affect all facets of life. “We are very, very nervous,” Hoffman said.
But for many, anxiety is being channeled into action as residents demand more input into fisheries management up and down the river. Frustrations reached a tipping point in April, when two of the state’s largest tribal groups filed a lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service over its management of groundfish catch limits for commercial trawlers in the Bering Sea. Last month the city of Bethel joined the suit.
The groups argue that the trawlers, which caught 2.1 million metric tons of fish in 2020, have outdated catch limits that allow them to inadvertently capture thousands of salmon each year as well.
For Salmon People, a Way of Life
Hoffman recalls her childhood summer menu clearly: fish for six days a week, and chicken on Sundays. While her parents worked at other jobs to support their nine children, her aunties would spend the season catching, processing and preserving fish for winter.
This kind of collaborative effort is common in the area, where extended families work together to ensure a year-round supply of protein, said Vivian Korthui, chief executive of the Association of Village Council Presidents, a tribal consortium based in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region. Korthui also grew up along the rivers of western Alaska.
The work involved in preserving salmon for winter meals is not as simple as catching it, Korthui said. “For a couple of weeks, 24 hours of your day are dedicated to making sure that it doesn’t spoil.”
Once a fish has been caught and fileted, it can be preserved in a number of ways. Hoffman relies on them all: “I freeze, I jar, I smoke,” she said. “It’s very much a part of my life.”
The rituals of catching and preserving are central for many of Bethel’s residents. In May, the town celebrated the annual breakup of ice on the Kuskokwim River, a signal that winter is ending, boats will soon return to the water, and the salmon are coming.
“Right away, people were on the bay fishing for loche [burbot], which we call poor man’s lobster,” Hoffman said. “Pretty soon the smelts will run, and everybody will be on the river dipping nets. Then, we await the salmon.”
Salmon is more than just food. “Salmon and subsistence are ingrained in all the activities that our people engage in throughout the year,” Korthui said, “from going to fish camp, where the elders teach the youth how to carefully process salmon, mend nets, catch, cut and dry fish, to all the different cultural components and teachings that are intertwined with the process.”
Yet the difference between then and now is stark.
“In the 1990s, when there was a healthy salmon population, there used to be around 240,000 king salmon that came up our river to spawn,” Hoffman said. “We could take 100,000 king salmon for our subsistence needs and still have 140,000 go to the spawning ground.”
By 2022, the number of salmon forecast to travel up the Kuskokwim River had fallen to a range of 99,000 to 161,000.
With the threatened closures of subsistence fisheries, traditions and educational opportunities risk falling by the wayside in salmon communities. “We are starting to see people interact differently,” Korthui said. For example, she said, it is becoming less common for whole families to come together and process their catch.
While the decline has been underway for several years, it is still unsettling. “It’s a total shock to our communities,” she said. “The rug has been pulled out from under all of us.”
“The Biggest Mistake We Made Was Trusting”
Brian Ridley, chairman of the Tanana Chiefs Conference, a consortium of tribal villages in the Alaskan interior, suggests that the collapse of the salmon population could have been prevented if Native voices had been incorporated into decision-making after Alaska was admitted as a state in 1959. “The biggest mistake we made was trusting the state and federal governments to manage a resource that we managed for thousands of years with no problems,” he said.
Hoffman, for example, first noticed the decline in the late 1990s, when escapement totals, which measure the number of salmon returning to their freshwater spawning grounds, began to drop. As a member of the Kuskokwim River Management Working Group, a regional advisory board for Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game, she urged the state to give priority to subsistence fishing on the river.
By the end of her tenure in 2017, co-management with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was becoming a reality for the Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. While Hoffman is not a member of the commission, she is proud of its work. “It has been exciting to see the growth of people involved,” she said.
Members have influenced salmon management within the refuge, although each step was hard won. Initially, the commission had to press for even modest measures, Whitworth said. “If you can believe that—our people were not able to eat, but we were restricting them from fishing so that we could adopt a higher goal for Chinook salmon reaching the spawning ground than the state had.”
Now, the Inter-Tribal Fish Commission finds itself challenged by its limited influence. While it can advocate stronger protection measures for salmon within the nearly 30,000-square-mile refuge, it has no co-management arrangements with state or federal agencies overseeing the commercial fisheries in the Bering Sea.
Whitworth argues that the best chance for bringing back healthy salmon populations is for federal, state and tribal government bodies to work together, pooling their knowledge to find a workable solution.
The area’s commercial groundfish fisheries are located more than three miles offshore in the Bering Sea and in the portion of the North Pacific Ocean adjacent to the Aleutian Islands. They are overseen by the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, a regional group that advises the National Marine Fisheries Service on regulations and harvest specifications.
“It’s tricky, because there are different regulatory processes, with one focused on managing salmon in the rivers and the other focused on managing [commercial ocean fisheries] but that as a byproduct is trying to work out this salmon bycatch issue,” said Howard, the state salmon ecology official.
In the past 10 years, these commercial groundfish fisheries have caught anywhere from 8,000 to 36,000 Chinook salmon annually as bycatch. But according to the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, they cannot be held responsible for the decline in salmon stocks making their way up the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers.
The pollock fishery, which catches the cod-like fish used in many restaurants and fast food chains and is responsible for 99 percent of bycatch in the area, does have some impact on the return of Chinook and chum salmon to western Alaska river systems, Kate Haapala, an analyst for the council, acknowledged.
“But the best available information and science that we have does not attribute the collapse of those fisheries, be they Chinook or chum salmon, and certainly not coho or sockeye or pink salmon, to bycatch in the Bering Sea pollock fishery,” she added.
In response to the declining numbers of Chinook salmon, swimming upriver, the National Marine Fisheries Service imposed a cap on bycatch in 2011. Once the cap, which fluctuates each year, is reached, the fishery closes regardless of whether there is still pollock to be harvested, Haapala said.
In a year in which the western Alaska Chinook salmon are judged to be plentiful, the limit allows baycatch of up to 60,000 fish. In years of less abundance, the cap is lowered to 45,000. Strikingly, neither threshold has been reached since the limits were introduced in 2011.
Howard says it is difficult to determine whether the commercial fishery is catching fewer Chinook as bycatch because of the threat of being shut down by regulators or because “there’s fewer Chinook out there to catch.”
The lawsuit filed in April against the National Marine Fisheries Service contends that the federal 2023-24 harvest specifications, which include the hard cap on Chinook salmon, are based on an outdated environmental analysis from 2004, when seas were cooler and fish were more plentiful.
“The documents that the agency has relied on are decades old, and they do not take into account the current state of the ecosystem in the Bering Sea,” said Kate Glover, the attorney for the tribal consortiums that filed the case.
Haapala of the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council disputes that, saying that the council acts on the latest information. “Certainly, we’re building on a program that’s 13 or 15 years old,” she said. “But we are never just looking at what we did in the past. It’s always a contemporary look.”
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Regardless of the arguments back and forth, the decline in salmon populations remains an overwhelming concern for people who rely on them. Whitworth, the Inter-Tribal Fish Commission director, contends that the problems begin with the structure of federal management bodies, which prioritizes profits over subsistence needs. The fisheries council and the National Marine Fisheries Service “actually exist under the Department of Commerce,” he said. “They love to make money and they love to catch fish. To them, the salmon are bycatch, and they aren’t worth anything.”
Insights From a Salmon Poem
Don Rearden, a novelist and professor of writing at the University of Alaska Anchorage who grew up in Bethel, recently asked an artificial intelligence program to write a poem in his style as part of a class experiment. The poem it produced, “The Last Salmon,” depicted a boy’s last fishing outing with his grandfather.
He said we had to fight for our land;
Our culture, our language, our way of life;
He said we had to respect the salmon;
They were our brothers and sisters.
Reardon’s childhood in Bethel, like Hoffman’s, revolved to some extent around subsistence fishing. His family ate salmon several times a week. Yet, he was an “outsider,” he said: “It wasn’t something we had to have to survive.”
Still, the poem shocked him. An artificial intelligence program managed to discern a very real threat facing the people of Bethel: the loss of salmon, the centerpiece of their culture. “I didn’t ask it to write a poem about salmon or write a poem about southwest Alaska,” he said. “I just asked it to write a poem in the style of my voice, and then there it was.”
It is unclear whether that omniscient AI program factored in the determination of residents to preserve their way of life. But the need to find a collaborative management structure for the salmons’ waterways is plain as day, said Korthui of the Association of Village Council Presidents.
“We have to figure it out,” Korthui said. “We have to sit at the table, and we have to have the meetings. “We don’t have a choice anymore.”
“We have to advocate for our villages and our tribes. We have to advocate for the people that are living without freezers full of fish. We have to advocate for the people who have no more salmon in their smokehouses.”