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'Salmon Is Life': For Native Alaskans, Salmon Declines Pose Existential Crisis

Climate change and other factors are disparately impacting Indigenous subsistence fishermen, for whom salmon is the center of their culture.

In St. Mary’s, Alaska, the people of the Yupiit of Andreafski look to the south wind, the budding tree leaves, and even the formations of migrating birds to discern whether the pulse of salmon returning upriver to spawn will be strong. Serena Fitka grew up in this tiny Yukon River village, and though she now lives in Valdez, she returns home every summer with her family, to partake in the traditional salmon harvest that is both the community’s main source of sustenance and the fabric of its culture.

This year, however, abysmally low salmon runs in the Yukon River have led Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) to impose a moratorium on fishing for Chinook (or King) and Chum salmon in the mighty river, which runs for 2,000 miles from the Bering Sea to Canada’s Yukon Territory. While Yukon run sizes for both salmon species numbered about 1.9 million in the past, this year they’re projected to be less than 430,000. The moratorium impacts 40 villages and roughly 11,000 people, 90 percent of whom are Indigenous Alaskans. And many have no access to grocery stores or any other source of food besides what they can hunt or harvest.