The Yukon Delta is a tough place to be a teenager.  There is very little to do recreationally or socially and now as the town struggleswith declining runs ofKing salmon, the call from beyond the village echoes more strongly.  Still, many young people are passionate about their culture and the intense vein of family that runs through the community.

This piece will be intimate stories that radiate from the summertime epicenter of the local Youth Employment Program, The Egg House, where the roe of the commercial salmon catch is processed.   

This project will be the primary focus of our fellowship program (described below)  by taking advantage of our relationships with Yupik teenagers and young adults. We will empower them to tell and capture their own stories in a way that no outsider could. 

Dramatic arcs include participating in the family’s subsistence harvests of salmon, seal, moose and waterfowl; the build-up to departure from the village to attend college; and glimpses of the personal relationships of the young people of Emmonak and the neighboring villages of Alukanuk, Kotlik, and Nunam Iqua, that will seem familiar to us all.

This piece will appeal to culinary audiences who are drawn to stories about where their food comes from.  Withwild Alaskan salmon often touted as one of the most clean and sustainable sources of protein on the planet, why doesKeta salmon get such a bad rap?

We will dig into the science of what makes a great food fish,With salmon, that’s all about the beneficial oils they build up in their flesh that serves as fuel for their up-river migration. .  The longer and more dramatic theirjourney, the more fuel the salmonwill need to complete its life cycle — salmon stop eating once they enter fresh water — so the longer the river, the more Omega-3 rich oils they need to accumulate for the trip.  That’s why once still maturing salmon get upstream   to spawning grounds, they hold less value as a food fish.  

But back at the mouth of the Yukon River where salmon are facing a 2,000 mile trip upriver, their oil content is off the charts.  And that’s where we found the Keta conundrum.  Chum salmon (Oncorhynchus keta) is often disregarded as a food fish.  People cite the fact that Natives feed Keta to their dogs, so why on earth would we eat them?

Yup'ik Eskimos at the mouth of the Yukon River are not feeding Keta to their dogs.  Yukon Keta carry the same quality designation as Kings and Cohos, a fact recently discovered by a small specialty seafood company in the UK, now the lead buyer of this fish that might be Alaska’s best kept secret, and a key to the economic recovery of the Yukon Delta communities.

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River Watchers will go inside the science of managing the fisheries in three of the Northern Pacific’s best known salmon rivers: the Yukon,  Kenai, and Columbia, each with their own political, environmental, and human challenges, and for which salmon is the most viable species of fishery management.

Because of the life cycle of the wild salmon — they spawn in freshwater, head out to sea, then return to the same river, stream or lake where their lives began — monitoring the salmon stocks as they return each summer represents a unique opportunity to measure the health of the species.  Waiting at the mouths of these rivers are the commercial salmon fleets that harvest one of our most prized culinary food fish.  North Americans have enjoyed and relied upon salmon as a food item for thousands of years longer than they have cattle, and salmon have proven to be a hearty stock.   State agencies charged with managing these fisheries have done a good job of balancing the interests of the user groups with the survival of the species.

But vexing questions arise when one species of salmon declines despite management efforts, especially while others thrive.  Whereas Cohos, Sockeyes, and Keta have been maintaining a powerful life cycle, the mightiest of wild salmon species, the King, has been in decline.

Managers of the Yukon River fishery must balance the needs of our nation’s last hunter-gatherers with those of user groups upstream.  They must insure we fulfill the obligations of an international treaty while trying to keep an eye on the fish as they return through one of our largest and most complex river delta systems: the Yukon River has three mouths and covers a landmass the size of New York State.

On the Kenai River,  ADFG has to manage a diverse array of user groups, with all of these interests confined to one of the shortest salmon rivers in Alaska, only 82 miles.  So by comparison what may seem like an easier prospect than managing the mighty Yukon, the challenges are compounded by politics and the changing environment.

The Columbia River is struggling with a legacy of hydroelectric dams, pollution, and rising water temperatures.  Scientists who manage the river are hopeful that the tide could be shifting back to favor a recovery by several wild species.

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Bearing Down on The Ballot

In other parts of the state, the decline of the King Salmon is igniting intense and increasingly toxic debates among the many user groups who depend on salmon to survive.  There is an effort by a conservation group, The Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance (AFCA) to outlaw the commercial harvest practice of setnetting, based on the charge that setnetting is an indiscriminate means of harvest that devastates other species in the form of by-catch. Under the guise of environmental stewardship, this would seem like a fair argument and consistent with measures in other states to curtail that commercial practice.  

But as you dig into the story you find that the Alaska Department of Fish & Game doesn’t necessarily agree, claiming that by catch of non-salmon species is too low to measure.  Critics of the AFCA say that when you follow the money you find that the AFCA is funded by stakeholders in the state’s sport fishing industry, which would benefit tremendously if setnetting was outlawed, and who have charges of their own to address by harvesting a significant number of King salmon and potentially impacting salmon spawning grounds.

By giving equal voice to stakeholders on both sides of this issue, we will track the story leading up to the ballot measure in 2016 Highlighting the disruption of this commercial salmon fishery could have broad economic impacts on many small towns throughout the state, and on our access to wild caught Alaskan salmon in the Lower 48.

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