Concern and fear over empty smokehouses along the Kuskokwim seem to have subsided. The river was closed most of June, but an abundance of red and chum salmon have filled the river this July. The switch to fishing later in the summer has one resident wondering if regulations are causing a shift in subsistence culture and if tribes should help that along.
Mary Peltola is breathing a sigh of relief.
“That anxiety of not having enough fish for the winter has gone,” she said, exhaling.
Peltola is the Executive Director of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fisheries Commission. She’s also a member of the Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group, and she subsistence fishes with her family by the Gweek River in the middle Kuskokwim. Since the end of June and into July, her small net has filled with red and chum salmon.
She calls the net "the little set net that could."
"Because it’s only about 40 feet long and has about 10 floats on it,” Peltola said, smiling.
That’s tiny compared to other gillnets, but what it’s harvested has been enough to fill her family’s smokehouse and many cases of jars for the winter. But Peltola, like many living along the Kuskokwim, didn’t know a month ago if her family would be able to do that.
“June, for me, was filled with lots of anxiety over not fishing and the weather not being great when we were able to fish.”
King salmon were running low and managers allowed only two gillnet openings the entire month. Wet weather during the openings, and the emergence of flies later on, meant that salmon were harder to dry. Some people lost their harvest to rot and maggots.
“When our family went fishing on 24th of June," said Peltola," we caught mostly chum, some reds. Of those, about 10 did not make it. Ten slabs.”
That’s after blowing fans on the fish, cutting off fly eggs, and putting the fish in the smokehouse early. But with those efforts, most of the harvest did make it, and people along the river found new techniques to preserve fish in rainy weather.
“I’ve had a friend say that she’s been spraying Clorox on her poles and Clorox on doorways of smokehouses, and that’s been helping keep flies away,” said Peltola.
People have also turned to other ways of preserving fish: jarring, salting, kippering, and freezing.
Since July, the wet weather has lifted and red and chum have filled both the river and people’s need for fish. Now, many families are turning to berry picking. Some are waiting for silvers.
But what do these changes mean for subsistence along the Kuskokwim? The tradition is for families to fish hard in early June and put away as much dry fish as they can.
With king salmon runs expected to remain low in coming years, conservation measures could continue, keeping the river closed during the early summer.
Peltola says that Kuskokwim tribes will have to discuss these possibilities, what customs might be modified, and how to respond to low king, or Chinook, runs like this summer’s.
“I guess it’s just me asking myself, and my family asking ourselves, and communities asking themselves," said Peltola, "what will we do in the worst case scenario for a Chinook run? Will we continue to fish on it and harvest it, or when the numbers are really low, are we willing to let those Chinook pass without harvesting them?”
People have already shown that they can adapt.