If you’ve taken a walk or a drive around Bethel lately, you can’t help but notice brightly painted wooden fish posted by the road. The signs, with conservation messages, come in a year of king salmon closures never seen before on the Kuskokwim River. But just as quickly as the signs went up, they’ve been disappearing.
Reyne Athanas’ white Subaru is loaded full of colorful salmon-shaped signs as she heads towards Bethel’s boat harbor. Kids painted one side during a recent Saturday market. On the back are messages that she hopes will build awareness about conserving Kuskowkwim King salmon.
“Well, we’re at Watson’s corner and we’re heading toward the boat harbor and we’re passing some fish right now that say, ‘save today, more tomorrow’. Just meaning that if you conserve a little bit now and let there be some escapement, eat some of the other fish that we have like whitefish that are in the river we’ll have more fish in the future for my grandson.
As we pull up to the boat harbor, Athanas’s grandson, Landon, and her son, Ryan Burke jump out to help her put up the signs.
After 2013 showed the weakest King salmon run on record, and not having made escapement in two of the past four years, managers of the Kuskokwim River fishery are not allowing directed king salmon fishing. They’ve been trying to get enough Kings to spawning grounds before opening the fishery to nets targeting salmon. Many in Bethel, like Athanas, and her son support the conservation measures.
Burke says the message of the guerilla public art project is important.
“I’m helping my mom out as a volunteer to put up these signs to let people know we should conserve our fish for future generations cause I think if we overfish em and they’re all gone and they won’t come back there’s not gonna be any more fish for people, especially Kings. From what I’ve been told we’re running low on Kings and we’ve got to conserve them or they’re gonna be gone forever.”
The mother-son-grandson team nail the wooden fish onto small posts and pound them into the sandy bank, placing rocks at the base of the signs to keep them from blowing over. When they’re done, the four signs they’ve pounded in read: “Let’s Save Kusko Kings.”
Just then a truck pulls up from Bethel’s Tribe, ONC.
“My name is Roberta Chavez and I’m the partners fisheries biologist for ONC. We were just talking about who was putting up these fish signs cause ONC is really supporting the conservation measures of the Chinook Salmon so we’re happy that these fish signs are going up.”
But not everybody likes the signs.
Critics of the closures say that Alaska Natives subsistence fishers who depend most on the fish are unfairly burdened with the brunt of conservation measures and believe that managers should do more to crack down on commercial bycatch. During a recent tribal fish forum of the Yupiit Nation, a consortium of federally recognized tribes pushing for more tribal sovereignty, Ed Johnstone, a leader with Quinalt Indian Tribe and the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission said the signs are divisive.
“I see the signs out her that are along the road that say, you know, that King salmon are important and let ‘em grow. I’m gonna say that’s not really a good thing. It pits people against each other. It starts the talk about, ‘oh well, if you just don’t catch any King salmon then things are gonna be good. That’s not true. We don’t know what the problem is, as I hear it. We don’t know whether it’s the upriver habitat and the spawning grounds or the marine survival rate in the ocean.”
Whether it’s people who agree with Johnstone or simply vandals, many of the signs have gone missing in the past couple of weeks. Some have been strategically removed to reverse the message — like one along the highway that used to read ‘Eat More Chicken’ and then read ‘Eat More’. Another said Extinction Is Forever’, but the only remaining sign now says just ‘Forever’. And the ones that Athanis put up with her son and grandson near the boat harbor went down four or five days after they put them up.
Athanis says she’s done putting signs along the roads and instead plans to make them into a more permanent art installation in a more protected location.