It’s an annual tradition going back thousands of years for Yup’ik people living along the Kuskokwim river: fish camp. Each summer families relocate to catch, dry and smoke fish to sustain them through the long winter, the most coveted of which is the King Salmon. But fishing restrictions this year, have hit many families hard.
Iyana Dull prepares to visit fish camps downriver from Bethel.
“We’re heading down river to the village of Napaskiak. And they rely heavily on the salmon and hopefully they’re getting their needs met. And that’s what we’re gonna go find out,” said Iyana Dull.
The 28-year-old Alaska Native is a fisheries technician for Bethel’s tribe, ONC. He asks people about their subsistence needs and run timings are for kings, chums and sockeye salmon.
The information Dull gathers is reported to the Kuskokwim Salmon Working Group, which is helping federal and state biologists manage the fishery. This year, they say surveys are hard to get because people are angry about restrictions. Many won’t talk with them. Just outside Napaskiak, at a simple camp with alder drying racks, elder Sophie Jenkins agrees to take a survey. She says restrictions are traumatizing.
“I looked up genocide and it says like this – people make policies and where people have no say with the law, with the policies and rules and regulations. (Daysha: And how does that make you feel?) I’m very familiar with oppression and you know trauma and that’s how I feel right now,” said Jenkins.
After 2013 showed the weakest King salmon run on record managers of the Kuskokwim River fishery are not allowing directed king salmon fishing. That means the 8-inch mesh nets, that were introduced by the commercial fishery in the 50s and 60’s, and have become commonplace in YK Delta households, have been banned completely.
Instead fishers have been limited to short, 4-inch mesh set nets. They’re much less productive and many fishermen don’t own them. Some say purchasing the net is too expensive.
Now, it’s late in the fishing season and managers have been allowing short openings with 6-inch gear for chum and sockeye salmon.
Jenkins, ordered the six-inch net, but she says she could not find one in Alaska. They were sold out, so she ordered one from a company in Tennessee.
“And I’m still waiting. It’s been a week and I know there was fishing yesterday and I was so depressed. I don’t have anything hanging,” said Jenkins.
Residents along the Kuskokwim say the restrictions have created haves and have-nots. In nearby Oscarville Slough, Arvin Dull, the uncle of the fisheries technician is having better luck. His fish rack and smoke house are full of glistening red salmon. A former bank manager from Bethel, Dull had the cash to buy the net required this year.
And a lot of people don’t have jobs and were unable to buy the nets. Some people can’t even afford a sixty-foot white fish net. (Daysha: How much does that cost?) About $300 dollars, said Arvin Dull.
His nephew says he sees why people are upset, but he also worries about extinction.
“They’d like to open the big king, king net gear so they can target more kings and get more kings on the rack. You know, they’re so used to seeing the fish return that they think no matter how hard they fish that they’ll always come back but that’s not true,” said Iyana Dull.
At the time this story was filed, Elder Sophie Jenkins was still waiting for her net to arrive. If it comes in time she says she hopes to get some fish on her rack. She says getting chum and reds is good, but they miss their kings.