Article — From the May 2009 issue

Fast Fish, Loose Fish

Who will own Alaska’s disappearing salmon?

The commercial fishing season on the Yukon River—among the most prolific salmon rivers on earth—usually opens June 15, but last year it didn’t. Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game monitors the river using sonar and test nets and opens the season only after enough fish have passed upriver to their spawning grounds to maintain the population. Although a better-than-average run had been predicted for 2008, by June 15 virtually no salmon had appeared. Or so said Fish and Game. But the 856 Yupik Eskimos living in Emmonak, the village at the heart of Alaska’s Yukon Delta, didn’t believe it. They thought there were plenty of salmon in the river and that Fish and Game had placed its nets in poor locations. Each morning fishermen shyly knocked on the office door of Jack Schulteis, the general manager of Kwikpak Fisheries, and asked, “We fishin’ today?” “Nope,” he told them, and they nodded silently and walked out. They would have to find something else to do until more fish appeared.

As it turned out, when I showed up in Emmonak on what would have been opening day, the replacement project was building coffins. Someone had died in the village that week and another person was close to death. On Saturday there would be a Catholic funeral—the Jesuits had brought their religion here in the 1890s—followed by a traditional Eskimo dance to send off the souls of the departed. First the coffins had to be made.

The Yukon Delta is a treeless marsh larger than the state of Louisiana, situated hundreds of miles from the nearest paved road. Goods arrive by barge or bush plane. The only plywood to be had in Emmonak, as well as the only woodworking shop, was owned by Kwikpak, the one significant employer in town. So the village elders (a semi-official title in Emmonak, akin to city councilman or alderman) had asked Jack Schulteis if he would donate the lumber and the shop for the day.

Schulteis has white hair, a bristly white chin, and the deepest voice I’ve ever heard. He holds a lot of impromptu meetings on the wood-pallet stoop outside the tin garage that is Kwikpak headquarters, smoking and tapping his ashes into the mud and alder scrub. He grew up in the lower forty-eight, he said, but left for Alaska after being arrested at a 1971 antiwar protest in Washington, D.C., and handcuffed overnight in RFK Stadium, which motivated him to move as far from the center of government as he could get. He worked for fishing companies in the Yukon Delta for thirty-five years and has managed Kwikpak since it was formed in 2002. He’s known the local families for decades and is running a business that, in one of the poorest towns in America, could easily slide into being a charity operation. “I get calls all winter,” Schulteis told me as we sat in his office. “‘Jack, they’re turning off my power. Can the company give me a loan on next year’s catch?’ ‘Jack, I’ve got no food.’ And now it’s coffins. What are you gonna do?”

Most of the Yukon Delta is a National Wildlife Refuge. Fishing is its only industry. “The salmon are the reason for our survival from day to day,” seventy-one-year-old Martin Moore told me. Moore’s classic round Emmonak face is distinguished by the absence of several teeth. “There’s no timber in this region. No gold mining. There’s no other potential for earning money. Without the salmon, we would starve.” In the 1970s, Shell Oil came poking around but was rebuffed. “The elders came to me after Shell made some offers,” Schulteis recalled, “and asked me what would happen if they accepted. ‘Well, you’d have more money,’ I told them. ‘But would things change?’ they asked. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘but you’d have money to buy things you want.’ But they said, ‘We don’t want things to change.’”

But things always change. The Yupik had some control over their land, but the salmon were part of the larger flow of things beyond Emmonak. The town has never fully recovered from what the Yupik call the Disaster Years, 1998 to 2001, when the salmon failed to appear.

Each additional day the season opening was delayed cost the town thousands of dollars and deepened the gloom. There were too many idle hands. Schulteis said they were welcome to make the coffins.

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Rowan Jacobsen is the author of, among other books, Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis and The Living Shore: Rediscovering a Lost World.

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April 2019

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