Yukon salmon fishery faces tough times

Posted: Monday, March 10, 2008

ANCHORAGE - Bragging doesn't come naturally to Marvin Okitkun, but the Yup'ik Eskimo fisherman doesn't miss a beat when talking up king salmon, the valuable fish that makes life possible for villagers on the cash-poor Yukon River delta.

Jon Rowley / Kwik'pak Fisheries Llc Via The Associated Press
Jon Rowley / Kwik'pak Fisheries Llc Via The Associated Press

"Once you've tried our salmon, you wouldn't want to have any other salmon from any other place," Okitkun said. "To us, everything else is hype."

The sterling reputation of the Yukon king is buoying the fragile economies of the tiny delta villages, which are among the state's poorest communities. Strikingly high fuel costs and disastrously low fish counts in the last decade have pushed the mostly Alaska Native region deep into poverty.

To survive, local fishermen have immersed themselves in the language and mindset of the modern gourmand in what has become a successful courtship of the upscale commercial seafood market.

With help from a federal fisheries program, they are learning to tout the fish's exceptionally high fat content and lifetime in the wild as sources of health benefits and superior flavor. The fish naturally store enough fat to survive the 2,000-mile journey up the Yukon to spawn. Most wild salmon swim shorter distances and build up less fat as a result.

"Yukon salmon come from well-managed salmon runs and they are not farm-raised," said Eunice Alexie, 43, of Pitka's Point. "They're all-natural, with 34 percent healthy omega-3 oils."

Alexie recently traveled from her Yup'ik Eskimo village of 110 people to the Boston International Seafood Show to showcase the Yukon fish for Kwik'Pak Fisheries. The company was created in 2002 through a federally sponsored nonprofit to help delta residents secure a niche in the cutthroat international salmon market.

"We want to build an economy based on the fishery," said Jack Schultheis, Kwik'Pak's Anchorage-based sales manager. "We don't have anything else."

Foodies are responding to the marketing push by Kwik'Pak and the few smaller processors left on the delta. Several newspapers and seafood publications have featured the Yukon king in culinary write-ups since the campaign took off several years ago. The fish appeared on Food and Wine's "Best New Ingredients" list of 2008.

"I've been serving Yukon salmon each season for three years," said David LeFavre, executive chef of the tony seafood restaurant Water Grill in Los Angeles. "I think it's got great fat content. It sears up, grills and sautés incredibly nicely."

But the fishery needs more than good publicity to survive. The Yukon delta is hundreds of miles from the state highway and railroad systems. Local villages can accommodate only small planes on their air strips, pushing up shipping costs.

Annual returns of the two main salmon species in the summer fishery - king and chum - have rollercoastered in recent years.

In the late 1990s, western Alaska's salmon stocks plummeted for reasons that remain unclear. The state declared the area a disaster in 2000. It cut short the commercial season, but allowed fishing for local consumption to continue.

Fish buyers quit the region, village stores cut off credit and some mushers were reportedly killing their sled dogs rather than watch them starve, prompting a flood of pet food donations to the region.

Commercial fishing resumed in 2002 with a rebound in the runs, but the fish have never quite recovered. The state may set strict limits on commercial fishing again this summer to make sure enough salmon reach their spawning grounds, according to Yukon area manager Steve Hayes of the Department of Fish and Game.

A commercial salmon fisherman on the Yukon delta generally pockets up to several thousand dollars each season, a significant sum to the largely Alaska Native workforce. The area's average annual income was $16,012 in 2005, while the state average was $35,564, according to Dan Robinson, a state economist.

The seasonal salary helps roughly 1,500 residents sustain the modernized hunter-gatherer lifestyle that is common throughout rural Alaska. Snowmobiles, off-road vehicles and motor boats are must-haves in the seasonal pursuit of moose, seal, whale, berries and fish. Fuel - currently $6 a gallon - saps much of the cash.

"I'd say subsistence foods, they are the majority of our diet," said Okitkun, one of 600 people in the village of Kotlik. "A lot of it is salmon. My parents and other elders in town, they have dried salmon every day."

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