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Three weeks ago I visited the Yupik Eskimo village of Emmonak, in Alaska, to learn about the region’s legendary king salmon—a delicious wild variety that has lately gained a following among chefs and culinarians, including writer Molly O’Neill, who reports on the king salmon and the traditional fishery practices of the Yupik for the July 2008 issue of Saveur. I’d planned my trip to make it coincide with the start of the annual fishing season, eager for my own taste of the fish that O’Neill describes as the “sum of all salmon”. Instead, to my surprise, I arrived just in time to watch the town’s economy die.

In late May the fishermen of Emmonak began to wait for the fish to arrive. In 2007 the two-week season opened on June 15, but this year June 15 came and went, and only a few kings had been spotted—not nearly enough for opening the commercial season, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. A sonar project in Pilot Station, upriver from Emmonak, counts the number of kings returning upstream to spawn in Canada, and only after enough have passed is the commercial season opened.

Every day for two weeks the fishermen turned up at Kwik’Pak, the town’s cooperative fishery. “Are we fishing today?” they asked Jack Schultheis, Kwik’Pak’s general manager. Not today, they were told; maybe tomorrow. Then tomorrow came and went. Then the next day. Maybe the kings are late this year, everyone said. Finally, on June 22, Fish and Game dropped the bomb: so few kings had returned that no commercial fishing for kings would be allowed this year. An unprecedented late surge of kings at the end of June brought the numbers up to a point where the fishermen’s worst fears were put to rest. In the eyes of Fish and Game, however, it was too little, too late, to open commercial king fishing in Emmonak. As of this writing, the season remains closed.

What does that mean? While it is certainly bad news for gourmets everywhere, it is even worse for the Yupik. It means that in this remote area hundreds of miles from the highway system, where fishing is the only industry, virtually the entire town has just been laid off.
Whatever precipitated this year’s aberrant king run, it was not likely a result of anything that occurred on the river. As O’Neill points out in her article, the Kwik’Pak cooperative is painstakingly operated to preserve both the health of the salmon and the fishing economy. “The Yukon is rated the best-managed fishery in Alaska because of all the management tools and techniques we’re using to restore this fishery and make it sustainable,” Schultheis told me. “It’s frustrating because you’ve got all these people working so hard to keep this thing stable and nourish it, and people have made tremendous sacrifices. Everyone’s doing what we’re supposed to do, okay? And we’re not getting our fish back.”

So, what did happen to the salmon? Theories abound. Some believe that the problem lies in bycatch on the Bering Sea. Adult Yukon kings typically spend about five years in the sea before they return to the river to spawn, and the Bering is also home to a pollock fishery that is the single largest fishery in the world. Each year a hundred million tons of pollock are raked from the Bering Sea for fish sticks and fake crab, and along with that pollock come ever increasing numbers of king salmon—122,000 in 2007, or three times the Yukon’s entire legal harvest in recent years. The fish are dead before the nets are pulled.
Global warming may be another factor. The famously frigid Bering Sea ecosystem is changing as warmer Pacific currents sneak in, reducing the winter ice pack and altering the composition of species that call it home. Scientists and fisherman speculate that these changes could be affecting the kings’ food supply.

Still, neither bycatching nor global warming is a new concern, so why the sudden nosedive? No one knows, but such trouble is not without precedent. In 1998 the king run mysteriously collapsed, only to return just as mysteriously in 2002. The difference is that back then the town was flush from decades of good salmon harvests. This time Emmonak won’t survive long without income.

Although they maintain a traditional lifestyle in many ways, fishing and hunting for most of their food, the Yupik are as addicted to oil as the rest of us. In place of kayaks and dogsleds, they use outboard motors in the summer and snowmobiles in the winter. They heat their small plywood homes with fuel oil. Their electricity comes from diesel generators. To afford the machines, motors, and gas, the Yupik sell salmon. In the past, when the salmon were running strong, a fisherman could make $20,000 or more selling his catch. The town prospered. The young Yupik stayed in Emmonak to start families, rather than left for Anchorage or the oil fields, as has happened in many other native communities. But last year the average fisherman in Emmonak made just $5,000 from salmon. This year he’ll make only pocket change, and it will be from chum salmon, a smaller, less desirable species than the king whose season also started late.

Moreover, because fuel must travel a thousand miles by barge to reach the Yukon Delta, the economic squeeze that the rest of the country is feeling has something like a vise grip in Emmonak. Gas cost $4 a gallon in the village a year ago and $5.91 last winter. Right now the Emmonak Tank Farm is still selling last year’s fuel at last year’s prices, but once it begins selling the gas that arrived on this summer’s fuel barge, the price is expected to jump to $7.70 a gallon. Fuel oil runs even higher. Electricity costs 48 cents per kilowatt hour. The 20-mile trip from Emmonak to the coast for picking salmonberries—sweet and tart delights that look like orange raspberries and have been a traditional Yupik holiday food for thousands of years—now costs $330 in outboard gasoline and is therefore out of the question. Last winter some families in Emmonak shuttered their houses and moved in with friends, and more would have had to do so had Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chavez, not sent each household in Alaska’s native communities a voucher for 100 gallons of heating oil, courtesy of Citgo. Indeed, even during the flush years, life in Emmonak is hand-to-mouth. When the Alaska Department of Fish and Game returns to town after checking its test nets, a line of families is always waiting to receive a handful of fish. Because of the loss of this season’s salmon income, it is surely all about to get much, much worse.

My last evening in Emmonak there was a funeral, followed by a night of traditional dancing, which I was allowed to attend. On the way to the dance, I learned from a Fish and Game area management biologist for the Yukon that the run of king salmon was so poor that he was even going to be forced to shorten the time frame when the Yupik would be allowed to subsistence-fish for it—a first. He was waiting until the day after the funeral to make the announcement.

I couldn’t get his words out of my mind as I watched the beautiful dancing that night. Dressed in handmade outfits, rows of Yupik women moved in unison, tracing sweeping hand gestures that had been passed down through the millennia. They moved slowly, bending like sea fans in a current, and the dancing went well past midnight under the arctic sun, as if they had all the time in the world.

Rowan Jacobsen is the author of A Geography of Oysters_, a 2008 James Beard Award winner, and the forthcoming_ Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis.

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