Story last updated at 2/11/2009 - 12:00 pm
Seattle salmon lovers are the latest to go to bat for the Yukon communities where they source their favorite fish.
A failed king salmon season last summer left Yup'ik fishing families in 21 coastal villages flat broke. Yukon River salmon fishermen netted paychecks of only about $2,300 last summer; now many are forced to choose between buying food and fuel. To make matters worse, an early freeze prevented supply ships from making annual deliveries.
News of their plight, and the Katrina-like response from state leaders, has moved people from across the nation to donate food and fuel to help the far away First Alaskans.
"One Nunam Iqua resident told me, 'It has never been this bad.' Quite a statement from a people who have lived in the same place for 10,000 years," said Jon Rowley, who works with Emmonak-based Kwik'Pak Fisheries to market Yukon kings and chums to select buyers.
Among them is Elliot's Oyster House in Seattle, where 25% of all Yukon keta dinners is being donated to a fuel fund during the month of February. The Flying Fish restaurant also raised $1,600 for a fuel fund that is being sent to the village of Nunam Iquaa (population 200). Rowley said he also is getting calls from restaurants in D.C. and Las Vegas wanting to help.
"People are very surprised and aggrieved to learn that there are people in Alaska in this kind of situation," Rowley said.
Chicago-based Plitt Company, a major buyer of Alaska seafood and a big fan of Yukon salmon, donated the $500 pot from its annual Super Bowl squares to Western Alaska fishing families. Plitt also is rallying others to help out, said Mary Smith, director of marketing.
"The salmon we sell from the Yukon is one of the most expensive products we bring in, and it seemed to us that the high income people who enjoy this product would support giving something back,"she said.
Yukon fishermen are bracing for another heart breaker this year. Fish managers predict the low king salmon runs could reduce or cancel commercial openers; even subsistence fishing might be curtailed. However, some salvation could come from the Yukon's more abundant chum salmon, which Rowley calls "a real discovery."
Rowley, who is credited with launching Copper River salmon into the limelight years ago, now says he's hooked on building market momentum for "Yukon Keta."
"It's a different fish altogether- probably different enough that it should be a sub-species. It's deep orange - even when the chums are a few hundred miles up the river, they are still bright and shiny. It's a beautiful fish," Rowley said. "Plus, the kings and fall chums from the Yukon have more omega 3's than any other fish in the ocean - and not just a little more, about twice as much."
Meanwhile, volunteers are distributing food and other goods to the Yukon communities. The people will get some relief this month with 100 gallon fuel vouchers - from Venezuela. Donations can be sent to the Nunam Iqua-Traditional Council, Nunam Iqua, AK 99666, or contact firstname.lastname@example.org/.
Alaska Seafood Repackaged
Alaska needs to 'repackage' its fishing industry to make more of an impact on national policy makers. That's a first impression by Senator Mark Begich after his first few weeks in Congress.
"Maybe it's just my perspective from being a new guy here, but we talk about 'Alaska fisheries' and I think people view it as just that," Begich said in a phone conversation. "We have to repackage what we're talking about. Alaska's fisheries impact the global food chain - it's a huge industry for our country, not just for Alaska. So we have to explain it that way, so we get a longer term view of how fishing is an economic driver, and has national and international impacts."
Sen. Begich said he is no fan of the idea that regional fisheries management is better served in far away Washington, D.C. He said Alaska's "reliance on science" is a model for other regions - and consistent with President Obama's message that science will drive policy.
"To me that plays very well for Alaska, because that is what makes our fisheries so strong. It shows when we focus on the science rather than the politics, we end up with better long term, sustainable fisheries. The science is what's going to drive this, and the local input is going to be the player here," he said.
Senator Begich believes that climate changes pose the biggest long term threat to fisheries in Alaska and the nation.
"We need to understand what we can do now for long term sustainability," he said.
Begich added that he will work closely with Sen. Lisa Murkowski to advance the 1982 Law of the Sea Treaty, which governs activities on, over and beneath the Arctic Ocean. The U.S. remains the only Arctic nation that has not signed on to the treaty.
Sea lice from salmon farms has spawned a lawsuit by First Nations tribes in Vancouver. The tribes and environmental groups for years have complained that fish wastes and high numbers of sea lice from open net fish farms are decimating wild salmon stocks in traditional territories. British Columbia has authorized 29 fish farm sites at Broughton Archipelago, a cluster of islands in northern Vancouver. The legal action will be the first class-action lawsuit in Canada aimed to protect aboriginal treaty rights.
Laine Welch has been covering news of Alaska's seafood industry since 1988. Her weekly Fish Factor column appears in a dozen newspapers and web outlets. Her daily Fish Radio programs air on 27 stations around Alaska. Welch lives in Kodiak.