When Yukon River chum stocks collapsed, donated fish came in from Bristol Bay

A red building with a man carrying a fix box out.
Daren Jennings loads up his skiff to deliver Bristol Bay salmon to Lower Yukon River communities. (Olivia Ebertz/KYUK)

For eight years, Tanya Ives has been traveling up from Washington each summer to work at the Yukon River’s only fish processing plant: Kwik’Pak Fisheries.

The plant sits outside of Emmonak, at the river’s mouth. Normally at this time of year, Ives would be packing up chum salmon harvested by commercial fishermen along the Yukon River to sell around the world.

But this summer, she’s doing just the opposite: Packing up salmon, caught hundreds of miles away, to send to Yukon River villages.

The Yukon River has seen its worst summer chum salmon run on record, and its third-worst chinook run. The commercial fishery is closed, and Kwik’Pak can’t sell salmon. Subsistence fishing for chum and chinook is also closed, and many people along the river have not had a taste of the fish this season.

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Photos of fish on a blue wall.
Normally at this time of year, Ives would be packing up chum salmon to sell around the world. (Olivia Ebertz/KYUK)

Meanwhile, on the southern end of the peninsula, Bristol Bay has been enjoying its best salmon run on record. To share the bounty, processors there donated 22,000 pounds of chinook and chum salmon to Yukon River villages.

The Bristol Bay then processors sent some of that salmon to Kwik’Pak to distribute to lower river communities.

RELATED: Why is Bristol Bay’s sockeye run breaking records while other areas struggle?

Inside the Kwik’Pak plant, workers divided about 12,000 pounds of salmon into boxes. Ives gave instructions for how to label them.

“You’re going to write the number of fish and the pounds on this label, and then you’re going to put this donation label on the right top corner,” Ives said, wearing a red sweatshirt and gloves to keep warm while working with the frozen fish

The fish are whole and frozen, so villagers can use them how they wish. Kwik’Pak is splitting the fish between 10 Lower Yukon River villages: Emmonak, Alakanuk, Nunam Iqua, Kotlik, Pilot Station, St. Mary’s, Marshall, Russian Mission and Pitkas Point.

A calculator and yellow legal pad.
Kwik’Pak is splitting the fish between 10 Lower Yukon River villages: Emmonak, Alakanuk, Nunam Iqua, Kotlik, Pilot Station, St. Mary’s, Marshall, Russian Mission, and Pitkas Point. (Olivia Ebertz/KYUK)

Regional tribal nonprofits determined how many fish would go to each village based on their number of residents. Tanana Chiefs Conference directed distributions upriver, and the Association of Village Council Presidents directed distributions along the lower river.

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Then, Kwik’Pak boated the salmon from community to community.

Weighed down by thousands of pounds of frozen fish, a tender boat slowly motored up the cold, rainy Yukon. At the helm stood captain Daren Jennings, bundled up in a “Rick and Morty” sweatshirt with thick layers of raingear on top. As the skiff wound further upriver, willows more densely crowded the banks. Then spruce forests appeared.

According to local elders, the area used to be pure tundra. The flora is changing, and sandbars claim more territory each year. They’re getting harder to avoid, even for someone who knows the river as well as Jennings.

Delivering salmon to the villages is new to him. In previous years he’d be doing the opposite: picking up commercial fishermen’s fresh catches and taking them back to Kwik’Pak to be processed. With the commercial fishery closed, he’s one of the few dozen employees that Kwik’pak has been able to hire back this year.

“Usually we’d be running way more and had way more people here, but since there’s no fishing you can only have so many workers that are doing so many things,” Jennings said.

A man lifts up boxes that say: "This Side Up"
A Kwik’pak worker unloads salmon in St. Mary’s. (Olivia Ebertz/KYUK)

The boat made a gentle left turn onto the Andreafsky River. The river, fed by the Kusilvak Mountains, runs cold and black, a stark contrast to the muddy lower Yukon. The tender docks in St. Mary’s. Workers from the Algaaciq and Andreafsky tribes meet the tender at the bank.

“I’m droppin’ off big boxes of fish,” Jennings said, while calling the tribes to announce his arrival.

The tribal workers met him at the shore. They loaded the fish into their pickups and drove them to households, until late evening.

Two men in jackets lift a box that says "This side up"
The tribal workers from the Algaaciq and Andreafsky tribes load the fish into their pickups, and then drive them to households until late evening. (Olivia Ebertz/KYUK)

Bay Johnson from St. Mary said she’s grateful to have at least a bit of fish.

“We got two, and we were so happy for them,” she said. “Right now, I have them thawing out so I can can them. They can last longer throughout the winter for us.”

But, she said, the fish isn’t enough food for her family for the months ahead. With little opportunity for subsistence salmon fishing, her grocery bill has gone up. Her husband, Walky, said they’ll have to try for other species of fish to get them through the winter.

A spokesperson for Gov. Dunleavy’s office also said that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has purchased an additional 25,000 pounds of fish. Half of that arrived in Emmonak last week for distribution to Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta communities.

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