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‘The economy of the Lower Yukon is gone’

Second of three parts. This story was made possible in part with a grant from the Pulitzer Center’s Connected Coastlines initiative. Read part 1 here.

EMMONAK — For as long as anyone in the Yukon Delta can recall, fish came from the water.

Chum and chinook salmon were wrested from the river, from side sloughs and well-plied eddies. Once netted, headed, gutted, even broken down into rich red fillets, the fish flew off in planes, bound for plates and freezers far away.

This year, the Yukon salmon run collapsed — from the Bering Sea to Interior Alaska to Canada. As a result, the usual cycle is happening in reverse: The fish are arriving to the river from the sky.

They come in cargo planes, frozen in bulky blocks weighing close to a ton. Workers portion them out precisely, measuring the stiff salmon into boxes, then boating them to other communities in the region.

The reversal is stunning: an industrial food system transposed on what has historically been one of the most abundant and consistent funnels for wild protein in the world.

If the salmon disappear, so does one of the few ways for people to earn enough money to live well in an expansive, cash-strapped part of Alaska.

“The economy of the lower Yukon is gone,” said Jack Schultheis, general manager for Kwik’Pak, the only commercial fish company in the Yukon Delta.

“I’m not optimistic at all. There’s a real risk of losing these runs altogether,” he said.

The fish that arrived in July and August came from processors in other parts of Alaska that have been luckier with salmon returns, with transportation companies assisting with the distribution. The airlift, coordinated by the Department of Fish and Game and the governor’s office, has delivered some 90,000 pounds of salmon, according to the state. While the generosity is appreciated, it is not a substitute for a century-old commercial fishing industry.

The first fish donation came in July from Bristol Bay. In mid-August, $75,000 of state funds bought 12,500 pounds of chum salmon from Copper River Seafoods, which arrived in Emmonak inside the cavernous belly of a four-prop DC-6 cargo plane. Each cardboard cube was bulging at the seams from 1,500 pounds of frozen salmon packed inside. A forklift lumbered back and forth, unloading the salmon no differently than it did all the other palletized goods delivered that day: ice cream bars, Eggo waffles, Huggies diapers, bags of U.S. mail, stacks of ramen noodles and mystery boxes emblazoned with the smiling Amazon logo.

[Part 1: ‘We’ve never seen this before’: Salmon collapse sends Alaskans on Lower Yukon scrambling for scarce alternatives]

Once loaded into a freezer container, the chum from faraway Prince William Sound was trucked to town for its next leg of the journey.

‘Three fish all summer’

“Sister, have you seen the garlic salt?” called Bernadette Pete to her fellow cook in the Kwik’Pak cafeteria as she assembled potato salad.

Pete, 51, has been cooking at the Kwik’Pak campus during commercial salmon season since 2005. About the only time she leaves town during fishing season is to go out berry picking with her husband on days off.

In a regular August, when the fishery is humming, she makes lunch for 200 to 300 people a day.

But this year, only a fraction of the people were on hand, with no more than a few dozen cycling through for meals.

“If you walk around campus, it’s like a ghost town,” Pete said, cracking off celery stalks.

“We used to serve salmon for lunch and dinner every night,” she said. This year’s menu has been different — lots of dishes built around store-bought meats, what you’d see in a college cafeteria or military mess hall.

The Kwik’Pak campus is a compound built for utility: industrial processing facilities, squat offices and dorms fashioned from shipping containers, surrounded by stacks of plastic fish totes and puddle-studded roads of pulverized gray mud. A crane was driving piles for a new dock jutting from shore into the waters of the Kwigak, a short bypass off the Yukon’s main stem.

In a normal August, there would be “fish everywhere. Blood on the street,” said Sam Nothstine, an expediter for Kwik’Pak. “Three hours of sleep a night.”

“That’s when I’m happy,” he said. “Overtime.”

This year the expansive campus has just a skeleton crew.

“We’re not making money,” Nothstine said.

Once the truckload of donated fish was parked, Nothstine jacked the temperature down to minus-10 degrees to get it frozen for boxing and delivery the next day.

In a cramped office, Schultheis hunched at his desk, a chunk of half-eaten dry fish the size of a saucer sitting beside his keyboard.

“I’ve seen three fish all summer,” he said. They came from a test net run by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

In 2019, the last year with a solid commercial opening, Kwik’Pak purchased 3.5 million pounds of salmon from fishermen, according to an annual report from the Yukon Delta Fisheries Development Association, the company’s parent organization. Last year, too few chum returned for a commercial opening. That is rare, but not without precedent. This year, though, nobody has been allowed to put out nets for chum or chinook salmon, even for subsistence.

“I been here 47 f–king years, I’ve never seen this,” Schultheis said.

“The salmon runs are a total, total failure — to the point where people cannot even catch a fish to eat,” he said.

Schultheis, 70, is a fish man. Buying them, selling them, coordinating armadas of hardware, manpower and logistics. He has done it all. And he has done it all around the state, from the tip of the Southeast panhandle to Prince William Sound, the Aleutian chain and Kotzebue Sound.

“To say, ‘You can’t even fish for food’? People get depressed,” he said. Grandmothers he’s known for years have called him pleading for openings. People are not so much angry as they are in shock, according to Schultheis. They have never before approached the long winter without a chance at subsistence.

“I’m just sad about it. Sentimental about it,” Schultheis added, hands fidgeting restlessly in his pockets.

Schultheis is gruff and direct, though not harsh. He’s generous and gregarious with stories, even when they’re personal, like explaining his stub of an index finger (table-saw accident 20 years ago). Beneath a ball cap his hair is unruly and silver, half hippy, half hillbilly. On the wall is a Steelers hat, the only visible nod to his upbringing as one of 10 kids in Pittsburgh. He drove to Alaska in 1971 with the woman to whom he’s still married. There’s grandchild art on the wall. And a sealing harpoon. A plastic bin full of miniature chocolates for visitors and his staff. Also a fat sack of animal hides. A lot is going on in the small office.

“A household here needs about a thousand pounds of fish,” Schultheis said. “That’s why people settled here.”

By his own account, Schultheis is a capitalist. But he’s not a mercenary. He has deep relationships after decades of work in the region. Years ago, fed up with the paucity of records about the lower Yukon region inside Alaska’s handful of archives, Schultheis traveled out of state to track down what historical records might exist. He spent 10 days at Gonzaga University in Washington state, which houses records from the Jesuit parish established in the region by a priest and four nuns, and ultimately became a mission to care for and educate children orphaned by influenza in the early 20th century. For almost the same amount of time, there have been commercial fish companies and canneries operating in the area.

He helped grow Kwik’Pak into a commercial fishing operation with the dual role of a seasonal jobs program for Yukoners to capitalize on the bounty swimming by each summer. Unlike big commercial fisheries in Bristol Bay or the Aleutians that import workers from outside Alaska, 80% of the fishing crews and employees at the plant are from the six communities in the Lower Yukon region. Hundreds of locals earn wages or are paid for their catch, in a part of the state where permanent jobs number in the dozens. And the plant has other small venture projects that meet existing needs: milling driftwood to produce lumber, buying hides from local trappers and erecting three massive high-tunnel greenhouses for a youth agriculture program. In all, Kwik’Pak and two other small subsidiaries under YDFDA channeled $8.7 million in earnings back into the lower Yukon Delta.

The model isn’t free from controversy. Kwik’Pak and its sister companies can stay afloat because its parent organization makes most of its money through investments in pollock trawling out in the Bering Sea, netting 44 million pounds of its federal fishing allotment in 2019 under the Community Development Quota program. Pollock trawlers end up incidentally netting salmon that would otherwise arrive at spawning rivers, and are frequently blamed for low salmon returns, although the scientific link is tenuous.

Compared to the money brought in by industrial trawling operations, Kwik’Pak’s commercial operation is small fry, even though it is locally vital.

“We’re the largest private employer in this part of Western Alaska,” Schultheis said.

Ninety percent of that business is built on chum salmon. And as of mid-August, around 10% of the usual number of salmon had been counted, an estimate from a mix of methods, including sonar readings, test nets, and observations from residents.

“They ain’t coming,” he said. “Doesn’t bode well for the next year.”

People aren’t starving, Schultheis said, and he’s optimistic there is enough ingenuity and resourcefulness that families will be able to fill freezers by going out after different subsistence stocks, be it halibut, moose or an experimental cod fishery Kwik’Pak is helping try out.

The donated salmon helps, but by Schultheis’ calculations, spread out across all the communities, households, and families up and down the Yukon, it breaks down to a pound or two of fish per person.

“Maybe a meal,” he said.

‘There’s no cash, there’s no food’

The morning after the frozen salmon were flown in, seven people worked in a short assembly line re-boxing the fish. A youth stood hip-deep in the big cold cardboard cube and hucked un-headed chum chunks into a rinsing solution that rid each carcass of frost. Nine or 10 fish were then packed into a box until it weighed 40 pounds.

Across the road, Kwik’Pak’s company store sold fishing gear: gloves, rain gear, fillet knives, candy, nets. And, unusual along this part of the Yukon until recently, dipnets, the same kind you see in July lashed to Subaru roofs and truck beds on the Kenai Peninsula. A circular net with a 10-foot handle sells for $165.

In an effort to offer something resembling a subsistence opening, the state announced people could fish the Lower Yukon using selective gear like small-mesh nets, rods and dipnets, but could only keep pink, sockeye or coho salmon. The fish people most covet, kings and chum, have to be returned alive to the water for a chance to spawn.

“There’s no sense going out to dipnet,” said Ray Waska, seated at his kitchen table with a cup of black coffee.

Now almost 80, Waska started commercial fishing at age 16.

“We don’t get rich like we used to,” he said. “My dad would make a bundle of money.”

Each wall of Waska’s living room displayed signs of a rich life: family photos, the head of a moose, a booklet of glossy pictures documenting summers at the family fish camp several miles upriver. The whole family worked to put away nearly a thousand salmon to eat throughout the year.

“Our kids’ generation eat dry-fish like potato chips,” he chuckled.

Considering expenses such as fuel, time and labor against the meager meat of pink salmon snatched with a heavy dipnet, the math doesn’t pencil out for Waska. It has taken generations of knowledge and experience to be able to put up hundreds of chum and chinook in a few weeks of the summer. The offer of dipnetting as a management alternative is somewhere between an imposition and condescension. He compared it to telling sport anglers in Southcentral Alaska they have to get rid of their fancy fly rods and go jigging instead.

“That is wrong, I think,” Waska said.

There is no alternative economic model waiting in the wings should commercial fishing stop being viable in the Yukon Delta. And like fishing towns all across Alaska, a few bad years of returns can atrophy the pathways to get fish to market. How many years can buyers and suppliers afford to wait until they simply start purchasing fish from elsewhere?

And should that annual opportunity to earn cash go away, people have little recourse besides public assistance to meet their basic needs, from food to phone bills to gasoline. Most options for paying work involve leaving.

Coronavirus relief money has helped blunt some of the economic hardship. Tribes secured CARES Act and other federal funds, and that money has reached individuals and families up and down the Yukon. In May, the Native Village of Emmonak was awarded nearly $7 million in funding from the American Rescue Plan for its COVID-19 response. Under the 2020 CARES Act, a household with an enrolled tribal member could apply for up to $3,704 for water, electricity, food and heating fuel costs.

Now those relief payments are slowing down, and cash could start running out.

There is a “ripple effect for communities along the Yukon Delta,” said Martin B. Moore Sr., Emmonak’s city manager, sitting in the office where he’s worked for three decades.

Once relief funds stop, fewer families in Emmonak will be able to pay their utility bills, which make up a share of the city’s revenues.

“It’s a hardship. It kinda promotes more family violence. Escalates the alcohol use, drug use, because they are just sitting there doing nothing,” he said.

Moore, 84, has fished commercially for 60 years.

“There’s no cash. There’s no food,” he said. “Real food from the river.”

Delivering fish

Boxes of donated Copper River chums were stacked in an aluminum skiff piloted by Frank Johnson, 45, and Ray Joe, 40. Both work for Kwik’Pak, and were running the donations up to Alakanuk to hand off to the local tribe. The number of boxes was proportional to the community’s population of 747.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game bought the fish with money for “food security enhancement” that came from the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds, flexible federal relief dollars. Each box bore a bright yellow sticker slapped on the corner: “THIS FISH IS PROVIDED BY THE STATE OF ALASKA THRU GOVERNOR DUNLEAVY’S OFFICE WHO FACILITATED THE PURCHASE AND DELIVERY OF THIS PRODUCT TO THE LOWER YUKON VILLAGES. PLEASE CONTACT THE GOVERNOR’S OFFICE @ (907) 465-3500 FOR COMMENTS OR EXPRESSING GRATITUDE.”

Halfway into the 20-minute boat ride, Johnson and Joe craned their necks to stare at a party of three on a boat paused in the middle of the river, standing up, staring, studying the water.

“They probably might of saw a seal,” Joe speculated.

“Or one-a those whales I saw this morning,” Johnson offered.

He’d seen five beluga whales during his 25-mile river commute to Emmonak from his home in the village of Nunam Iqua earlier that day.

Johnson steered the boat toward a small, muddy launch marked by a rope floated by empty detergent jugs lined out to a buoy on Alakanuk’s south bank. The town straddles a broad slough, with houses spaced apart generously on both sides.

The two made quick work of unpacking and restacking the fish boxes. Three young men from the local tribe drove down to the launch in a four-wheeler hauling a hefty trailer. A Bluetooth speaker mounted on the back played a song by the rapper Gunna.

These boxes would go to families that hadn’t gotten donated fish from the first shipment of donated salmon, the young men explained. Brandon Chokwak said a few folks in town had put away some pinks, but not a whole lot else.

Johnson and Joe, too, didn’t net any fish this summer. The two got ready for the short ride back to Emmonak. It was Joe’s 40th birthday, and he’d be celebrating that night with crab legs bought at the local grocery store.

Coming next: Looking for answers.

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