Alaska is synonymous with wild salmon. The rivers here used to be so crowded with the fish that it was said the backs of those at the top were burnt by the sun, while the bellies of those below were scoured by gravel. Salmon steaks and salmon burgers are on the menu of every diner in the state, while dried and smoked varieties are available in airport gift shops.
When people think of the state, they often picture grizzlies haunch-deep in a river’s turbulence, catching leaping salmon like furry goalkeepers. And on Independence Day weekend, whole families jump in the car to go fishing, filling their freezers when they return home.
Few of nature’s great migrations still take place in North America. Flocks of passenger pigeons once darkened the sky for days; the last died in 1900, hunted to extinction. European settlers also shot 60 million buffalo as they moved west across the plains, decimating along with them the Natives’ way of life.
Salmon, too, have all but vanished across most of their range: through Europe, through Russia, up the East and West coasts of North America. In many ways, Alaska is synonymous with wild salmon because it is all that’s left. And yet Alaska’s salmon are now threatened too.
Over the course of two summers, I have canoed the length of the Yukon river, 2,000 miles, the longest salmon run in the world. I hoped to better understand why salmon numbers have collapsed in recent years, and how the lives are changing for those who still depend upon them, which I explore in my book Kings of the Yukon.
I paddled at the same time as the salmon run, from McNeil Lake high in Canada’s Pelly Mountains across to the Bering Sea, where the Yukon reaches seven miles wide from bank to bank. The king salmon leave the Pacific Ocean in which they have spent their adult lives, and, shouldering their way against this mighty river’s current for several months, navigating by their sense of smell, they return to the pools where they were born, to spawn and then to die.
This annual surge from the ocean to the mountains has for millennia provided a reliable source of protein for the indigenous people who live along the rivers’ banks. Every summer, they would make fish camp, coming down to the Yukon from the hills and lakes where they would have spent the spring. Cultures and economies formed around the abundance of salmon.
The Tlingit, the Athabascan and the Yupik are no longer nomadic. But the ritual of the fish camp – passing a month or two with family on the Yukon’s banks, sharing stories, teaching the children, catching and cleaning salmon and drying them for the winter – remains as important as it ever did. It is a time for the enriching of traditions and the spirit, as much as the stocking of larders.
Now, however, the salmon are vanishing. And it is not only the number of fish in decline, but also their size. I was shown old photographs of kings the same length as the people who caught them, 36kg monsters that were common. Now a good-sized fish is 9kg, and smaller fish lay fewer eggs. Whilst roughly five salmon used to return for every spawning adult, these days it is not far off one to one. Before 1997, the historic average for the king salmon run on the Yukon river was 300,000 fish; in 2013, just 37,000 came back.
All this is playing out against the background of a rapidly changing climate, with the Arctic warming twice as fast as the global average. The river’s winter ice is unreliable. As traditional sources of food disappear, people here are forced into buying from the stores – where the food has often been flown thousands of miles and has a price tag to match. Their villages are often many hundreds of miles from the nearest road.
As local diets change, instances of once unknown illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes are also escalating. Forced into a cash economy, but with few jobs available, there is a widening gap between rich and poor, a growing dependence on food stamps and government handouts. Aimless and rootless, many people are turning to drink. Alcoholism and its associated symptoms – crime, domestic violence, suicide – are taking a heavy toll. As the culture erodes, so does the language, and a sense of pride in the unique way of life of some of the planet’s last remaining hunter-gatherers.
No one I met wished to preserve their culture unchanged, a museum to their past. They are as much 21st-century Americans as they are the inheritors of knowledge that is thousands of years old. But people do want the right to choose, to determine how they move forward as communities, rather than having decisions forced upon them.
The salmon, the people and the place are intimately connected. More than 50 mammals take sustenance from the king; the very trees contain minerals brought from the oceans by the salmon, minerals that have leached into the soil as their carcasses decay.
As I travelled the river, I fished with people and cooked with them. I helped three generations of one family tend the fire in their smokehouse. And I listened as people told me how they felt caught in a trap: whether to stop fishing in an attempt to preserve the king, or to keep fishing to keep hold of the culture. The decisions made about the fish in the coming years will determine the fate of one of the last great salmon runs in the world. And in a place where the salmon is the lifeblood of the land, it will determine much more than that.
This article was originally published in the i newspaper and on inews.co.uk
Adam Weymouth’s work has been published by a wide variety of outlets including the Guardian, the Atlantic and the New Internationalist. His interest in the relationship between humans and the world around them has led him to write on issues of climate change and environmentalism, and most recently, to the Yukon river and the stories of the communities living on its banks.