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As Waters Warm, Alaska Experiences Salmon Booms and Busts

This story originally appeared in High Country News and is portion of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Every June, Serena Fitka goes home to her Yupik community of St. Marys, Alaska, close to the confluence of the Yukon and Andreafsky rivers in the southwest portion of the state. Usually, she helps her family catch salmon and preserve it in the smokehouse for the leaner winter season. But this season, that didnt happen: This season, there have been no salmon to catch.

I possibly could have the loss, she said. I didnt know very well what to fill my days with, and I possibly could sense it had been like that for everybody across the Yukon River.

You can find five forms of salmon in Alaska: Chinook, sockeye, chum, coho, and pink. Chum may be the most harvested fish on the Yukon, but both chum and chinook are necessary to the lives and culture of the roughly 50 communities around Alaska who depend on the river and its own tributaries for subsistence.

Round the state, chinook counts have already been declining for ten years, but this years run may be the lowest ever recorded. Chum counts took a nosedive in 2021, which years count may be the second-lowest on record; consequently, state and federal fishery managers have closed chum fishing on the Yukon. This can affect a lot more than 2,500 households in your community that depend on chum to feed their own families. That annual harvest is fully gone, said Holly Carroll, a Yukon River subsistence fishery manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Scientists havent determined why chum and chinook runs have already been so poor in elements of western Alaska, but many theorize that warming ocean conditions are impacting the salmon in early stages within their life cyclesand some local subsistence fishers think that commercial fishing operations in other areas of hawaii could possibly be contributing aswell.

Warmer waters have caused a downturn in chinook and chum numbers over the Pacific, and the ones changes are hurting salmon in the Yukon aswell. In a single study of chum, researchers discovered that the fish were eating things outside their usual diet, like jellyfish, and, due to that, likely didnt have sufficient energy stored within their bodies to survive the wintertime. Thats connected with these marine heat waves that weve observed in the Bering Sea along with the Gulf of Alaska, said Katie Howard, a fisheries scientist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Salmon Ocean Ecology Program. During marine heat waves, chum eat prey that’s better to catch, but often less calorically dense. Drought in the spawning grounds of Interior Alaska and Canada may possibly also donate to lower amounts of chinook, because it results in lower water levels and makes the water warmer.

Meanwhile, nearly 400 miles south in Bristol Bay, a warming climate may be helping salmon runs instead, said Jordan Head, circumstances biologist employed in the spot. Bristol Bay fishers have harvested over 57 million sockeye this season, breaking the all-time record of 44 million fish occur 1995. The spot has seen over 74 million sockeye return up to now this year, the biggest number in the fisherys history. With the warmer temperatures, the lakes are frozen for less time, and the juvenile sockeye might have been in a position to grow larger and become more competitive because they enter the ocean, thereby increasing their probability of survival. But because the Bering Sea continues to warm, it too could start to see the same salmon declines because the Yukon.

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