Emmonak folks can’t even catch a chum for dinner

For more than 10,000 years, Yupik people on the Lower Yukon River have lived a subsistence lifestyle so culturally dependent on wild salmon that they are known as the “fish people.”

In the early summer of 2021, they are facing a situation unknown in their lifetimes: no fish.

The dearth of oil-rich keta and king salmon rushing from the mouth of the Yukon, heading upriver, is so severe that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has cancelled even subsistence fishing.

“Usuallly a family will put up 45 to 100 king salmon for winter, smoked and dried,” said Jack Schultheis, general manager of Knik’Pak Fisheries, in Emmonak, a subsidiary of the Yukon Delta Fisheries Development Association, or YDFDA. “These people just want fish to eat. This is part of their life here. This has not happened in their lifetime. We can’t even catch a chum for dinner. Nobody is going to starve, but this is how they have lived here for a couple of thousand years.”

Concern over the complete lack of wild salmon for Yukon River subsistence communities has several entities, including the processor sector, already working on getting fish to residents.

The Rasmussen Foundation, in Anchorage, announced on Wednesday, July 14, approval of $9 million for 23 projects, including $350,000 to YDFDA to expand its youth employment program through a small farm being developed in Emmonak. The funds are seed money for the farm, which will grow tomatoes, lettuce, carrots, cabbages, beans, cucumbers, squash, pumpkins, potatoes and fruit trees.

Greenhouses that arrived on barges in July are already set up and functional, thanks to efforts of 27 high school students, Schultheis said. Overall, the high tunnel greenhouses will have 3,000 square feet of space, he said.

In good fishing years, more than 400 adults and 200 youth may be employed through the Kwik’Pak Fisheries facilities in Emmonak, but in low fish years, like 2020, fewer than 20 youth were employed at that plant, the Rasmussen Foundation noted.

The farm is expected to create jobs for up to 75 youth and also increase local access to fresh produce for Emmonak.