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Scientists scramble to explain why western Alaska wild salmon stocks are low

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

There are too few salmon right now in Alaska's Yukon River. That's making it hard for Indigenous residents to feed their families. And it's all made worse by skyrocketing prices at the grocery store. From member station KYUK, Olivia Ebertz reports.

OLIVIA EBERTZ, BYLINE: Maggie Westlock is in a grocery store in Emmonak, a small village near the mouth of the Yukon River in western Alaska. She's picking up a few things for dinner.

MAGGIE WESTLOCK: Grapes. Coleslaw. Sandwich.

EBERTZ: These are not the foods she and her family of eight prefer to eat. Normally, she'd be filling her freezer with wild salmon, the same staple food her Yup'ik ancestors ate for thousands of years. Now, because of a sudden and severe salmon crash, her family is forced to rely on store-bought food. Westlock picks up a small pack of ribs.

WESTLOCK: Thirty-seven dollars and 10 cents.

EBERTZ: In the diaper aisle, things are even more dire.

WESTLOCK: And look at these Pampers - Huggies, 84.99, one box. Expensive, I tell you.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEVICE BEEPING)

EBERTZ: She doesn't end up buying the diapers or the ribs. Still, the final damage is more than $80 for just five items. Westlock is spending a lot more on food than back when she was fishing. The salmon crash has touched every indigenous village from the Yukon River's mouth on the Bering Sea to its headwaters in British Columbia nearly 2,000 river miles away.

SOPHIE BEANS: Smokehouse.

EBERTZ: A hundred miles upriver in the village of St. Mary's, elder Sophie Beans is peering into her smokehouse with her daughter, Deedee (ph). It's empty now, but her whole street used to be filled with the sweet aroma of smoking fish.

What would it normally be like a lot - like, in this neighborhood when people were fishing?

DEEDEE: Orange and smoky.

BEANS: Yeah. Orange, full of kings and fish.

EBERTZ: And now what does it look like?

BEANS: Nothing.

EBERTZ: The Yukon's two most important salmon species are crashing. The most prized species is the big and fatty king salmon. Those have been running in low numbers for years. The other main species, chum salmon, was super abundant until just last year.

BEANS: My son, Matty (ph), one time, he caught 700 chums.

EBERTZ: Wow.

DEEDEE: And that's not even the kings before that.

BEANS: Yeah.

EBERTZ: Wow.

Scientists have been scrambling to figure out why western Alaska wild salmon stocks are crashing.

KATIE HOWARD: That has been tied to a changing climate.

EBERTZ: That's Katie Howard, a fish biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. She says marine heatwaves have intensified in recent years. That's what's likely driving the chum crash.

HOWARD: They were just bigger. They were geographically larger. And they lasted over a much, much longer period of time than is typical. It's more extreme when it happens. And the other expectation is that they may occur more often.

NICOLE THOMPSON: We cut it here, then cut at the head.

EBERTZ: Back in the village of St. Mary's, 11-year-old Nicole Thompson (ph) is practicing cutting fish with her mom for the first time in years. Most tribal members in the village have just received a couple of donated salmon from the state. For most, it's the only taste they'll get all year. Nicole is struggling to remember exactly how to cut the fish. Her dad, Troy, says when he was his daughter's age, he already knew how because fish were so abundant and he got more practice.

TROY THOMPSON: Pretty sad, though. We have to wait for fish one or two at a time. If we had a lot more I'm pretty sure she'd have it down a little quicker.

EBERTZ: The salmon crash is about more than food. It's making it harder for parents to pass on Yup’ik culture to their kids.

For NPR News, I'm Olivia Ebertz in St. Marys, Alaska.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Olivia Ebertz