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Shrinking Fishing Towns Wonder, Where Did All the Salmon Go?

National Geographic Young Explorers Charu Jaiswal, Jenny Miller, Sarah Robert embarked on a one-month expedition to Alaska to document food scarcity and the revival of hunting and gathering among young people. Follow the team’s updates from the field in Explorers Journal.

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On a sunny day in Nome, we strapped our gear onto our ATVs and rode along the Bering Sea.  Driving ATVs on the beach, manoeuvring between driftwood, riding over rocks and skimming through the cold water gives an adrenaline rush.

Our destination was Fort Davis, a local fish camp and home to fellow expedition member, Jenny’s great grandparents’ cabin. Fish camps are where families will go to harvest, process, and dry fish. Or at least they used to.

When we arrived, Fort Davis was essentially abandoned. Jenny’s family cabin had been beaten by a harsh storm that hit the north-west coast of Alaska several years ago, and its remaining skeleton had been bleached grey by the sun. Though the cabin was boarded up, we could peer through its dusty glass windows to see a moment frozen in time.

The clock on the wall read 1:50, there were cups on the dining table, and parkas on hooks beside the door. The storage adjacent to the cabin had been torn away during the storm.  It once housed Jenny’s great grandpa’s, Willie Senungetuk’s Umiaq (skin boat in Inupiaq), harpoon, and hunting tools.

But now all that was left beside the cabin was a mangled mix of flotsam and jetsam: fishing rods, orange buoys, blue tarp, oil cans, a clump of rusted nails and other tetanus-inducing items. Jenny gave us a tour of the remnants, pointing out childhood items like her older brother Jake’s bicycle, now rusted and stiff.

Fort_Davis_Cabin_Before_Storm

The Senungetuk’s cabin before several storms hit the Bering Sea coast during the winter of 2011/2012. Please watch the video clip to see what we saw during our adventure. Photo by Jenny I. Miller.

The family’s camp is in too much disarray to fix, and fixing it is not entirely worth it because the increase in coastal erosion over the years has lead to a significant decrease in land at the camp.

“One of these days the sea is going to take everything on my family’s land with it, therefore it is not worth the money to restore the cabin or build a new structure.  This land holds a lot of history, but sadly we cannot keep up with the damages caused by the winter storms and erosion.  Much of my family members have moved out of Nome to the larger towns and cities in Alaska due to the high cost of living in Nome and for educational purposes.  My immediate family has not had the opportunity to keep up with our cabin due to high prices in airfares, ” explained Jenny.

Some of the locals have also slowly abandoned the tradition of spending the summer at Fort Davis to process foods for the long winter months. In addition to the changing land dynamics of Fort Davis, poor salmon runs were deterring families from using their fish camps.

The Bourdon's cabin , located across the street from the Senungetuk's cabin at Fort Davis.  The Senungetuks and the Bourdons remain very close.  Photo by Jenny I. Miller.

The Bourdon’s cabin, located across the way from the Senungetuk’s cabin at Fort Davis. The Senungetuks and the Bourdons moved to Nome from the village of Wales, Alaska by skin boat. To this day the two families remain close. Photo by Jenny I. Miller.

Indeed, that is the real tragedy of Fort Davis—the collapse of king salmon returns. Many of the people we interviewed mentioned the decline of Chinook (i.e. king) salmon in Nome.

While families were once able to collect hundreds of fish a day ten years ago, now they were catching a fraction of that. We listened to Esther Bourdon, a respected Elder in Nome, describe the decline of fish in the area over her lifetime.

She reminisced about how her family’s fishing nets (across the way from the Senungetuk’s cabin) would be teeming with fish, and as far as the eye could see, the racks at Fort Davis and other fish camps would be full of drying fish.

But now, her family’s nets stay empty, and even some of the fish they do catch look strange, are smaller, and can be diseased. The fish collapse got so bad that in 2000 the State government donated 15,000 pounds of chum salmon to Nome, and families were able to receive seven salmon each.

Empty fish drying rack at Fort Davis.  Photo by Jenny I. Miller.

An empty fish drying rack at Fort Davis. Photo by Jenny I. Miller.

Why the decline? The answer is unclear, but there are a few suspected reasons. Some scientists believe that a cyclical change in ocean temperatures (a Pacific Decadal Oscillation) has led to a decrease in the king salmon’s food supply in the Pacific Ocean, where they spend one to four years growing before they return to their spawning grounds.

Other causes of the decline are theorized to be the acidification of ocean waters due to climate change, over-fishing by commercial fisheries, and other human activity in the Bering Sea. Indeed, many of the individuals we interviewed were wary of the offshore mining and shipping activity in Nome.

Dredges where people mine for gold on the seafloor of the Bering Sea.  Photo by Jenny I. Miller.

Three dredges with crew members mine for gold on the seafloor of the Bering Sea. Photo by Jenny I. Miller.

The consequence of a decline in fish, and other marine animals for that matter is major. It is about more than not having enough to eat; a decline in important subsistence animals is a threat to cultural preservation and indigenous knowledge transfer.

The skills of hunting and processing meat are not learned through textbooks. Children learn from directly observing and participating in these processes. Fewer animals mean fewer opportunities to learn.

The skills of hunting and processing meat are not learned through textbooks. Children learn from directly observing and participating in these processes. Fewer animals mean fewer opportunities to learn. It’s as simple as that.

But fortunately, not all hunting and fishing is at risk. Pinks, Coho, and Chum are faring well. Moreover, the will to keep traditions and knowledge alive regardless of environmental change is strong in Nome amongst both those who learned how to hunt in more bountiful times, and youth starting to learn now.

–CJ

You can follow our journey on Twitter and Instagram.

Read the entire blog series

Fort_Davis_Fish_Rack

One of the very few fish racks with a small amount of salmon drying. Just about 14 years ago as a child, I used to see hundreds of salmon drying on a handful of drying racks at Fort Davis. – JM Photo by Jenny I. Miller.