Fishing crisis grips western Alaska


Fishermen in 11 Alaskan fishing villages at the mouth of the Yukon River usually harvest 105,000 king salmon annually. This year, they were

able to bring in only 36,000, largely due to unusually warm sea water caused by El Nino.

The average annual income for a family in that region is usually $12,000. This year it was only $2,000.

Sobering statistics -- and serious enough for Governor Tony Knowles, on July 30, to declare western Alaska a disaster area.

But even more sobering was a phone call received one week later by Nick Tucker, coordinator of Project Survival, a suicide prevention program

in the Yukon village of Emmonak. "It was a young mother who told me she had no infant formula, no food in the house, no cash," he said. "I

knew that state aid was coming, but she needed food immediately."

"I'm supposed to be a 'hardened Vietnam vet,' but when she told me she had no food in the house, I just broke down and cried." But only for a

moment. Nick immediately issued $500 of Project Survival's funds to the local women's shelter to buy and distribute infant formula. Then he

called the American Red Cross, Alaskan Moravian Church, Catholic Social Services, and a host of other faith-based and community


Within 24 hours, a Northern Air Cargo DC-6 had landed in Emmonak with two weeks worth of baby food and infant formula donated by

Wal-Mart stores, churches, and food banks.

The population in the lower Yukon region is roughly 900 -- 100 of them infants -- who depend on commercial fishing for food and cash to take

them through the winter. Poor salmon runs for two consecutive years have left many families in the Yukon and across the rest of western

Alaska without stores of food, and without cash for gas, utilities, infant formula, and other life necessities.

Fishermen, cannery workers, bookkeepers, distributors, buyers, village elders, and the young are all wondering how they will survive when the

weather turns cold. In the Yukon region, where people commonly eke out a living under an 85 percent unemployment rate, subsistence fishing

and hunting puts food on the table, often for families of 12-15 people.

"Right now many people can't even go out and do their other usual hunting for moose, whales, seals, and they can't go berry picking because

they have no cash to buy gas for their boats or cars," said Nick. "I'm a commercial fisherman myself. I'm in the hole with my fish buyer. I'm

holding two part- time jobs to support a family of 12. Itís not easy."

Jack Cervantes, state disaster specialist, said that the Red Cross is moving quickly to put together additional emergency rations to avert

starvation until the first wave of state aid -- 250,000 pounds of chum salmon -- gets into the hands of those in desperate need. The state has

planned a $19 million aid package for western Alaska's fishermen and communities.

This is the second consecutive year of poor salmon runs for fisheries in Alaska. The Bristol Bay sockeye run, the state's largest salmon fishery,

harvested a catch of 9.7 million fish this year and 12.5 million last year. The sharp decline comes just two years after a record sockeye harvest

of nearly 44 million fish.

Commercial fishing for salmon bound for the Kenai River system is on pause, and king salmon returns on the Yukon River are the weakest in

40 years.

"We were able to answer the immediate crisis," said Cervantes. "But that was only one cluster of villages and we were able to provide only

enough for two weeks. I'd say we've got at least 80 more villages seriously in need. We're looking to churches, communities, faith-based

organizations, food banks, whoever wants to form an entire group that can help."

Cervantes' goal may soon be met. He gathered Tuesday (Aug. 11) in an emergency meeting with representatives from the Lutheran Social

Services, Church World Service, Lutheran Disaster Response, Catholic Social Services, Alaskan Moravian Church, Church of the Latter Day

Saints, United Way, Salvation Army, Food Bank of Alaska, Lion's Club, Second Harvest, and Yukon-Kuskokwi m Health Corps to locate a

storage warehouse and coordinate donations of infant formula, baby food, diapers, bread, peanut butter, feminine products, produce and cereal.

"Infant need is the highest priority," said Elizabeth Kerns, resource management supervisor from the Catholic Social Services. "We are also

currently trying to arrange shipping for the donations when they do come in -- free trucks and trailers, or air transport."

The Alaskan Moravian Church is also planning to coordinate clothing donations for the winter. "We can barely find fish and wild game right

now," said Frank Chingliak, a commercial fisherman who is also president of the Moravian Church of Alaska. "Some of the elders have

experienced lean years. But I'm in my early 40s now and we have never experienced this. I feel the worst is yet to come."

Villagers are employing their traditional values of cooperation, with families pooling money and sharing boats, to pull through the crisis

together. "We take care of one another," said Gregg Wood, a missionary priest who travels between the Bering Sea coast villages of Chevak

Bay, Hooper Bay, and Scammon Bay. "We do that ordinarily, and now we're looking at a situation where people need even more assistance."

Ramona Bell, an assistant administrator for the Traditional Council, worries about the difficult winter to come. "It's colder than usual already.

We're just waiting and watching," she said.

Even in difficult times, Alaskan villages have a tradition of helping others. Through the Chukotka Native Christian Ministry, an ecumenical

outreach supported by five denominations, Alaskaís Yupik people have provided humanitarian aid to Yupiks on the far northeastern edge of

Russia. The Chukotka shores of Siberia are less than 100 miles across the Bering Strait from the shores of Alaska.

Russia's Yupik population is facing not only the burden of the current failed fish harvest but also a longer-term food shortage that has greatly

increased since the fall of the Soviet Union. Cooperative efforts of five churches -- Moravian, Evangelical Covenant, Presbyterian, United

Methodist, and Lutheran -- along with the Wycliffe Bible Translators have brought ongoing humanitarian aid to that region for more than five


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