Gene Carlson drove the streets of Chignik Bay one afternoon in July, between quiet wooden houses and old cannery buildings.
“That used to be a restaurant there,” he said. “That’s a web loft over there, which is shut down now. Here’s another one of my cousin’s houses. He’s not living there anymore.”
The Chignik River’s salmon runs have sustained generations in the century-old small fishing communities along the Alaska Peninsula.
But, for the fourth year in a row, the runs came in severely low. For years, residents have struggled to earn a living fishing and to put up enough fish for the winter, and some worry their villages will disappear, taking with them a fishing tradition that connects their families to the region.
Carlson was born in Chignik Bay, which is now home to around 90 people. He has fished commercially since he was a kid in 1961. Now he lives in Washington state and usually returns for the summer. Driving through the quiet village, he says this may be his last season.
“If we have another prediction like this year, I don’t think I can come back,” he said. “It’s expensive. ‘Cause you know, we come back, we bring food for the whole summer, ‘cause we’ve got to feed our crews, which you can’t find anymore.”
The area comprises Chignik Bay, Chignik Lagoon, Chignik Lake, Perryville and Ivanof Bay, and it’s been home to Native people for millennia. The village of Kalwak was previously located there, but it was destroyed when Russians came to the area during the fur boom in the late 1700s, according to the Lake and Peninsula Borough. Chignik Bay and Lagoon were established as fishing communities in the late 1800s, and more people of Alutiiq, Aleut, Russian and Scandinavian descent moved to the area.
The salmon runs are central to people’s lives in many ways. The economy has developed around the commercial fishery, and fish also provide food for the winter.
Some people think climate change is causing the runs’ decline. Others point to fishermen in other places catching Chignik-bound fish. Regardless of the cause, people are anxious that without the runs, the communities will die.
The village of Chignik Lagoon, home to about 70 year-round residents, is an hour’s boat ride along the bay’s shoreline.
“It’s protected by that sand spit, which is a natural breakwater,” George Anderson said as he navigated his boat through the lagoon.
Anderson fishes commercially and for subsistence. He’s also the president of the Chignik Intertribal Coalition, which was formed after the run collapsed in 2018.
Earlier this summer, the run was so low that some people chose not to put out nets for subsistence fish. They were worried about harming the fragile run.
“We had something that we took for granted in the past — that the fish were just always going to be there for, you know, smoking, salting, freezer, whatever,” he said. “And to have that not be there for you is just something we were never prepared for. Never imagined even not subsisting.”
The low runs prompted federal managers to restrict subsistence fishing for sockeye to all but rural residents. King salmon fishing was closed completely in state and federal waters.
Since the Chignik run collapsed, much of the debate has centered on another state-run fishery to the south, called Area M. Critics see it as an intercept fishery, where sockeye traveling through are harvested before they can reach fisheries closer to spawning grounds, like Chignik.
This year’s early sockeye run didn’t meet its escapement goals — the minimum number of fish that managers want to see make it up the river. The late run did, and some people were able to fish. But the commercial fleet was just a fraction of its normal size. The area biologist said 15-20 boats fished, instead of around 60.
Some scientists have connected fishery failures in the Gulf of Alaska to marine heat waves in the past decade. But state research biologists also say it could be because of habitat changes in the salmons’ spawning grounds.
Salmon are notoriously difficult to research because part of their lives are spent in the ocean — a vast expanse that is mostly inaccessible to biologists. Along with warmer waters, a loss of spawning habitat might increase competition for habitat between Chignik’s two sockeye runs.
Anderson said the Chignik villages are shouldering the burden of conservation. He pointed to Area M, where South Peninsula fishermen landed more than 3.8 million sockeye this summer, and said the state wasn’t considering studies that showed Chignik fish caught further south in its management decisions.
Kevin Shaberg, a finfish research coordinator for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game based in Kodiak, said the situation is tough.
“It’s hard to understand that, you know, everybody else gets to go fishing, but you got to sit home next to the river and watch no fish go by. And that’s tough. And it’s something that we’ve, we’ve tried to handle in the past,” he said.
In previous years, he said, the department has limited fishing in nearby areas when Chignik was low. But Shaberg said the burden of conserving a run usually falls on the areas closest to where those fish should be returning to spawn.
“[Area M is] a traditional fishery that’s mandated and directed by the Board of Fish for us to prosecute, and we follow the management plans that are put in front of us,” he said.
Many people have asked for genetic sampling of harvests further south, in Area M, to figure out where Chignik fish are being caught. The state conducted tagging studies in the 1960s, and as late as the 1980s. Then, in the early 2010s it pursued genetic testing in parts of Area M. The majority of fish caught during those studies were bound for the Chigniks, though percentages varied between areas and sampling groups.
Still, Shaberg said, distribution of those catches change from year to year, so managers don’t know whether that applies to a given season. And the department hasn’t done additional testing in the area in years, he said, mostly because the state doesn’t have the budget for it.
Another question is what a study would seek to accomplish. Shaberg said a snapshot of genetics from one year, in one area, doesn’t help understanding of what’s happening or how to address it.
“One of the big issues for myself is that, you know, how long are we going to do this?” he said. “What’s the design for this? What are we really trying to answer?”
Shaberg said the department does plan to research the watershed, to try to figure out if something in the freshwater environment is affecting fish.
The Chignik Intertribal Coalition, along with state and federal agencies, has plans to research the river’s dwindling king salmon. That depends on funding approval, which they’ll find out about next year.
One of the coalition’s members, the Ivanof Bay Tribe, also received a $65,000 Tribal Resiliency Grant from the Bureau of Indian Affairs; it will partner with the coalition to gather environmental observations from Tribal members in the area.
But Chignik residents have had to contend with other forces, too. Anderson said they haven’t yet received the federal disaster relief money they were promised after the 2018 run failure. And due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the next Board of Fish meeting, which was supposed to take place this year, has been delayed until 2022.
Some industry organizations have tried to help as well. Last summer, Northline Seafoods, a commercial processor, donated thousands of Bristol Bay sockeye to the Chigniks. Lots of people said receiving that fish was helpful, but subsistence isn’t just about food; it is also a connection to place and family, as people work together to harvest.
On a warm evening in Chignik Lagoon, Al Anderson shucked clams with his wife, the shades of their house drawn to keep the heat at bay.
“It’s our lifeblood. Chignik’s going to go away — all the Chigniks are going to go away if we can’t get this run back up to where it used to be,” Anderson said. “You know, the young people are moving away. There’s not much for them here.”
Many of those who have moved away return in the summers to fish, including one of Anderson’s daughters.
“It’s so important that she comes back every year to do it. Typically it doesn’t take her three weeks to get her subsistence fish, you know,” he said, laughing. “Of course she comes back to visit, too, so that’s good.”
Elder Vivian Brandal, 80, and has lived in the Chignik area all her life. Now, she goes to Kodiak in the winter.
She said it’s difficult to comprehend what is happening.
“Subsistence fishing is a lifeline. I mean, we depend on that. That’s something we’ve done all our life,” she said. “It’s something we really depend on actually, not only fishing, but we used to be able to get caribou. We’d get caribou every year. You can’t even do that anymore.”
Brandal said the lower sockeye runs have changed the future of the Chignik communities.
“That’s five villages that depend on this fishery, and you look at it, you think, how can the state let this happen? How can they just let this happen without doing anything about it. I have grandchildren that thought this was their legacy,” she said.
Brandal doesn’t think the state has managed the fishery correctly. She, along with many others, wants the state to be more responsive to the drop in the run and thinks it should conduct studies on why the fish aren’t coming back.
Still, Brandal is hopeful; she’s inspired by Katie John, an advocate and defender of Alaska Native subsistence rights who petitioned the state and federal government to allow for traditional fishing in her home.
“She fought for what she believed in, and that’s what I think we should do,” Brandal said. “We believe in this and we should fight for it. I won’t be able to anymore, but I just think the young people really ought to. It’s just, it’s very emotional for people. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be crying, this is crazy. But it’s very hard.”
Brandal thinks they should work together to find a way forward, too.