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Marshall Tribal President speaks about the cultural impact of declining salmon runs on Yukon River

Nick Andrew Jr., Native Village of Marshall Tribal President
Dean Swope
Nick Andrew Jr., Native Village of Marshall Tribal President

Salmon runs on the Yukon River have been dwindling for years. And the loss of commercial and subsistence fishing has hit communities hard. KYUK sat down with Tribal President Nick Andrew Jr. on Aug. 9 to talk about what the salmon crisis means for his community.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Andrew Jr.: My name is Nick Andrew Jr. I am a tribal citizen of Marshall. I am also the tribal president, but what I have to say is not necessarily a statement on behalf of the tribe.

I'm from Marshall, born and raised. I've been part of the salmon fishery, the commercial and subsistence, since I was five years old. I helped my family, my grandparents, my uncles, my aunts, my nieces, my cousins, we all worked together in the past. And yes, salmon does define who I am. It does define my ancestors, my family, my relatives, everyone on the river.

We've been in conservation mode for king salmon for about 40 years. And that's a long time. I've seen the years of plenty. I've seen the years of scarcity, and it's a political issue now.

Loss of salmon hit us really hard on the cultural side. There went our connection to the ancestors. We also lost that family connection. Because a lot of people went fishing and processing, they involve the family. And the last four years have been hard, especially the years we were in strict conservation mode. It was felt in the community and the region on the lower Yukon River. We had a sense of helplessness. 

Basically, not knowing was the biggest thing. We thought that the salmon were going extinct, that was one of the thoughts. And we also had a sense of despair. We didn't have salmon, dried salmon, smoked salmon, salmon strips, salmon dry-fish, king salmon, salted fish, and salmon for the freezer, for the winter. That took a big emotional toll on our people.

Our subsistence rights are not negotiable. We only take a small fraction of any of the runs that pass the river. And it's not too hard to ask that more be done for the salmon. Because if nothing's done, within 50 years we're gonna be on the endangered list, probably extinction at the rate things are going. So we just need a voice at the table, especially on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. Our input is important. Our traditional knowledge is important. And we, the Native peoples along the river on shore, we matter too. That needs to be kept in mind.

KYUK: How has this year's run been?

Andrew Jr.: Well, when we look at the run we get information from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game on their Facebook page and the faxes we're getting to the tribe, and they're showing lower and lower numbers. That's very concerning. And on a different note, we were allowed to harvest the summer chum. And that really helped a lot of people. And that put reassurance that hey, we do matter. Hey, we'll have salmon for the winter, even though it's not the king salmon we’ve desperately been wanting for years. So that's where we are.

KYUK: What about your memories as a kid fishing around here, to give people like me who are complete outsiders an understanding of how things used to be, especially for your people, your family?

Andrew Jr.: Growing up was a different time. We had plenty of fish: king salmon, summer, fall chum, and the silvers. The village would empty. Families went to fish camp during those years. Everyone was happy. The dogs that were needed for our transportation and subsistence activities back in the day were fed, they relied on salmon too. All the bears, the birds, meaning the eagles and falcons, seagulls, they were happy too, and the world was complete then. So, on any given day, dried salmon, salted salmon were eaten three or four times a day.

Nowadays, as the salmon started to dwindle, people had to find other species. But still that left the void, the void meaning a big part of our staple was gone. And it's still, the puzzle isn't complete today because we got all these factors, and that affected our culture, our physiological and our mental well-being as well. You know it does weigh heavily on our minds, and our very DNA are in tune with salmon as our diet, our identity, our culture. So as the salmon continue to dwindle, that's impacting just about everyone in our region and on the lower Yukon River because it was the common denominator that made us whole.

KYUK's Evan Erickson helped with this story.

Francisco Martínezcuello was the KYUK News Reporting Fellow from November 2022 through January 2024. He is a graduate of UC Berkeley School of Journalism. He is also a veteran of the United States Marine Corps.