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What the collapse of salmon populations means for one Alaska family

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

For Alaska Native communities along the Yukon River, salmon fishing has always been a central part of life. But climate change is driving a massive collapse in salmon populations. Alaska Public Media's Kavitha George reports on what that means for one community.

MACKENZIE ENGLISHOE: Grandpa, you want me to cut this up for you?

SONNY JONAS: OK, go ahead.

KAVITHA GEORGE, BYLINE: Sonny Jonas sits at his kitchen table in the village of Gwichyaa Zhee, also known as Fort Yukon. He's describing for his granddaughter what life used to be like.

JONAS: There's a lot of changes around here, I'll tell you.

GEORGE: Sonny is 69 years old, and just in his lifetime, climate change has transformed this part of Alaska at the edge of the Arctic Circle. The permafrost beneath the village is thawing. Summers are unusually warm. The biggest change? Salmon have pretty much disappeared from the Yukon River. Regulators have closed fishing to protect what's left. Sonny says an entire way of life has disappeared with the fish.

JONAS: That's part of our culture. Without fish, it's hurting a lot of people now, up and down the Yukon.

GEORGE: Sonny's granddaughter, Mackenzie Englishoe, is feeling that hurt.

M ENGLISHOE: It's hard to talk about 'cause when I came here, it was after the fish got closed.

GEORGE: Kenzie grew up visiting Gwichyaa Zhee, where her mom was raised. Now she's 20, and she just moved here full time.

M ENGLISHOE: I wanted to go out with my cousins and my family and my grandpa and go catch fish and go smoke fish. But when I came back, I couldn't do that, so I've never even been on a fish wheel.

GEORGE: A fish wheel, the traditional means of catching salmon on the Yukon River - they look like big windmills scooping up the fish. Sonny remembers sitting on the riverbank every summer watching the fish wheel turn.

JONAS: Oh, it's a lot of fun - when you got a fish wheel turning, you know, and you got your tent just sitting right there and your fish rack, and you sit there in your easy chair and watch the fish wheel turning.

M ENGLISHOE: I wish I got to see that in person.

JONAS: Yeah, I don't do that anymore.

GEORGE: Gwichyaa Zhee is home to fewer than 500 mostly Gwich'in Athabascan people. For Kenzie, it's the only place she wants to be. She's excited to give a tour of the village, which sits on a wide, flat expanse of tundra.

M ENGLISHOE: And then Gwichyaa Zhee means people of the flats, too, so welcome to the flats.

GEORGE: Getting here is an hour's plane ride from Fairbanks in a nine-seat Cessna. Small homes with moose antlers mounted above the door sit on a sprawling grid of dirt roads. Everyone knows everyone.

M ENGLISHOE: You feel whole when you come back home. When you go back to your community, you feel like you're where you're meant to be.

GEORGE: But Gwichyaa Zhee today is very different from the village she remembers visiting as a kid. Without fish, life here is missing its usual rhythms. I asked Kenzie's great-aunt, Linda Englishoe, what it used to be like.

How often would you eat fish back then?

LINDA ENGLISHOE: Goodness sakes, almost every day.

GEORGE: Every summer for thousands of years, salmon returned from the Bering Sea to their spawning grounds along the Yukon River. The village would buzz with activity. Summers now are strangely quiet. Linda says without smoke houses full of fish, the town even smells different.

L ENGLISHOE: It used to smell so good, smelling those fish - don't even smell that anymore.

GEORGE: Researchers say human-caused climate change is fueling the crash. Warmer ocean waters are disrupting the salmon's prey species. Warmer river water is causing heat stress on their journey up the Yukon. State and federal managers have banned nearly all fishing to try to save the population. The absence of salmon affects everything. Year-round work is limited in Alaska's rural villages, and grocery store prices are astronomical. Without fish, it's harder for people to feed their families. And some are leaving for cities like Fairbanks. But it's not just about economics. It's also about culture. Kenzie's uncle and second chief of the village, Mike Peter, worries about the next generation.

MIKE PETER: I think a lot of our young people are kind of lost because of not with us having our traditional foods and our traditional values.

GEORGE: He says the experience of going to your family's fish camp, a traditional site on the river, and spending the summer cutting, smoking and drying fish is an essential part of what it means to be Gwich'in Athabascan here.

PETER: Going to fish camp, that's a spiritual awakening, more or less, you know?

GEORGE: On a quiet day, Kenzie walks out to a spot on the river that she calls the fish wheel graveyard. She climbs onto an old fish wheel that lies toppled on the bank.

M ENGLISHOE: Like I stand on it now, and I wish I was just standing on it on the river because these belong on the river. It's part of the Yukon.

GEORGE: This loss has fueled Kenzie's sense of purpose. She's become an advocate for climate justice and indigenous rights.

M ENGLISHOE: I'm fighting for the future and my rights and my village's rights and the whole Yukon River, all the indigenous peoples' right to fish.

GEORGE: Back at Sonny's house, he says the changes to his people's lands are alarming, but he sees hope in his granddaughter - in Kenzie.

JONAS: Yeah, I'm glad what she's doing right now. She's really trying to get into our culture, and I'm really proud of her for that.

GEORGE: Kenzie is still learning that culture, and she feels a responsibility to protect it.

M ENGLISHOE: It's overwhelming, but I'm happy to do it because if our generation doesn't do it, then there's no one to get that fish back for our future. It's something that we have to do now.

GEORGE: There is some hope for this summer. Some species of salmon may do better after a recent marine heatwave subsided. But overall, populations are still struggling. No matter what, Kenzie is here to stay. She's here to protect Gwichyaa Zhee's fish and its values for herself and future generations. For NPR News, I'm Kavitha George in Gwichyaa Zhee, Alaska.

(SOUNDBITE OF MYA SONG, "ANYTIME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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