With over-fishing all too often cited; Which fisheries are the greenest and leading the change in how we harvest seafood?
From thousands of choices, only two US fisheries made the list, and only one from the seafood powerhouse Alaska. Leading global magazine Seafood International has named the tiny Alaskan village of Kaltag, as one of the world’s 11 greenest fisheries.
Seafood International’s criteria; “We are looking for these operations that not only take seafood from the environment in a sustainable manner but also give back to the environment and local community in a holistic and harmonious manner.”
Kaltag sits in one of the most remote and isolated regions of the US, with a population of predominantly indigenous Athabascan Alaska Natives. Villages along the Yukon like Kaltag were located centuries ago, for one reason; the salmon resource. In today’s modern world, these Yukon villages are hundreds of miles from the nearest road, and as such have developed the ability to live off the land. Salmon fishing is their only cash resource.
The Yukon River is the world’s longest wild salmon river. Because of its length, the Yukon wild salmon and their caviar have the highest naturally occurring Omega 3 of any salmon.
Kaltag has a population of 189 people. A per capita income of $9,300 ranks Kaltag in the bottom 15 poorest counties in the US. Adding to their burden the cost of living is one of the highest nationally, subtracting further from the low per-capita income. Milk and gas are both $6 a gallon. Nearly 30 percent of the inhabitants live under the poverty guidelines, and too many of these are children. There are scant few job opportunities and these villages have persistent unemployment in excess of 25 percent.
As if life was not hard enough, the local salmon resources collapsed in the 90”s and fishermen in Kaltag stopped fishing for more than a decade.
During the decade of no fishing, the salmon runs rebounded in record numbers, as the resource renewed. Kaltag constructed a building for processing salmon, and a 7-year search for investors was begun. Outside capital was virtually impossible to come by for these villages.
Eventually, limited capital was finally located and a bargain was struck between Yukon River Gold LLC (www.yukonrivergold.com) and the City of Kaltag; with the Kaltag obtaining guarantees for a limited lease period before regaining control, local hiring, and recognition of local fishermen’s bargaining unit. These terms benefiting the community are a rarity in the Alaskan seafood industry.
Kaltag faced another problem: While the Yukon Keta salmon were returning in huge numbers, they were swimming mixed alongside the rare Chinook salmon. How to catch one, and not the other?
Kaltag’s answer; harvest with fishwheels. Fishwheels are a revolving series of dip nets powered by the river, hence no energy is needed. Fisheries scientists worldwide utilize this technology to capture and release fish for research purposes. Kaltag, in cooperation with Alaskan authorities, began using their fishwheels to release the Chinook salmon alive. Kaltag’s fishermen have released hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of Chinook salmon in the last four years.
Local fishermen Richard Burnham says, “It was hard to throw valuable fish back, but after ten years of not fishing, we truly understand the value of conservation and sustainability.”
Co-owner of Yukon River Gold LLC Gary Nelson states, “The cooperation from the community has been amazing. Other local corporations stepped up to help. Profits matter, but so does making a difference in peoples’ lives. This has been an inspiring experience, especially the young people with jobs.”
Nelson says the resource is robust. “We would like to expand, doubling our employment in the region. We have applied to NOAA for fisheries assistance dedicated to this area, and we are hoping NOAA comes through so we can double employment this year. We hope NOAA supports one of the world’s greenest fisheries.”
A Native American Indian culture virtually unknown to the nation, not to mention rest of the world, has now become internationally renowned for their greenest fishery. Kaltag Mayor Violet Burnham says “It was hard, we never gave up, and this award makes us proud.”
The mayor notes the Seafood International award was made possible in part because of the generous support of Ocean Beauty Seafoods who markets the salmon and caviar produced in Kaltag, Crowley Maritime and Lynden Transport Inc. for overcoming the incredible logistical challenges, the support of Kwik’Pak Fisheries, and the Economic Development Agency.