Residents say western Alaska salmon crisis affects physical and mental health

Salmon strips hang inside the Kuskokwim River smokehouse on July 19, 2017. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

According to people in the region, the salmon crisis in the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers has done more damage to local economies, food security and culture. It also harms human health.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska reinforced that message during a live hearing Friday at the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta Regional Center in Bethel. In-person hearings held outside of Washington, D.C. are typically held in locations directly affected by a specific issue.

Murkowski said she convened the Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing in Bethel so Alaskans there could explain the impact of the salmon collapse to people in the region and outside the state who may not understand its severity.

“Part of my job is to communicate the urgency here,” she said at the start of the five-hour hearing.

Those who testified included Dan Winkelman, president of Yukon-Kuskokwim Health, the tribal organization that is the territory’s primary health care provider. Friday’s event was held at the organization’s Bethel headquarters.

A lack of salmon “has a negative impact not only on our culture and well-being, but also on our health,” Winkelmann said.

He cited salmon’s many well-known nutritional benefits. It’s a complete, high-quality protein that increases lean body mass and helps people’s bodies function properly, he said. It’s rich in Omega-3 fatty acids and essential minerals, which are essential for heart health, brain health, immune function and inflammation control, he said. It’s a nutrient-dense food that can help people maintain a healthy weight and avoid diet-related health problems, he said.

For these and other reasons, the USDA recommends that people eat at least two servings of fish, such as salmon, per week, Winkelmann said. In the past, with salmon widely consumed daily, residents in the area could easily meet the advisory, he said.

In late 2011, migrating salmon appeared in the waters of Togiak National Wildlife Refuge in western Alaska. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

“However, when fish is unavailable, meals are supplemented with store-bought, highly processed foods that contain added sugar, salt and saturated fat, and often contain less protein,” he said. “Diets are becoming more energy-dense rather than nutrient-dense, which can lead to unhealthy weight gain and increased rates of chronic disease. Typically, my provider tells me that over the past decade or so he has become YK a problem in the region.”

In rural areas across the state, wild foods often provide all necessary dietary protein, according to research from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Salmon has been a staple wild food in many rural areas, especially in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region, according to state and federal experts.

In addition, Winkelmann said in his testimony, salmon fishing is a form of physical exercise in itself that keeps residents healthy.

Residents who testified at the hearing said the scarcity of salmon also affects mental health.

Jonathan Samuelson, executive director of the Kuskokwim River Intertribal Fish Council, described salmon fishing as part of a holistic approach to health.

“When we are forced to deviate from traditional lifestyles, it only exacerbates our discomfort. Our lifestyle, our cultural knowledge, and how we live in the world are our path to health, and we know it,” He said.

Kara Dominic of Bethel talks about how returning to her salmon fishing tradition helped her recover from a severe opioid addiction.

“The river and the tundra became my peace. Ultimately, it made my life feel whole and meaningful again. If I didn’t have this connection, contact with my culture and chance of survival, I probably wouldn’t be here today,” she said in her testimony.

Dominique said “developing a deeper connection with our culture and way of life” is crucial to solving the substance abuse crisis that plagues most people. But now the road to recovery is under threat, she said.

“As salmon numbers decline, we become further separated from our culture. How will this affect our mental health? Will it get worse? I worry for our people,” she said.

Charles Menadelook, director of subsistence resource programs for Kawerak Inc., a tribal consortium based in Nome, expressed similar concerns.

He said his voice shook with emotion as he spoke to his young family members about the importance of self-sufficiency harvesting. “I tell them, they need to go fishing. They need to go snow hunting. Because I don’t think it’s going to be around much longer,” he said.

The Alaska Lighthouse is part of the Nation’s Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by a coalition of grants and donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Lighthouse maintains editorial independence. If you have questions, please contact editor Andrew Kitchenman at [email protected] Alaska Lighthouse on Facebook and X.

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