The debate over whether the government should impose a chum salmon bycatch limit on Alaska's pollock fleet boils down to this question: How much longer can the earth sustain humans and all the things they do?
This might seem like hyperbole, but what is playing out in Alaska's incredibly remote Yukon-Kuskokwim region is indicative of the life-altering effects of climate change and the battles resulting from these effects.
The Yukon–Kuskokwim Delta, which is about the size of the state of Louisiana, is where the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers empty into the Bering Sea. The immense area is lightly populated, somewhere around 25,000 people, in large part because of its extreme remoteness. Alaska Native tribal members make up the overwhelming portion of the population.
For millennia, the inhabitants have relied on the annual return of king and chum salmon for subsistence fishing. The salmon runs provide food that is preserved and helps them survive the harsh winters. They don't have a Whole Foods they can just run to for groceries. It's a spartan way of life, but one that makes the people of the region hyper-reliant on the sea to provide them life and support their culture.
Climate change has been acknowledged by federal regulators and the pollock industry as the leading driver of the dwindling salmon population, but Alaska tribes are intensely scrutinizing the Alaska pollock fishery as well, asking about its role in critically low salmon counts on the Yukon River now for several years in a row.
Pollock companies want to avoid a so-called "hard" bycatch cap on chum, and for now have been successful in postponing such a move, which they claim could lead to new limits on their fishing ability.
The pollock fishery operates under a bycatch cap for king, or chinook, salmon and must halt fishing if the cap is reached. The cap is adjusted based on the king salmon abundance in western Alaska and is set lower when there are fewer salmon, and the fishing fleets have actively, at a cost to them, taken actions in the past to avoid reaching the cap.
Just what role the pollock fishery is playing in the decrease in king and chum salmon populations in western Alaska is unknown, but its appearance as a potential factor puts it in the crosshairs, exposing it to heightened scrutiny.
As of now, one might conclude, the earth is doing a good job of sustaining pollock fishing companies and the people tied to that sector. It is not, however, doing a good job of sustaining the tribes of Yukon-Kuskokwim region, who are suffering a true food security crisis.
The number of people suffering acute food insecurity increased from 135 million in 2019 to 345 million in 82 countries by June 2022, according to the World Bank. The trend is evident.
For all our efforts, we are, at least at this point, unable to reverse the worsening impacts of climate change. So whether a bycatch cap is instituted or not might not matter in the end if Bering Sea waters are no longer hospitable for the region's salmon. That doesn't mean it might not be worth trying.
But, if Mother Nature can turn off the salmon spigot, she also can turn off the pollock spigot, maybe not today but perhaps in the future.
The warming waters of the Bering Sea -- and mostly all other bodies of water that supply humans with food -- are affecting seafood species in different ways, mostly for the worse. The closures of Alaska king and snow crab fisheries in recent years are yet another example.
Solutions to this current challenge in western Alaska are hard to find. Maybe we could think out of the box and come up with a way to establish a Native Alaskan land-based salmon farming operation in the remote region to feed the population. Crazy? Maybe. But such are the times we now live in.
All ideas should be on the table, no matter how far-fetched, because the Yukon-Kuskokwim region is not the first and won't be the last area of the world where the earth is unable to sustain humans and all the things they do.