Wednesday, February 4, 2009

A Post-Super Bowl Perspective on Yukon- Kuskokwim Civilization vs the Bering Sea Pirates

Imagine ten football fields, placed end-to-end, without the end zones. 3,000 feet - 1,000 yards. Each foot equals a year in history. Each five-yard marker equals 15 years. These ten football fields equal the length of Yupik Civilization's mark upon the Yukon River.

Somewhat more than 3,000 years ago, Yupik-related peoples started moving into the lower deltas of the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers, coming into the areas mostly from the North-northeast. As global warming expanded the Bering Sea through a rise in sea levels, the warmth created glacial melt-off, swelling the river. As glaciers retreated upriver, lakes were exposed and new streams led from them to the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers.

Salmon, already present in the larger streams, moved into the new streams and lakes. Over the centuries, huge salmon runs supported larger and larger human populations.

This magnificent process, accompanied by expansion of Yupik civilization throughout the deltas, and then upriver, lasted through the lengths of nine of the ten football fields.

The Russians entered the area from the west-southwest near the beginning of the tenth football field. The British fur traders entered from the upper Yukon at about 30 yards into the field. The Americans took over the field around the 50-yard line.

Lets consider Yupik civilization as defenders of this last of the ten football fields. They had been fighting smallpox, brought by Russians, Hudson Bay Company traders, whalers and gold prospectors since the opposing team's 20-yard line. At the Yupiks' 33-yard line, they were again decimated, this time by the 1918-21 Influenza epidemic.

All through their battle to keep their civilization while playing on the last of the ten football fields, the Yupik were told by various opponents that unlike their opponents' teams, the Yupik weren't really a team. The other teams' chaplains and coaches tried to convince the Yupiks to stop huddling, throw out their playbooks, yells, team songs and rituals, and to burn their uniforms.

Even as the Yupik team was forced back, yard by yard toward the final end zone of the last of the ten football fields, against the new teams, they fought and struggled to keep their playbooks, yells, songs, rituals, uniforms and pride.

Then, at their own 20-yard line, something new began to happen. The salmon started showing up in the Yukon and Kuskokwim in reduced numbers.

At first it was easy to blame the reduced fish numbers on experiences in seasonal variance the Yupik had either seen or had told each other about in their civilization's histories, shared over lifetimes, generations and millenia.

As the salmon returns dwindled year after year, though, the Yupik themselves made allowances on behalf of the salmon. Soon they were forced by the opposing teams' referees, to accept smaller catches. They did. The fish continued to dwindle year by year.

It was obvious that somebody was taking more than their fair share.

They approached a man representing them and many opposing teams. He had always said he would help the Yupik. The Yupik weren't the only Alaskans to call this great man "Uncle."

Uncle told them he would help bring the salmon back. He hired scientists all over Alaska to study their problems and other fishing problems. He created a great council of men from the other teams. The great Uncle showed the Yupik how much he believed this council would solve the Yupiks' problems by making sure his own son had a major role in the council's decisions.

As the Yupik team was down to about their own seven-yard line, the rivers' salmon runs began to decline past the point of sustainability.

Uncle told them that he cared so much that he had created a new fish study palace with his very own name upon it, thus guaranteeing the integrity of the work done in that fish study palace. Uncle promised the Yupik that the scientists there would study and study and study and study.

In the meantime one of the teams, called the Pirates, was forced by Uncle and the council he had created to give the Yupik paper and coins. They were called "CDQ's."

Uncle said "These are good!"

The Yupik weren't so sure. They knew how this paper and coin and promise thing had worked out with White pirates over the course of the past two football fields worth of human civilization.

At about the four-yard line, the referees took the ball and the salmon away from the Yupik. At least the team still has their huddles, playbooks, yells, team songs, rituals uniforms and will to win.

Can you help us tell the end of this tale of a civilization's successful fight against enormous odds?

Update: Juneau resident and fisheries businessman John Moller has been named Gov. Palin's Rural Coordinator. He is from Unalaska, and is a member of the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council's Advisory Panel.


Anonymous said...

All the stories have the same ending.

The salt water comm fish guys get all the fish.

Blue_in_AK said...

Excellent piece of writing, Phil. I've posted a link on DU. There has got to be a way to reverse this. I wish we had a governor who could grasp the gravity of this situation.

Philip Munger said...

John Moller, a guy from Unalaska, very familiar with the Bering Sea fisheries, has been named as Palin's Rural Coordinator. Although named the last day of January, it just became public Wednesday.

I'm reserving judgement, but he has had no lack of critics in the past. To say the least.

Annette said...

Just what little I know and I know very little I would say he is all for business and very very little for native fishers... No help at all, that is just so sad and shows how uncaring and unprepared she really is.

Anonymous said...

Once again, many qualified Alaska Native leaders were bypassed for this critical position in favor of a Palin buddy. A sad day for the People.

Anonymous said...

Chinook bycatch in the Bering Sea trawl fishery is part of the problem. And not just for Chinook populations on the Yukon. The North Pacific Fisheries Management Council is dealing with this issue as we speak.

The other issue, as noted at the Alaska chapter of the American Fisheries Society meeting October 08 at the Hilton in Anchorage, is large size mesh used by the lower Yukon in-river commercial fishery.

There was a presentation by USFWS -Breminger - showed how large sized mesh selects for large size fish, which when couple with commercial harvest exploitation rates means overall smaller fish and reduced fecundity.

Say all you want using a football game analogy, exploitation rates on Chinook salmon never, ever approached 50% or more from just subsistence uses - it has only occurred in the last hundred years from commercial exploitation on directed fisheries for Yukon chinook. Coupled with large sized mesh, those commercial levels of exploitation have influenced the genetic selection and make-up of the Yukon Chinook population.

And as Breminger's model indicates, it will take a few football fields of time to allow natural selection to repair and restore the variability in genetics in that population, so sometime in 2,500 there may once again be a significant component of large, fecund females to swim up the Yukon to reproduce.

Polarbear said...

Over time, my observation is Alaska Natives cannot win the good opinion of the majority of Anglo culture. On one hand, Anglos curse Alaska Native's dependency on public money, but then, when Alaska Natives form successful corporations and actually begin to succeed quite well in certain business sectors, Anglos criticize their success as unfair. They cannot win. For the foreseeable future, maintaining and asserting tribal rights will be important.

Anonymous said...

Well, it's not all the fault of the Bering Sea fisheries. The economically important commercial fishery at the mouth of the Yukon is another source of exacerbating the problem of insufficient escapement. When the fish enter the river, they are all-too-often caught, notwithstanding that most have many miles to swim before reaching their natal streams to spawn. The Canadians are the biggest losers, but everyone upstream is paying a price. Also, John Sackett's bill to allow the sale of roe from subsistence-caught salmon (now repealed, I believe) had a devastating effect on the stocks. We need to keep the discussion within a broader perspective.

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