As food insecurity surges nationally, rural Alaskans at the intersection of food scarcity and climate change are facing a tough reality. In the Chignik region, low salmon returns are leaving the community without a vital food source. In response, one Sitka-based organization is leading the initiative to provide fish for families in need.

As a child, George Anderson would spend his summers fishing in Chignik Lagoon, a remote Alaska Native village 400 miles southwest of Anchorage. For him, and the rest of the Chignik community, salmon is more than just a food source.

“You know, fish, it is a part of your life and your identity,” Anderson said. “Growing up, I think we really took it for granted that there was always, you know, some fish returning here,” said Anderson.

Salmon gets loaded into a bush plane for delivery to Chignik (Photo courtesy of ALFA)

But as salmon runs dry up across Western Alaska, many in Chignik have been struggling to fill their freezer and smokehouses over the last few years.

“About 2018, when we did not meet our escapement goals for our early or later run, that’s when people really, really started getting concerned,” explained Anderson.

Anderson is the President of the Chignik Intertribal Coalition, an advocacy alliance created in response to the 2018 salmon collapse. But in the last four years, the shortage of fish has persisted as both the early and late runs failed to return in 2018, 2019, 2020, and 2021.

There’s no telling when or if the Chignik Sockeye stock will return, but the dwindling supply comes with grave economic and cultural implications. He says now is the time to act if they want to preserve their way of life, and ensure future food security.

 “It’s just really nice to be able to pass down to our kids and grandkids, the way we prepare fish and store it for winter,” he said. “There’s so many different stressors on our food web. In the face of climate change, it’s just very important to set up these food sharing networks.”

The Fish for Families initiative is becoming an integral part of a food supply network. The grassroots effort hopes to aid communities facing food scarcity across Alaska by sourcing and transporting thousands of pounds of fish. Currently the program only serves the Chignik region, but organizers have been working to raise funds so they can expand to communities in other parts of Western Alaska.

Natalie Sattler is the program director with Alaska Long Line Fishermen’s Association (ALFA), the organization behind “Fish for Families.” While the initiative started as a fish donation program in response to pandemic-related food insecurity and a struggling  seafood industry, two years later, Sattler says the need remains. 

“This is not just a result of the pandemic,” Sattler said. “There are these real issues that we want to help address.”

Boxes of Bristol Bay Sockeye en route to Chignik (Photo courtesy of ALFA)

Sattler says the project is looking to capitalize on the abundance of other fisheries in the state. To fund and transport the fish, ALFA has partnered with  a handful of processors, fisherman and other orgs. For every 24 bucks donated, one salmon is delivered to a family.

 “We know that there’s, you know, these projected record-breaking run salmon runs in Bristol Bay. How can we leverage that or use that abundance to feed these other areas? So kind of Alaskan feeding Alaskans,” Sattler explained.

The project is currently relying on volunteers, charitable donations and federal grants to survive. But because it’s not entirely clear why Chignik’s stock has been so consistently low, the need may be ongoing. And it’s not an isolated event. Sattler says they hope expand to other communities, specifically in the Yukon- Kuskokwim River region, where Chum and Chinook runs are also suffering.  According to Katie Howard, fishery scientist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and lead researcher with the Salmon Ocean Ecology Program, scientists are seeing unprecedented declines. She says declining salmon stocks could have something to do with a warming ocean.

“We’ve seen a lot of drought and really warm temperatures in the river, especially in 2019,” she explained. “And in the ocean, we’ve seen these these really big marine heat waves that have spanned many, many consecutive years, and they’ve just been really large geographically and really, unlike anything that’s ever been seen before.”

While Howard’s research has focused primarily on the health of Chum and Chinook, she says more data on the Chignik’s Sockeyes’ life cycle is coming in the next  year. 

“One of the things that we’re hoping to get started next year is a survey in marine waters to get the same kinds of data we have for the Yukon, that would also collect information on juvenile Chignik salmon, and really zero in on what might be responsible,” said Howard.

 While the future of Western Alaska salmon runs looks uncertain, organizers of “Fish for Families” are working to ensure at least people in Chignik won’t go without fish this summer.