Restoring hope: UMCOR assists Chignik fisheries beset by record-low salmon catches

By Christie R. House

Hope 4 - Food delivery
Photo: Courtesy Chignik Intertribal Council

Spring is a time of anticipation for these villages where people make their income fishing along the state’s Aleutian Islands – that tail of volcanic formations stretching almost to the Siberian mainland across the Bering Strait. Among the many commercial and industrial fishing rigs in the Alaskan waters are also Native American ones, smaller, but still able to haul enough fish from the waters to last their families and communities over the winter season. Spring means the ice will thaw, the fish will migrate north once again and the salmon will return home to spawn. Or will they?

Most years, the Chignik fisheries on the Pacific (southeast) side of the Aleutians catch about 1 million sockeye salmon during the season. In 2017, a very good harvest year, the Chignik area harvested more than 8 million of the five different species of salmon in the waters.

But in 2018, their total salmon catch for the year was a little over 1,000 fish.


Help turns the communities from hopelessness

The absence of fish was likely caused by a climate phenomenon known as “the blob” — a mass of warm sea water that circulated in the Gulf of Alaska and northern Pacific Ocean a couple years ago, lasting through the spring and summer seasons. The resulting rise in sea temperature affected the salmon hatchling life cycle and their subsequent runs in the Bristol Bay region.

According to Chignik elders, these communities have never sought or received outside assistance. Although the community turned to the state for help, Alaska currently has a two-year backlog for aid funds. The Chignik communities needed immediate assistance to survive until the next fishing season. The National Tribal Water Center referred members of the Chignik Intertribal Council (CIC) to the United Methodist Committee on Relief as a trusted source for assistance.

UMCOR grant stretches resources to the next season

“Because we are an independent humanitarian relief agency, UMCOR has the unique ability to spring into action and respond quickly to emergent needs,” explained Lorrie King, UMCOR’s program director for WASH, food security and livelihoods.

Partnering with the Bristol Bay Native Association, UMCOR funded a food security program to source, transport and deliver food, pantry and household items throughout the winter months and into this summer’s fishing season. Implicit in the program is also the introduction of a CIC climate mitigation strategy and food resource plan for 2019 and beyond.

King takes great satisfaction in seeing the project come to fruition. “Food and household items were shipped from as far away as Lynnwood in Washington state. This has been no small feat of determination, community and logistics.” She credits CIC directors Nancy Mills and George Anderson for their grit and resilience in seeing the project through.

A second UMCOR grant addressed the needs for winter clothing for children and youth in the Perryville community. Income that would have paid for these goods disappeared with the salmon that never arrived for harvest.

A different kind of harvest

Chignik residents who received shipments of food and other household items have expressed gratitude to CIC in various ways. Many partners and hands contributed so that Native communities stayed warm and had what they needed to survive the winter. It was a harvest of a different sort — one of goodwill and sacrificial giving that restored hope.

Unfortunately, the forecast for the 2019 season is not looking good. Salmon season in the Alaska North Pacific region generally includes two salmon runs of different species, one in the spring and another later in the summer. As Mills explained, “The Chignik fishery is experiencing yet another failed first run, and we are hoping something materializes in the late run.”

The changing climate in Arctic regions have made the ebbs and flows of the natural world difficult to predict. Yet, you can Give Hope with your Advent contribution. And, by your goodwill and the grace of God, new partners and old friends will see the Chignik through another season.

Christie R. House is the senior writer/editor for Global Ministries.


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