AVF staff Nalikutaar, Jacqueline Cleveland and Stephanie Quinn-Davidson reflect on the significance of increasing federal funds and opportunities for tackling missing salmon data and embracing Indigenous knowledge in the Arctic, Yukon and Kuskokwim watersheds, and what it means for the next generation of salmon – and people.
AVF Project Manager of the Kuinerraq Sustainable Future Project Nalikutaar, Jacqueline Cleveland, was born and raised in the AYK region and lives in Quinhagak. In addition to serving on the Native Village of Kwinhagak’s Tribal Council, Nalikutaar’s seasonal work includes river runs as a Fish and Wildlife Refuge Information Technician in the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge, acting as a liaison between federal agency policy and community-led management.
AVF Fisheries and Communities Program Director Stephanie Quinn-Davidson worked for over a decade on the Yukon, spending time in communities along the river as concerns about climate change and declining salmon populations grew. Over the course of her career with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and then with the Tanana Chiefs Conference, Stephanie watched as federal and state funding cuts gradually and quietly shuttered fisheries project after project on the river, all while salmon numbers dwindled.
The Arctic, Yukon and Kuskokwim (AYK) region is a geographically immense and diverse area. Imagine a band across the entire middle of Alaska, stretching from Canada in the east to Alaska’s western coast, and includes all waters of Alaska that drain into the Bering Sea, Chukchi Sea and Arctic Ocean north from Cape Newenham. Just like the lands and waters, the area is also culturally and linguistically diverse, and includes 118 Tribes and communities closely tied to fishing and ranging from coastal tundra villages to forested villages in the interior.
Thanks to the Bipartisan Infrastructure and Inflation Reduction Acts, millions of federal dollars are now flowing into the AYK region for co-stewardship with Tribes, salmon habitat restoration, and projects addressing food security and ecosystem threats. Our team at Alaska Venture Fund is working to leverage this federal investment to build a growing portfolio of ventures in the AYK – a region that has historically been overlooked by philanthropic investment – to advance sustainable, equitable and Indigenous-led projects that reflect the needs of local communities.
With plummeting salmon numbers and subsistence fishing closures impacting the region over the past two years, many Alaska Native residents in the AYK are losing connection to their cultural inheritance. The centrality of salmon to the cultural integrity and food security of the region cannot be overstated. Recent programs to ship fish from Bristol Bay to communities along the Yukon are impressive stopgap measures, but these won’t address the long-term impact of declining salmon in the AYK.
This year, with looming catastrophic fisheries closures yet again, we see real potential for the influx of funding to change the way salmon data and environmental stewardship happens in the AYK, for the better. This includes finding innovative ways to fill gaps and build community resilience. Below, Jacqueline and Stephanie reflecton how this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to shape this new approach to conservation and stewardship, through centering Indigenous knowledge and equity, is creating conditions ripe for lasting region-wide impact.
I didn’t think I would see Indigenous knowledge recognized and respected for its value within my lifetime. Indigenous knowledge will be part of the rhythm of decision making going forward and I hope that Gravel to Gravel will help legitimize Indigenous knowledge in co-management and salmon data collection here in the AYK, but as a model for other regions as well. – Nalikutaar, Jacqueline Cleveland
Nalikutaar, Jacqueline Cleveland (NJC): Many communities across the AYK, including my home community of Quinhagak, have been contending with declining salmon numbers and a historic lack of engagement with our in region expertise for a long time. The investment now coming to the AYK, and particularly the change in approach to working in my region, is full of potential – especially in light of where we are and where we’re coming from.
Stephanie Quinn-Davidson (SQD): Fisheries funding evaporated in the AYK over the last decade, leading to fewer assessment projects in the water and to data gaps and uncertainty in where fish were spawning, if they were spawning, and how many were spawning. As a fishery manager for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game seven years ago on the Yukon River, I recall being asked to “peel back the layers of the onion” to figure out how far we could go with budget cuts and still make management decisions. What remains today is a skeletal fisheries assessment program, providing the bare minimum data to manage the fisheries in-season. Meanwhile, salmon are in crisis and we don’t know why, nor do we have projects in the water to help us begin to understand why. We haven’t had the holistic approach necessary to understand the whole salmon life cycle, over a full generation – literally, from gravel to gravel. Chinook salmon have been declining for a decade and now other salmon species are following.
As state and federal funding sputtered over the years, the salmon started disappearing and fisheries closures to conserve the low numbers have left a region culturally and economically dependent on salmon, on the shoreline with dry nets and empty smokehouses. A generation is losing connection to their culture and traditional knowledge. We’re in a pivotal moment.
NJC: Because of these Western data gaps, we’ve been depending on our own Indigenous fisheries knowledge for years. The only data we’ve had for the waters near Quinhagakhave been scattered, from spotty aerial surveys that can’t identify chum salmon, to postseason fishing counts and subsistence survey responses. Within the past two years, locals notice there have been less chum and the big kings (Chinooks) are almost gone. Some Elders tell us to take only what we need rather than take in abundance. I can’t send all my extended family dry fish like I used to. It affects our Yup’ik culture because sharing food is our culture. It’s who we are. Elders say the greatest gift we can give is food. Neqa – it means both ‘fish’ and ‘food.’
Once, when I was on the Kuskokwim River before the salmon arrived, one of our Elders observed the wind direction and what the birds were doing. Based on that, he could say when the fish would come, how deep they would swim and if they would be abundant or not. And then they came – when he said they would and at the depth he said. Elders knew. They knew. Growing up, I always thought that my people – Yupiit – were the best meteorologists.
We need to shift our focus onto the health of our bigger ecosystem, so we’re not solely focused on prioritizing human needs. Salmon are just as important. Humans are equal to a salmon or a bear or a berry. We believe that if we take care of the salmon, the salmon will give themselves to us. But we need to shift the balance. In recent times, environmental stewardship has been driven by decision makers outside our region. We need to include our own local Indigenous knowledge and community input going forward to figure out what’s happening to our salmon and find region-specific solutions. Indigenous sovereignty and equity are at the heart of how we are reshaping conservation and management in the AYK and this approach is transformative on all levels.
SQD: In my time on the Yukon, I watched community-led solutions be the most successful and most powerful – from Tribes coming together in 2014 to voluntarily stand down to conserve salmon, to a whole region trying new methods of fishing to protect declining Chinook salmon populations. These solutions had the input and community buy-in that you can’t get from top-down decision-making from state or federal agencies. I am constantly impressed at how resourceful and resilient my colleagues and friends have been along the Yukon as they’ve faced the salmon crisis. And when you combine that with the generations of knowledge and experience, the solutions they develop are thoughtful and long-lasting. They have always had the answers. We just need to listen.
NJC: In Quinhagak, we’re doing just that – listening to our people. Our Tribal Council made changes to protect our local salmon numbers. By reducing net sizes, the number of fishing days and nets per boat, we’re managing our fishery for the benefit of everyone in our community.
Part of my work is to think long-term and reimagine what is possible as we build toward a sustainable future in my region. This takes multi-level investment in our communities and in our people, starting now. Coalitions are being built and the networks to absorb high-level funding are coming into place. We’re ready to channel investment into region-wide action.
SQD: The AYK region has historically been overlooked or underfunded by philanthropic investment. To make matters more challenging, the region is geographically expansive, with diverse and unique needs. Any investment hoping to make a lasting impact in the region would need to be substantial and in the millions of dollars – something philanthropy alone cannot achieve.
This is why the U.S. Department of Interior’s new Gravel to Gravel initiative is such a historic investment in the AYK region, and at such a critical time. “Gravel to Gravel” symbolizes the seven-year life cycle of a salmon hatching in gravel bed waterways and then returning home to spawn in those same gravel beds. The initiative gives us a framework to think long-term about investment in the region and to look forward to the next seven years and subsequent generations of salmon.
Gravel to Gravel also gives us the opportunity to leverage numerous other ongoing state, federal, tribal, and philanthropic efforts. Tribes in the region are uniting and working together to advocate for better management and inclusion of Indigenous knowledge in resource management decisions. The State of Alaska is developing its own watershed-scale effort for the Yukon River, aimed at understanding the salmon declines in a more holistic way. Senator Lisa Murkowski secured Congressionally Directed Spending for numerous fisheries projects in Alaska to address the salmon declines, with awards made to the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association, Kuskokwim Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, and Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association to implement community-based monitoring, co-management, and drainage-wide ecological monitoring projects. And here at Alaska Venture Fund, we have been able to provide supplemental funding to the region through our re-granting process and support from the Bezos Earth Fund, Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and the Oak Foundation. This year, we launched a climate resilience project funded by Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies aimed at developing and supporting community-led solutions to pressing climate disasters, such as the AYK salmon declines.
NJC: We’re also pursuing grant funding for Indigenous Guardians and community-based monitoring work in and around Quinhagak.And we’re building relationships with other communities in our area such as Platinum, to amplify the need for community-based monitoring and to find and fund opportunities. Our people are ready to lead on local assessment projects. We already have the knowledge. Local monitoring will give us local salmon data, but will also help with other challenges like river erosion and tackling mine contamination in our waterways.
And because of this new approach to investment in the region, we’re rebuilding relationships between our Native Village of Kwinhagak, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and federal agencies focused on responsibility, or rather, co-responsibility. Parts of our local river, the Kanektok, are currently managed by both federal and state agencies, and historically without a lot of local input. The paradigm is shifting to better include our local Tribe in management decisions.
The Gravel to Gravel Initiative will give us a chance to have better relationships with federal and state agencies so that we can co-manage our lands and waters for the benefit of the Yup’ik people. We know how to manage our home. Who is better to manage our home than us? We are the original stewards.
I didn’t think I would see Indigenous knowledge recognized and respected for its value within my lifetime. Indigenous knowledge will be part of the rhythm of decision making going forward and I hope that Gravel to Gravel will help legitimize Indigenous knowledge in co-management and salmon data collection here in the AYK, but as a model for other regions as well.
SQD: This new approach is historic for its commitment to co-stewardship, valuing traditional and local knowledge, and building partnerships with the Tribes in the region to develop and execute many of the restoration and ecosystem monitoring projects. Tribes and tribal coalitions are poised and ready to lead the way, stewarding the land and waters as they have for millenia. This significant influx of funding, leveraged with the numerous other investments, will help the Indigenous people of the region put their solutions – backed by generations of experience and knowledge – into action.
As communities across the AYK watersheds anxiously await yet another salmon run that may not materialize, initiatives like Gravel to Gravel and other funding flowing into the region offer a crucial glimmer of hope; opportunities for these communities to forge a more resilient future based on ancestral knowledge and a millenia-old connection to the lands and waters. The timely convergence of support from far-reaching public initiatives and private philanthropy has created a once in a lifetime opportunity for region-wide impact. The collaborative underpinnings of this approach is already generating powerful momentum, channeling resources, expertise and investment into an area that has long been overlooked and underserved. By directly empowering the people of the AYK and resourcing their solutions, co-responsibility frameworks offer a genuine chance to overcome the challenges posed by declining salmon populations and build a more sustainable future.
Banner photo and all photos of Nalikutaar, Jacqueline Cleveland, courtesy of Nalikutaar, Jacqueline Cleveland. Jacqueline is a Yup’ik subsistence hunter, fisherwoman, and gatherer from Quinhagak and a citizen of the Native Village of Kwinhagak Tribal Government. As a filmmaker and photographer, Jacqueline’s work focuses on elevating the languages and cultures of Alaska Native peoples.
Photos of Stephanie Quinn-Davidson and the Yukon River by Kerry Tasker. Kerry is an editorial portrait photographer based in Anchorage, Alaska. He has worked freelance for Invision/Associated Press, Entertainment One Films, Affinityfilms, Alaska Dispatch News, the Anchorage Press and First Alaskans Magazine. Kerry’s personal photography is inspired by his deep interest in the Alaska wilderness and manifests in images that capture the sublime vastness of the Alaskan landscape.
To support our work, two students at the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) of Government chose AVF as their Policy Analysis Exercise client and worked with our team to research the intersections of increasing wildfire, salmon decline, and permafrost melt impacting Indigenous communities in Interior Alaska. Their research received Distinction Honors and the resulting report identifies immediate next steps, including philanthropy’s unique potential to accelerate tribally led solutions.
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