Many areas had their lowest catches in nearly 40 years.
Credit: Nick Hall/Getty Images

The salmon industry in Alaska is delicately intertwined with its ecosystem. By state law, fishing of wild salmon has to be sustainable, and as a result, fishermen essentially get what they get, harvesting the excess of fish that won’t disrupt future spawns. According to a recent New York Times piece, this year, those fishermen haven’t gotten much at all.

As the Times explains, red salmon, also known as sockeye salmon, has a special connection with many people in Alaska: The relatively easy-to-catch fish are often caught and consumed locally. But this summer, the number of fish has dropped significantly enough that even commercial fishermen are concerned. Runs were reportedly half of what they were last year in all but one of Alaska’s red salmon fishing regions. And according to officials, Copper River—specifically known for its sockeye salmon—had its smallest run in 38 years, as did other rivers.

“It’s like you prepared your house for company and they never showed up,” Steph Johnson, manager of Anchorage’s Bear Tooth Theatrepub, told the Times.

Scientists warn that it’s too early to determine a cause, seeing as the issue has just sprung up this summer, and it’s important to remember that, as recently as 2015, we were talking about record harvests of Alaska salmon. Even this year, the Times points out that thanks to a record catch in that one outlier area, Bristol Bay, this year’s overall red salmon haul was just above the five-year average.

But with such massive fluctuations, climate change could certainly be a culprit. “Some researchers are pointing toward warmer water, but it kind of depends on which populations we’re talking about and where they are,” Bill Templin, Alaska’s chief scientist for commercial salmon fisheries, said according to the NYT.

Meanwhile, many of the ramifications are typical: higher salmon prices and reduced availability, especially in Alaska itself where red salmon is especially common. And locally speaking, the Times spoke to many Alaskans who are worried—or just unhappy—that they weren’t able to catch any red salmon themselves this year: To some, it’s an important source of inexpensive food; to others, it’s simply a beloved tradition.

But at least one Alaskan the Times spoke too had a larger takeaway. “To not have [red salmon], or to have it be so compromised and so restricted, it’s super scary,” said Aaron Apling-Gilman who runs Anchorage’s Seven Glaciers restaurant. “It puts everything in perspective, ecologically, politically.” Sometimes, a shortage of your favorite food can cause you to rethink everything.