Salmon: preserving subsistence during a changing climate

Photo by Clark James Mishler
Photo by Clark James Mishler

“I had no idea that people were doing these sort of things,” photographer Clark James Mishler said. He put his camera to use documenting the processing of fish and other subsistence activities in the rural Alaska village of Kwethluk over the course of six years. “These are techniques that are taught to the kids, taught to the grandkids, down the road so that eventually everybody in the village knows how to process fish. And it has been going on for thousands of years. And it works.”

Explore a selection of Clark James Mishler’s photography on his website at

Subsistence describes a traditional way of life, using regional plants and animals to gain food and goods. This tradition includes sharing supplies, culture and customs within the community.

Processing salmon

“In the village there are cycles,” Mishler said. For the Yup’ik people of Kwethluk village “Every 2 weeks what you hunt for, or gather, changes dramatically.”

Mishler used photography to document subsistence in the lives of Peter and Vera Spein, locals of the rural village Kwethluk, Alaska. He described their salmon processing techniques. “The size of the fish, the type of fish, whether it be a king or a silver or a red, guides how they process the fish and what kind of final product they want. Some fish is dried to be eaten in the next couple of months, some fish is dried to be eaten in 6 months.”

Photo by Clark James Mishler
Photo by Clark James Mishler

“Upriver on the Kwethluk river, no more than a 5-10 minute ride by boat from the village of Kwethluk, they have a little cabin and a little smoke house.” Hanging poles are erected outside the smoke house in the summer, and a tarp strung overhead to prevent rain from spoiling the drying fish. “The cabin has no insulation, the mosquitoes are deadly but it’s great fun. And it’s great to see the family: the kids are playing along the river bank,” Mishler described, “And occasionally helping with the processing of the fish.” Peter and other adults perform subsistence fishing while Vera and her mother process the fish and cook for the family. “They work 16-18 hour days,” Mishler said. “Vera is teaching the cousins how to cut the fish, and how to hang the fish. They must have 5 or 6 different ways of hanging fish.”

Some fish are split down the mid line and the halves spread apart with willow branch pieces before being hung on lines. “Other times, they’ll cut the fish laterally, leaving only the tail connected,” Mishler noted, “They’ll take those two pieces of fish that are connected by the tail and they’ll hang those over a log. And they’ll do lateral diagonal cuts in that fish to further open up the flesh of that fish to give it more surface area,” for drying. “Usually when you do it that way, the fish doesn’t dry all that well but it remains very moist. And you may eat that fish a month later.” One longer-term preservation method is to cut fish into strips, “Tiny little strips, a quarter of an inch or less sometimes. One side has the salmon skin, and then you’ve got maybe an eighth of an inch, a quarter inch, of flesh, of the actual salmon. And those are hung in a smoke house [to be] dried 3 or 4 days with a continuous smoke drying effect.” Salmon strips last for 6 months or longer. Preserved salmon provides sustenance and nutrition for the Speins and other rural families during long Alaska winters.

Vera Spein in her home, Kwethluk, Alaska / Photo by Clark James Mishler
Vera Spein in her home, Kwethluk, Alaska / Photo by Clark James Mishler

A note on hardship

Don Callaway, National Park Service, was lead author of the report ‘Effects of Climate Change on Subsistence Communities in Alaska’. The 1998 report noted “Sharp decreases in fish stocks, which comprise 60% of subsistence resources, have created a dietary and economic hardship for many rural Alaska communities.” And “A decline in commercial fisheries is causing economic hardship and steep declines in income in rural communities. Income from commercial fishing is used to purchase the technology used in subsistence activities. This income is also crucial in purchasing store-bought food during periods of natural resource scarcity.” (

Fish can be keystone species, playing an extremely important role in their ecosystem. Changes in salmon populations echo through the food web, impacting nutrient delivery to regions and playing havoc with food availability for predators… including humans.

Salmon versus temperature

The salmon life cycle takes ocean-dwelling adult fish through energy-exhaustive migrations to upriver spawning sites. Changes associated with climate can jeopardize their migration.

For one, salmon have a limited physiological ability to survive outside an ideal range of temperature. That’s a problem because climate change has already resulted in– and likely will continue to result in– increasing air temperatures across Arctic Alaska. The report ‘Stream Water Temperatures Associated with Federal Subsistence Fisheries in Alaska— Winter 2014 to Fall 2015’ prepared for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Subsistence Management by The Aquatic Restoration and Research Institute in 2016 examines the temperature tolerance levels of juvenile coho and chinook salmon. “Juvenile salmon disease rates and lethal temperatures are near 20°C, making this temperature an even more important threshold for evaluating viability of a temperature regime for salmonid survival,” records the report. 20°Celsius is 68°Fahrenheit. (

Dale A. McCullough, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, wrote: survival and fitness of a fish population is lessened even in habitats with heightened temperatures which have not yet reached lethal levels because thermal stress increases energy costs. Fish in these environments use energy coping with the less-than-optimal temperature levels. The stressed fish struggle with migration and reproduction, and are more likely to die due to exhaustion, lessened energy available to escape encounters with predators, and higher susceptibility to disease. (‘A review and synthesis of effects of alternation to the water temperature regime on freshwater life stages of salmonids, with special reference to Chinook salmon’ 1999.

Conditions besides temperature change with climate impact. Glaciers feed many Alaskan rivers, and increased melt runoff from glaciers leads to changes in water levels and also kicks up debris which obscures the gravel beds so important to salmon reproduction. Unusual patterns of snowfall versus rainfall also alter when rivers are inundated by melt water. And in the marine arena, climate factors guide the timing of plankton blooms which salmon young depend on after they reach the sea.

Uncertainty and climate

Besides changing salmon populations, climate change impacts the success of people in Alaska who hunt, fish, and gather their food. Expectations about weather patterns are integral to subsistence community harvests. Subsistence success is bolstered by the ability to accurately forecast the best times to harvest different animals and plants, and the physical ability to reach sites when hunting or gathering opportunities are most ripe.

Climate change alters the distribution and density of wildlife resources. It hinders people’s ability to predict and obtain those resources.

Again the uncertainty of climate impacts present a barrier. Weather patterns trend away from the patterns elders witnessed in their youth. And habitat changes pose challenges. Thawing permafrost destabilizes the ground under buildings, thaws once-cold cellars, dumps previously-frozen bankside debris into water sources and damages roadways and infrastructure. Lessened sea ice extent creates challenges for hunting maritime creatures which congregate near the ice pack.

Increased access to the area for industry can heighten the likelihood of pollution and the threat of oil spills, exacerbating climate-induced threats.

Who uses subsistence

Native residents of Alaska stress that subsistence harvests must not be measured only in monetary values; these activities help provide the basis of community and spiritual well-being.

Subsistence living isn’t restricted to Native groups; any Alaskan resident with 12 consecutive months of residency may participate in subsistence hunting and fishing (excluding specially protected marine mammals). The Alaska Department of Fish and Game Division of Subsistence 2012 report recorded: “The subsistence food harvest by Alaska residents (about 36.2 million lb excluding wild plants) represents about 1.1% of the fish and game harvested annually in Alaska.” While “Personal use fishing, and hunting under general regulations by Alaskans, produce an additional 0.2% of all harvests. Sport fishing and hunting (sport fishing by Alaskans and nonresidents and all nonresident hunting) take 0.5%. Commercial fisheries account for the balance—about 98.2% of the statewide harvest.”

Photo by Clark James Mishler
Photo by Clark James Mishler

That small subsistence percentage plays an enormous role in budgeting, meeting nutritional needs, and ensuring quality of life for subsistence users. The same report notes: “If families did not have subsistence foods, substitutes would have to be purchased. If one assumes a replacement expense of $4.00–$8.00 per pound, the simple “replacement value” of the wild food harvests of communities outside nonsubsistence areas may be estimated at $147–$295 million annually, and at $201–$402 million for all Alaska communities.” (The Alaska Joint Board of Fisheries and Game labels the areas around Anchorage, the Matanuska–Susitna Valley, the Kenai Peninsula, Fairbanks, Juneau, Ketchikan, and Valdez as nonsubsistence areas for the purposes of regulation because of their access to urban markets.


Employment in rural Alaska is often scarce and unreliable. Mishler stated “Few people in the village have a full-time steady income; most of the jobs are seasonal, most are intermittent, and most don’t carry from one season to the next. So you have to reinvent the wheel every year when it comes to cash income.” Peter Spein might be hired during summer months for construction work or commercial fishing work. “But again those were very short windows of time that would produce income for the family,” Mishler emphasized. “It’s a real mixed bag in the villages as to how people make a living and survive. And I think subsistence hunting and fishing is a big part of how you survive in a village.”

Shauna, Rita, Jaidyn and Shaylin at Unagsiksiksauq (Clan Boat Celebration), Qagruq (Whaling Feast), Point Hope, The Purchase Centennial Project / Photo by Clark Mishler
Shauna, Rita, Jaidyn and Shaylin at Unagsiksiksauq (Clan Boat Celebration), Qagruq (Whaling Feast), Point Hope, The Purchase Centennial Project / Photo by Clark Mishler

Groceries and other goods have to be imported, resulting in prohibitive costs, especially for rural communities accessible only by air. A joint University of Alaska Cooperative Extension Service and USDA report in 1995 calculated “While a family of four will spend $93.22 a week for food in Anchorage, this same amount of food will cost $217.96 in Stebbins, a community in rural Alaska.” (

“Yes, they do have stores,” Mishler described of the village. But although goods at stores in rural Alaska are expensive, they may provide poor nutritional value. In Kwethluk “They have their co-op store that they can go into and buy their frozen TV dinners, just like any other store in America. Often time you see foods that you haven’t seen in stores in America for many many years– some of the foods that we long since have given up eating– and they are still selling them in the bush. And when I say TV dinners, I am not kidding. You can actually buy TV dinners in the village,” Mishler said, “It may be a little behind.”

“Having a strong subsistence heritage and eating those foods is actually a much much more healthy choice,” Mishler praised subsistence harvests, “Thank god they have a better, stronger tradition of subsistence because that’s much better food– quality wise and calorie wise and protein wise– much better than they are buying in the stores. ”

The goods available shift as time changes. That’s not a bad thing, Mishler describes. Kuspuk (or, written in Yup’ik, qaspeq) are tunic-length hooded overshirts with a large pocket. Mishler: “I’ve seen these changes in my lifetime. I’ve seen women in a village that were wearing nothing but traditional qaspeq but those qaspeq were introduced when cotton was introduced to the village. Prior to that they were using [the] skins of animals. Then cotton came in and the women said ‘This is much better. In the summertime we can wear cotton and it breaths and it’s wonderful and I can wash it easily,’ and so that was an improvement that they latched on to for good reason. So we can say that even the traditional qaspeq wasn’t all that traditional to begin with. But now all you see in the villages are microfibers and things that are made in some other part of the world and the garments are brought into the stores and sold in the stores and slowly but surely the traditional qaspeqs have gone away and now they are replaced by modern fibers that are manufactured elsewhere, not in the villages.” In some ways climate change is a mixed bag. Benefits like less expensive access to imported goods and even the possibility of access to species with more traditionally southerly ranges are possible alongside drawbacks described above. It’s a living, complicated world.

Investing in small-scale technologies allows rural families and communities to efficiently collect subsistence goods. Likely purchases include snowmachines, motorized skiffs, and fish wheels.

Mishler said “So all of these changes I’ve watched and I’ve heard the arguments: ‘Oh those people are not being subsistence people any more.’ I would argue that they have always been subsistence people and they are looking for their best advantage to capture an animal, a fish, a berry, and bring it back to consume.”

Laura Nielsen 2016

Frontier Scientists: presenting scientific discovery in the Arctic and beyond