Yukon River Salmon Star In Award Winning Film

By Margaret Bauman

A film on Yukon River salmon and the commercial fishermen who harvest them won top honors in the 2010 James Beard Foundation Media and Book Awards on May 2, in ceremonies in New York City.

The “King of Alaska” episode from the Public Broadcasting Station (PBS) “Chefs A’ Field” special features Yukon king salmon and the Yup’ik Eskimo harvesters of this salmon species famed for its high omega-3 oil content.

The harvesters work for Kwik’Pak Fisheries, a subsidiary of Yukon Delta Fisheries Development Association, a community development quota group. Kwik’Pak buys salmon from several hundred harvesters of salmon in the Lower Yukon.

Kwik’Pak general manager Jack Schultheis, who helped orchestrate the project, said he was pleased that the segment on wild Yukon River salmon and the Yup’ik people who harvest them earned the award. “For us, this validates the fact that we have an amazing story to tell- as well as excellent salmon,” Schultheis said.

The episode, filmed largely in Emmonak, Alaska, tells of the travels of acclaimed restaurateur and chef Rick Moonen to see the way the fish are harvested and processed there on the Lower Yukon. Moonen, an advocate for sustainable seafoods, owns an upscale restaurant in Las Vegas and travels around the country educating people about the importance of sustainable fisheries and ocean conservation.

Schultheis said that in the wake of a terrible fishing season in 2009, he is optimistic that there will be ample runs of chum and silver salmon, as well as a small number of kings in the 2010 season. Kwik’Pak employs about 500 fishermen from eight communities on the Lower Yukon and will also be buying fish in the coming season from Boreal Fisheries at St. Marys, Schultheis said. The company has a number of domestic markets, including Whole Foods, and growing markets in Europe.

The Lower Yukon is known for its high cost of living, coupled with a limited number of jobs. A loaf of bread in Emmonak costs $7 and a gallon of milk $11, Schultheis said. Last year’s fishery, complicated by harsh break-up conditions on the Yukon, had an ex-vessel value of about $700,000, or about $1,200 in gross earnings per permit holder, he said.

Back in 1999, the fishery had an ex-vessel value of $18 million, he said.