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Small Chinook Opening for Koyukuk Memorial Potlatch

Salmon caught in gillnet. Photo: Ingrid Taylar via Flickr Creative Commons.

In Koyukuk, a small harvest of 30 Chinook salmon has been gathered for a three-day memorial potlatch ceremony that will be held in the community next week. Current restrictions prohibit fishing for Chinook on the Yukon, so the Koyukuk tribal council had to request specific permission to fish for the ceremony.

In the Koyukon area, memorial potlatches are held every couple of years to celebrate the lives of friends and family members who have passed away. The celebration includes memorial speeches, singing, dancing, gifts, and the sharing of meals. Ben Jones was one of the fishermen permitted to harvest for the ceremony during the short opening.

“Just two of us—me and another guy. That’s all they allowed, two boats, during the restriction,” said Jones. “And we had to have a permit with us in the boat. We were allowed to harvest 30 kings, so when we hit that quota, we quit.”

Having Chinook salmon, even in modest quantity, is important for tradition. Eric Newland, summer season area management biologist for ADF&G, said that while their first priority is sustaining the fish population for the future, ADF&G works with U.S. Fish & Wildlife to facilitate small ceremonial harvests like the one in Koyukuk.

Newland said that over the past few years, there have been two or three potlatch harvests each year while closures were in effect on the Yukon. Successful requests for ceremonial harvest openings typically come from a tribal organization, seek a modest number of fish (between 15 and 30), and offer to provide local information on the salmon run while the harvest is occurring.

A number of test fisheries operate in the Lower Yukon to assess salmon runs, but these sites are far from communities like Koyukuk. Newland said that potlatch harvests, though infrequent, can serve almost as small test fisheries—providing useful information about salmon runs further up the Yukon while providing fish for important cultural events.

In Koyukuk, Jones said the 30 Chinook salmon will go toward feeding the three- to four-hundred people expected at the potlatch—many of whom are traveling from hundreds of miles away.

“All the way from Allakaket, which is about 300 miles from here. Some people come from Minto, Tanana, Ruby, and all the way from downriver as far as Holy Cross,” said Jones. The potlatch will begin the evening of July 16, with celebrations ending at 2 or 3 a.m. on July 19.