Angela Demientieff has been advising Yukon River salmon managers since negotiations between Canada and the United States began more than two decades ago.
But she never knew how aboriginal people in the Yukon caught fish.
“I’ve heard a lot about Canada, but I’d never seen Canada because we only meet in Whitehorse,” she said. “So I often wondered how the outlying area, how do they fish? What do they use? How do they process their fish? And what did they do over there to make sure their fish got to the spawning grounds?”
As one of five Alaskan participants on a recent tour of Yukon fisheries, Demientieff finally got answers to her questions.
After an initial “rundown” at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in Whitehorse, the group spent eight days this month moving from the end of the salmon run, to the beginning.
They rode the river, went to fish camps, learned about the effects of placer mining and spoke to fishermen and elders in Teslin, Whitehorse, Mayo and Dawson.
“When you get a group of folks together and you put them through this meat grinder of 12 hour days, and small vans, and cold boats, and lots and lots of meetings and just loads of travel – different hotels every night with a roommate instead of your own space – you just never really know how that’s all going to turn out,” said Jason Hale, of the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association, which organized the tour.
“It can be pretty draining. But everyone was there for the right reasons. And they stepped up to the task. They shared, whenever there was an opportunity. And they asked lots of questions.”
“I finally got to see the towns I’ve only heard of as names,” said Demientieff. “I’m very glad I went because I actually saw the real fishing people out on the country, doing what they do best. Instead of sitting in meetings and hearing statistics of what people did, I actually saw them doing things and it was really good to be there with them.”
Demientieff always knew the fishermen on the Canadian side were taking care of what they have, she said.
It is something few could deny after the December 2010 Yukon River Panel meeting in Anchorage.
“Just a truckload of Yukoners showed up,” said Hale. “It was the most Yukoners I’d ever seen at any panel meeting in Yukon or Anchorage, either one. It was pretty impressive. It was in the middle of winter and most of them came in buses and trucks and vans and stuff and they just swarmed that place. It was really pretty inspiring.”
Hale still has a notebook full of their quotes, he said.
The gist is there is a problem with the salmon that both sides have to work on.
It is a delicate balance, said Hale.
Poor management on either side could have devastating effects for the entire run.
Last year was an especially bad year after a commercial opening of chum salmon saw large bycatch numbers of the chinook. It led to allegations of poor management, which were only strengthened when Alaska failed to get enough salmon across the border to Canada, falling short of the international treaty signed by both countries.
Similar battles have been waged between the upper and lower Yukon regions, within Alaska, for generations.
But it is exactly those battles that the non-profit fisheries association, which organizes this annual tour, tries to clear up.
“The main point that was driven home is that there are only half as many fish in the run as there were historically,” said Hale. “Escapement numbers (this year) were made at the expense of peoples’ harvest. And these are people who live in economically depressed areas who really need the fish and really need the food. And, on both sides of the river, it’s a cultural need as well. Everybody’s not happy, for sure, because they’re suffering.
“Everyone was talking about it and they were talking about concerns over what can we do and what are the causes. And that conversation happened everywhere. And it’s important. It has to happen. Because otherwise people say, ‘Oh, well, clearly the people in Alaska are catching all the fish,’ or ‘People in Yukon are catching all the fish,’ or, ‘People in the ocean are catching all the fish.’ And it’s actually just that there aren’t all the fish. “
During the tour, Hale noticed a change in perspective in many of the participants, he said.
He saw “an appreciation for how the situation can be tough when not enough fish reach the border” and “an appreciation of what cutting back in those tough years can do in terms of helping out some of those people further up the river.
“Building that kind of perspective and understanding, you can’t do with a newsletter article, or a newspaper article or a brochure. You really need to see it and sit down and have a cup of coffee at somebody’s fish camp. And then another person’s and then another person’s, to really be able to see that.”
That perspective is now taking hold in Alaska, Hale added.
The mood has changed from people raising hell over no commercial fishery to not even mentioning that they restricted their own harvests.
That is something Demientieff knows all too well.
“We’ve learned how to go fishing for less,” she said.
Demientieff is an Indian from the caribou clan in the village of Holy Cross.
The town sits along the Yukon River right as it makes its nearly 90-degree jag inland, in the Lower Yukon region of the state.
Holy Cross has only 189 people, 98 per cent of whom are Indian, Eskimo or Yup’ik and completely dependant on the fish that swim by, said Demientieff.
After this trip to Canada, Demientieff has decided to speak to the students during this school year in Holy Cross to reiterate how important the fish are and how much everyone is doing to save them – it’s a lesson they’ve been taught since they were small, she added.
“I think we’re all thinking the same way, regarding the fish and why they’re not back like they used to be,” she said “We went all the way to Teslin, and Teslin is buying fish from Taku even though 52,000 passed the border going into Canada, just so they could let the fish that do return get to the spawning ground.
“I was very happy because I thought we were the only ones sacrificing our fish,” she said.
Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at email@example.com