by Sebastian Jones
Summer in Yukon is wedding season for humans and spawning time for chinook salmon, two species whose history has been intertwined for thousands of years.
Yukon would be a very different place without salmon: First Nations on the Yukon watershed have depended on salmon since time immemorial.
Without salmon, the life of the early European settlers would have been even harder.
Without the Tr’ondek Hwech’in fish camp at the mouth of the Klondike River, gold may not have been discovered in Bonanza Creek until much later and Yukon history would have unfolded in some other way.
We have modern records of salmon catches on the Yukon River dating back to the early 1900s. For about 80 years we took about 100,000 chinook salmon a year, shared amongst First Nations, Canadian and American subsistence fishers and the commercial fisheries.
In about 1980 the catch started to climb up to about 150,000 a year, mostly because of an influx of commercial fishing boats from Washington, Oregon and California. Population increase, particularly in Alaska related to an oil boom and a rejuvenated commercial fishery in Dawson City, also contributed.
About 15 years later, the chinook population crashed and has not recovered.
On the face of it, this is a classic example of cause and effect: fish were caught at a faster rate than they could reproduce.
If we dig deeper, the story is more complicated.
A “brood cycle” – a chinook generation – is about seven years. The older fish are larger and produce exponentially more offspring, making up for their rarity with their fertility.
Two brood cycles of overfishing occurred before the crash of the ‘90s.
The new commercial fishery brought better, larger nets that selected for the larger, most productive fish, so not only did the quantity of the catch rise to unsustainable levels, the quality of the fish that did escape to spawn was also reduced.
The older, larger fish have all but disappeared from the salmon runs. Before the early 1980s, it was normal to catch giant chinook of 60 to 80 lbs. It is very rare now to find one over 40 lbs.
The warning signs of impending disaster were subtle, but they were there long before the crash, if you looked. All the fishermen along the upper Yukon noticed, starting in the 1980s, that the largest fish were fewer each year.
At first, the lower river commercial fishery was selecting these fish. Later these special fish were removed from the gene pool because that subset of the population was vanishing.
Imagine we executed every person over 175 lbs., how long would it take before we noticed humanity was on average smaller? Now imagine that larger people had three children each and smaller people only had one, and that most of those were males. How long would it be before the total population of humanity crashed?
This is the problem we have with most fisheries around the world. The Yukon River is no different.
The Yukon River is special in other ways and this gives us hope for the return of the chinook .
Most of the habitat is still intact. Its only significant dam is the one in Whitehorse and placer mining affected a very small proportion of the spawning grounds, mostly in the Klondike. The Bering Sea, where the salmon spend most of their ocean lives, is really clean.
The Yukon River flows through two sophisticated, wealthy countries, well endowed with some of the world’s best fisheries scientists.
We are well organized and have small populations.
If we cannot get it right here, we cannot get it right anywhere.
So, will we get it right?
We hear there are more chinook returning in 2015 than we have seen for years, maybe as many as 75,000.
These numbers are better than the past few years, but still less than half a healthy population. The eight and nine-year-old fish have not reappeared.
This minimally viable return was achieved by a moratorium on fishing within Yukon and no targeted commercial fishing and reduced subsistence fishing in Alaska.
Unfortunately, massive pollock trawlers in the Bering Sea continue to remove millions of tons of salmon food, kill tens of thousands of salmon and cause tremendous damage to the bottom environment.
Yukon has committed to continuing the moratorium for at least one brood cycle. Alaska has committed to allow 42,000 – 55,000 fish to reach Eagle, Alaska. This number is re-negotiated each year.
The salmon can be restored, but only if the commitment to restoration led by Yukon First Nations is fully adopted in Alaska and only if the pollock trawlers back off.
We need Marine Protected Areas in the salmon feeding grounds in the Bering Sea. We need to maintain and strengthen protection of salmon habitat in Yukon and Alaska.
We also need to get a handle on carbon pollution, which aside from warming the water is acidifying the ocean, probably the worst threat the salmon face.
We must never take the salmon for granted again and then maybe the Yukon River will be red with salmon again.
Sebastian Jones has been a commercial fisher on the Yukon River near Dawson City since 1984 and works for Yukon Conservation Society, focusing on energy and wildlife. He tries to make up for his role in the salmon crash by contributing to salmon education and restoration. He now catches and eats chum salmon.