A salmon swims in the Whitehorse Fish Ladder in 2015. Chinook salmon numbers are much lower than previous years, some First Nations are saying. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News)

Despite strong Alaska numbers, Yukon First Nations reporting low chinook returns

‘We don’t want to be like the cod fishery in the East Coast’

The promising chinook salmon numbers Alaska reported earlier this summer have not materialized in Yukon rivers, some First Nations are reporting — in fact, based on preliminary counts, some rivers have only seen 20 per cent of last year’s chinook run.

“According to the preseason estimates on the Yukon (River), it looked very good … (but) the numbers didn’t show up as we expected,” Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation’s natural resources director William Josie said.

According to data provided by Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the Porcupine River sonar station had counted about 1,130 chinook salmon as of last week. The same time last year, the sonar had already counted more than 5,600 salmon, and in 2015, about 4,440.

Josie attributes the diminished return to a six-week spell of hot weather earlier this summer, which lowered water levels while raising water surface temperatures. Several studies have shown that water temperatures of 21 C or higher discourage chinook from migrating and could lead to death.

“Chinook salmon were dying in the river (and based on) observations from sonar crew and fishermen, chinooks were just hanging out in deeper portions of the river, just swimming back and forth,” Josie said. “They were just sticking to deep water during that hot period.”

VGFN fish camps did manage to harvest about 150 fish, Josie added — a lot lower than historical harvests — but cut back once they noticed that the chinook were under stress from the water conditions.

“We just encouraged our fishermen to be more cautious and fish conservatively, and most people are doing that already anyway.… We’ve been working hard on salmon management and salmon conservation,” he said.

According to Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyak Dun also reported low water levels and poor fishing in spots that are usually more fruitful.

Meanwhile, along the Pelly River, water levels are higher than usual, but the chinook turnout is also “a lot lower than expected,” said Selkirk First Nation’s Eugene Alfred, who’s in charge of the First Nation’s chinook management plan.

So far this season, SFN’s sonar station on the Pelly has counted about 8,000 chinook, with more still trickling in. It’s only the second year the sonar’s been in place — last year, it was only active for a month — so there isn’t historical data to compare, but Alfred said the run “started off slow” and hasn’t really picked up. It’s not the smallest run SFN’s ever seen, Alfred said, but citizens were expecting a much stronger one after hearing about the number of chinook counted at Alaska’s Pilot Station, reportedly the largest in the past decade.

“This year, the way that it was kind of laid out was that it was going to be one of the better years as far as returns,” he said. “I’m not sure if it was an inflated number or what, but it just didn’t materialize.”

Alfred said he suspects Alaska’s reaction to the high numbers that came out of Pilot Station may have something to do with the low returns being seen in Canada now.

“I’m gathering it would be the result of what’s happening in Alaska, which is, they started fishing the first pulse,” he said, referring to the first group of fish to make it from the Bering Sea and into the Yukon River. “They manage things differently than here.… All they see are these large numbers and there’s no thought of, really, (the fish) coming to the spawning ground.”

“You’ve got to wonder, how much can the whole species take?” Alfred continued. “We’re just constantly taking, taking, overtaking. We don’t want to be like the cod fishery in the East Coast. We still have an opportunity to turn it around but it’s going to take everyone to want that.”

Like VGFN, the run isn’t the smallest SFN has ever seen, Alfred said, but is still vastly smaller than historical ones. Fishing camps were able to harvest, he added, but on top of lower chinook numbers, fishermen were also impeded by the amount of debris carried by the higher water levels as well as a swifter-than-usual current. As well, they’re still adhering to limited catch numbers as part of a management and conservation plan, Alfred said, which also includes putting female chinook and larger fish back into the river and restricting net and mesh size.

“We’re still practicing our traditional way of life, but a lot more cautiously and respectfully,” he said.

And like other First Nations, Alfred said Selkirk has the future in mind.

“We got our escapement number, which we were needing, but we were looking for more as far as just getting more (fish) to the spawning grounds, and if you want more fish to come back, you need to put more on the spawning grounds, there’s just no way around it,” he said.

“How much time do we have? We don’t know, but today, we still have fresh water, we still have moose, we still have fish.… Another 50 years down the road, who knows what we’ll have?”

Contact Jackie Hong at jackie.hong@yukon-news.com