The Porcupine River chum salmon run may be in trouble.
While the Yukon River chinook has monopolized the spotlight for decades, its smaller, more abundant and less-prized cousin was the subject of conversation and concern at Yukon River Panel meetings held this week in Whitehorse.
Phil Timpany has guided bear-watching tours in Ni’iinlii Njik (Fishing Branch) Territorial Park, south of Old Crow, since 1991.
Every year thousands of chum salmon migrate from the Bering Sea to spawning grounds there. Dozens of bears congregate, too, looking for an easy meal of spawned-out fish.
But over the past five seasons the fish haven’t come in the numbers that they used to, said Timpany.
Last year, the run appeared to be “on the cusp of becoming a remnant,” he said.
At the spawning site where his tour operation conducts its business, he counted maybe 700 fish where he’s used to seeing 10,000, he said.
Official counts also show a dismal 2014 return, according to the recent report of the Yukon River Panel’s joint technical committee.
The escapement goal for the Fishing Branch River is 50,000-120,000 fall chum salmon, although a lower interim goal of 22,000-49,000 fish has been in place since 2008 as a result of poor returns.
Only 17,756 chum were counted at the Porcupine River sonar station near Old Crow, well upstream from the Fishing Branch spawning grounds.
About 46 per cent of fish tagged at the sonar station ended up in the Fishing Branch spawning grounds in 2014.
Although the committee felt it did not have enough information to make a spawning escapement estimate for the Fishing Branch, it gave a tentative guess of about 7,300, just one-third of the lower end of the escapement goal.
The 2015 run is not expected to be much better.
“If the productivity of the 2011 brood year is similar to that of the 2010 brood year, the 2015 return is expected to be very poor,” according to the report.
Elsewhere in the Yukon River watershed, the chum run has been a bright spot that has offset the impact of dismal chinook runs.
Last year unprecedented measures were taken in Alaskan and Yukon portions of the watershed to preserve the flailing runs.
Here in the Yukon, the chinook catch was less than 100 fish, all taken by local First Nations and mostly for ceremonial purposes.
In lower portions of the watershed, a bountiful summer chum run helped boost Alaskan communities impacted by the restrictions, as they were allowed to use selective fishing gear to target the smaller fish while allowing chinook to pass through.
The community of Old Crow, too, has increasingly relied on the Porcupine River chum run to supplement lower chinook numbers.
Over the last ten seasons excluding 2014, members of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation took an average of 2,814 chum, compared with 289 chinook and 150 coho.
Last year the community took 1,983 chum, 133 coho and only three chinook, according to voluntarily reported numbers from the First Nation.
The community has come to rely on the chum run, Erika Tizya told the panel on Wednesday. Tizya was in the public audience, and is the former lands manager for Vuntut Gwitchin.
She urged the panel to make the protection of the Porcupine River chum a priority.
The management of that stock is complicated by the fact that it represents only about four per cent of a run that is generally healthy and strong.
Timpany said he understands the difficulty in managing a mixed-stock fishery, but that shouldn’t be an excuse to ignore the problem.
“It’s a disgrace, what’s happened up there,” he said.
“I find it hard to believe that nothing can be done.”
This summer’s chinook run is again expected to be poor, with an anticipated run of 59,000 to 70,000 Canadian-origin fish.
Alaskan fisheries managers are planning for a similar run size and similar management actions as last year.
That will likely mean again shutting down the river to targeted chinook fishing. Last year, under strict restrictions, escapement goals were met for only the third time in eight seasons.
On the Canadian side of the border, the management decision-making process is currently being re-evaluated.
Instead of apportioning the allowable size of the aboriginal fishery based on run size alone, Fisheries and Oceans Canada is working with First Nations to consider other factors such as the age and gender composition of the run as well as possibilities for social or ceremonial fishing opportunities.
Contact Jacqueline Ronson at