Less than a year ago, they were just roe and milt commingling in Ziploc bags at the Whitehorse fish ladder.
Now, 87,000 juvenile chinook salmon, each measuring around six centimetres, are making it on their own in sheltered pockets of Fox Creek, a tributary of Lake Laberge.
Since 2007, the Ta’an Kwach’an Council has reared salmon and sent them on their way as part of their Community Stewardship program.
This year could have the lowest number of returning chinook salmon along the Yukon River, but resource staff are hoping that among them will be four-year-old male salmon, the first returning to Fox Creek since the program began.
Coralee Johns has managed the project since 2009.
“It’s so dear to me. I love being able to be a part of this type of project. And renewable resources has always been a field that I’ve wanted to work in.”
Johns grew up on Lake Laberge in the heart of Ta’an Kwach’an traditional territory. Her love for the land led her to pursue a career in natural resources.
“After graduating high school, I pretty much put in my resume and said I would work in any lands, resources and heritage department,” she said.
Fox Creek is one of the more suitable environments for salmon spawning near Lake Laberge, but they don’t come around much anymore, said Johns.
Elders say that in the 1950s they used to fish salmon on Fox Creek all the way up to the bridge at the Klondike Highway, eight kilometres from the mouth, she said.
This “guidance from our elders” led to the establishment of the plan to get salmon back into the creek.
Their journey starts at the Whitehorse fish ladder in August, where adult females are held until they are ready to spawn.
Workers collect their eggs in plastic bags.
The roe is then mixed with the milt, or sperm, of two males. This helps ensure genetic diversity and approximates how reproduction occurs in the wild.
After a few weeks, the fertilized eggs are more stable and can be transported.
The eggs destined for Fox Creek are then moved to an incubation facility on McIntyre Creek operated by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
Students from the Renewable Resources Management program at Yukon College sift through the incubation trays for several hours every day to remove the dead eggs.
If they don’t, bacteria could collect in the water and before long the whole tray would be wasted.
In December, the eggs hatch and become alevin, and they feed from the yolk sac still attached near their throat.
After a few weeks, the yolk sac is depleted and the tiny fish are ready to be transferred from the incubation trays to troughs, which are fed by groundwater from the natural creek flow.
The salmon grow through the winter and spring with regular feeding and monitoring.
By June, they are ready to be clipped, tagged, and released.
The fish are sedated and staff then clip off the tiny adipose fin, found on the backside just above the tail.
Clipping the fin helps scientists and resource managers easily identify which fish were raised in hatcheries and which were raised in the wild.
Swimming without the fin “doesn’t bother them at all,” Johns said.
After they are clipped, the salmon have a tiny piece of coded wire inserted under their skin just above their nostril.
The wire fragment carries a code specific to the Fox Creek project so researchers will eventually be able to track exactly where the fish came from.
Johns collects fish heads from fishermen and sends them to DFO for analysis.
“The elders are always upset, ‘You can’t take the heads!’ because they love eating it.”
In order to tag them, fish must be held by hand, the jaw pushed slightly open so the nose fits snugly into the apparatus.
Because this year’s salmon were particularly small, the machine that inserts the wire under their skin used only half the normal length of wire for each fish.
This made the process even more delicate, and many times the wire was rejected and the process had to be repeated.
Meanwhile, staff had to keep track of around 100,000 fish - how many had been clipped, how many had been tagged, and how many didn’t make it.
The process, anticipated to take 20 days, took almost a month.
In the end, around 87,000 salmon were released in four stages into Fox Creek. The last batch entered the water last week.
Council staff, program partners and community volunteers came out to help with the release.
The fish were transported by truck from the McIntyre Creek facility to the place where Fox Creek meets the Klondike Highway.
Once there, Johns slowly removed water from the totes, replacing it with creek water, which is a few degrees warmer.
“We can see their skin changing. Instead of being really dark, they camouflage a little bit lighter,” said Johns.
Elders, children, and people of all ages in between helped with the release, gently dropping buckets full of young salmon into sheltered pockets of the creek. The process can take several hours.
After a year in the creek, the fish that survive the winter will be ready to make their way to the ocean.
The hope is that they will return to Fox Creek to spawn when they are mature adults.
To reproduce, salmon typically return to the stream they grew up in, but not always.
An adult female can hold around 8,000 eggs in her belly, and of those, only about two are expected to survive the journey to the ocean and back.
Encouraging spawning on Fox Creek will not only work to restore a natural salmon environment, but it could also reduce mortality rates, said Johns.
The salmon that come from above the Whitehorse Dam don’t always make it back down the fish ladder, and many die in the turbines. Fox Creek salmon avoid that hazard.
Still, their journey is not easy.
One of the major challenges for the Fox Creek project is the abundance of beaver dams.
Dams can provide sheltered habitat for young salmon to grow, but with too many of them they become an obstacle.
Ta’an Kwach’an Council secured funding for a beaver management plan that would expose the young people of the community to trapping practices, but they had to send the money back.
An elder who trapped near Fox Creek passed away in December, and according to tradition no one can disturb the area for a full year.
“The beaver dams, they’re a pretty big obstacle for us right now,” Johns said.
And restoring spawning habitat is only the beginning of the battle.
Before returning to Canada, salmon must brave several years in the open ocean and then travel thousands of kilometres through American waters.
In 2010, the Alaska pollack industry reported a bycatch of over 51,000 chinook salmon, which is a lot more that the 33,000 fish that made it to the border that year.
Under a treaty obligation, Alaska must allow for between 33,000 and 43,000 to make it into Canada, plus the share of catch designated for First Nation fisheries. In recent years, that obligation has not always been met.
When the numbers at the border are low, First Nations are left with the tough choice of protecting the stock for spawning or harvesting the fish.
This year, in light of the dismal run, many First Nations are limiting their harvest or shutting down their fishery altogether.
“That takes away from the grandmothers and the true fishermen who do it every single year,” Johns said.
It also takes away from the communities for whom participating in fish camps is a valued cultural activity.
“It brings our families together for sure,” Johns said.
The Fox Creek project can serve as a model for other First Nations, said Johns.
“It’s been inspirational for me because I learn a lot from our elders when they speak and they talk about it. It comes from their heart and you can see how heartfelt they are, and I love that.”
Contact Jacqueline Ronson at