It’s not just about the fish.
Estimates for this year’s chinook salmon run are similar to last year’s numbers – meaning “very well below average,” said Mary Ellen Jarvis, a resource manager with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, this week.
As of Aug. 4, it was projected between 30,658 and 32,921 chinook would cross the border into Canada this year. And the run could be as much as a week late, she said.
It isn’t clear exactly what’s causing the chinook decline. Possible reasons could be water quality or climate change, said Jarvis. The department continues to monitor the runs both pre- and post-season. But what is clear is it’s raising an alarm. As in past years, many First Nations have been restricting how many fish they catch.
The Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association and Yukon Salmon Sub-Committee met in Whitehorse this week for a roundtable discussion, in preparation for an international summit next April in Alaska to discuss salmon. The groups wanted to make sure they had a clear message to bring to the meeting.
Putting that message together can be tricky, especially for people who live in the more remote communities along the Yukon River.
“We call it fish and wildlife management, but actually we’re managing people,” said William Josie, fish and wildlife manager for the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, during Tuesday morning’s discussion.
Representatives from the federal government and the salmon committee only come to Old Crow once a year, he said. And that’s not enough.
“They’ve been around for a while and some people have never heard of them,” he said after the meeting.
Old Crow residents have chinook, he said. They get it from the Porcupine River. But there’s no monitoring system to say how many fish travel through the waters. Chinook, moose and caribou make up the majority of the community’s meat, he said – it’s expensive to buy food in the fly-in community.
But even though the Porcupine salmon seem plentiful now, the First Nation is cutting back its harvest, said Josie. In the past, it brought in thousands of fish. Last year, about 200 were harvested. This year, about 300 fish were caught – about enough for one fish per person, said Josie.
“We only fish what we need,” he said.
But he knows First Nations more dependent on the Yukon River have been having a hard time in recent years, he said.
Several have already been restricting the numbers of chinook they catch. Chinook counts aren’t low enough for the salmon to be classified as being at-risk, but there are worries that that could happen sooner rather than later.
“If we don’t do something drastic now, we’re going to be in the species-at-risk category,” said Pauline Frost, vice-chair of the salmon sub-committee, after the meeting.
And that means more than just the fish could be endangered.
“The fear right now is that a way of life is being lost,” said Frost, noting how several First Nations have stopped fishing for the chinook. “It’s not the harvesting of the salmon. It’s everything that goes around the salmon harvesting. It’s a way of life for our people.”
The Tr’ondek Hwech’in haven’t been fishing for chinook for the last few years, she said. It’s been a voluntary ban, she added.
Banning fishing of the chinook altogether may be discussed at next year’s meeting, said Frost. Details of the possible moratorium still need to be finalized, and it’s not yet clear whether it will even be discussed, she said. But what’s more important is that groups come to the summit with a clear idea of what they want, and all communities – in Alaska and the Yukon – have their concerns represented.
“I think it’s important to advocate change, but we need to advocate change consistently across the board and we haven’t done that yet,” said Frost.
A lot of that is because regulations are different in Canada and the United States. For example, in Canada, only members of First Nations can be considered sustenance fishers, said Christie. In Alaska, non-First Nation members can also fish for sustenance, she said.
It’s taken a while for some groups in Alaska to understand how serious the low chinook run is, said Frost. But at meetings earlier this year in St. Mary’s, Alaska, elders were pleading with youth about the situation’s importance, she said.
Some Alaskan communities have had to stop fishing for reasons other than conservation.
Fred Huntington is one of few people in Galena, Alaska, who still fishes for chinook, he said. He got about 60 fish in the first run this year, he said. That’s considered normal, said Huntington.
Abnormally, there’s only two or three smokehouses left in the community of roughly 470 residents west of Fairbanks. No roads lead into the village, and this past May it was devastated by floodwaters. Around 300 people were evacuated. The U.S. government estimates it will cost $6 million to fix the damage.
It’s not just First Nation communities impacted by the lower chinook.
Tara Christie, the chair of the salmon sub-committee, also lives in Dawson. Every year, her father would smoke chinook salmon for her birthday. But that hasn’t happened for about a decade, she said this week. Her family aren’t members of the First Nation, so the only way they can get chinook is if they buy it at a store or eat it at a restaurant.
“One day it would be nice to have it back on the tables of Yukoners generally,” she said.
Contact Meagan Gillmore at