Kayak the Yukon River north of Whitehorse and you’ll probably see bald eagles perched on top of spruce trees overlooking the water.
It’s late July, they’re looking for salmon. And there aren’t many around.
On July 4, 102,000 fish had passed into the mouth of the Yukon River, about half what biologists expected.
People who depend on or watch the salmon are jittery about the numbers.
This year, aboriginal fishing in the territory is going to be severely curtailed.
Fisheries and Oceans has asked the First Nations to restrict their harvest to 4,000 fish, down from 8,000, for conservation.
That means Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation can take 1,040.
And it gets worse the farther upriver you go.
In Whitehorse, Ta’an and Kwanlin Dun First Nations are left to split just 47 salmon.
That’s how bad things are.
Compare that to the past, when thousands of fish completed the 3,000-kilometre-long spawning run through the Whitehorse Fishway towards Wolf Creek.
Last year, just 427 battered fish negotiated the fish ladder.
That’s not the lowest return. In 1976, just 100 fish made it through Whitehorse. In 1989, about 400 came through.
Those numbers provide little consolation.
Consider that 1,800 passed through in ’06. In 2005, 2,600 fish were counted. In ’04, there were 2,000. In 1990, 1,500.
The low numbers seen in ’76 and ’89 caused nervousness back then. They are doing the same today. With good reason.
The fish sustained human settlement in the territory for millennia.
Today, we have the ability to wipe them out. Forever.
Global warming and the wide nets of the pollock fishery have hammered the stocks.
A recent article in the Baltimore Sun noted that 100 pollock trawlers scooped up more than 120,000 Yukon River-bound chinook salmon in their nets, up from a five-year average of about 57,000.
It’s called “bycatch,” and the pollock fishers just toss the carcasses back into the Bering Sea.
And it gets worse.
In 2005, the pollock fishery’s bycatch of non chinook salmon set a record of more than 700,000.
Many believe this has impacted the Yukon River’s salmon returns.
But the pollock fishery supplies the US fake crab and fish-stick market. It’s a billion-dollar industry.
And so Alaskan managers have been trying to balance competing interests.
Limiting the salmon bycatch would force trawlers to move more often, and with gas prices rising that makes it far more expensive, cutting profitability and driving up domestic fish prices. It could cost that industry an estimated US$500 million.
Not acting runs the risk of crippling the Alaskan salmon runs, which have fed aboriginal people along its banks for thousands of years and drawn sport fishermen for decades.
So what do you do?
Well, the pollock industry is experimenting with new nets that limit bycatch. And, for the first time there’s talk about shutting down the Bering Sea pollock fishery if bycatch exceeds a threshold, which has not yet been defined.
That would help the salmon, but wouldn’t guarantee its long-term survival.
The pollock fishery is but one of the threats to the river’s salmon.
The ocean’s food supply, rising salinity and temperatures, industrial pollution and sewage dumped in the river, algae blooms and disease all play a role.
But most of the problems can be traced back to human behaviour and industry. It’s just that some are easier to pinpoint and curb than others.
Of course, demonstrating a will to act is something else altogether.
Which is why everyone is so nervous about the salmon this summer.
Have we passed that threshold? Is it too late?
Or can we act?
Something to think about next time you consider buying frozen fish sticks at the grocery store.
Or when you see an eagle scanning for its meal from a branch overlooking the Yukon River. (Richard Mostyn)