Johnston made a career of chasing fish

Sandy Johnston was in the right place at the right time. It was the summer of 197.2 Johnston and his girlfriend (later his wife) hitchhiked from Ontario to the Yukon, where he had a line on a highways job.

By Claire Eamer

Sandy Johnston was in the right place at the right time. It was the summer of 1972. Johnston and his girlfriend (later his wife) hitchhiked from Ontario to the Yukon, where he had a line on a highways job. But first, he had to register with the government employment agency.

He was standing in line, application in hand, when two young men in front of him asked about a fisheries job posting. Since they were American, they weren’t eligible, the clerk told them. They left and Johnston stepped to the front of the line, crumpling up the application for a highways job. “I’m here about the fisheries job,” he announced. And he got it.

For a biology student, it was perfect. He spent the summer working on the environmental assessment of the Aishihik hydropower project. All summer, he walked along tributary streams flowing into Aishihik and Sekulmun lakes, recording where the fish were. Often, he was entirely on his own. That wouldn’t happen today, with modern health and safety concerns, but something has been lost, he says. “To me, it takes away a lot of the challenge.”

That summer was the start of a career that lasted until August 2010, when Johnston retired from Fisheries and Oceans Canada as chief of stock assessment and fisheries management for the Yukon.

Back in the early 1970s, however, he was still just a summer student. He returned to the Yukon in 1973, this time to work with a large interdisciplinary group that was assessing – among other things – the potential impacts diverting some tributaries of the Yukon River into the Aishihik system.

“The big problem with Aishihik Lake is it’s located in a near-desert, and more water is required,” Johnston explains. However, moving water from one drainage to another poses serious ecological risks. One of the team’s jobs was to look at the risk of moving fish parasites and diseases from one drainage to another. In the end, waters weren’t diverted, but the plan is still on the books for possible future implementation.

In 1974, when Johnston returned to the Yukon, he got a surprise. A huge multidisciplinary study of the Beaufort Sea was underway, and he was asked to take over the coastal fisheries study. He flew into Stokes Point on the Beaufort Coast in a small plane, with a rookie pilot and so much gear that some of it was stacked on his lap.

There was no one at the camp when he arrived, so he sat in the research hut reading through the camp diary, trying to figure out where the two-man field team was. A sound like an approaching wind storm interrupted him. Johnston pushed open the door to find out what was happening – and bumped into a caribou. There were caribou everywhere, and the sound came from their hooves brushing over the tundra and gravel.

“It was kind of like a scene out of Never Cry Wolf, just to be in the middle of this herd,” he says. “I was awestruck.”

In March 1975, Johnston -now a permanent employee – was based at Shingle Point, conducting late-winter field work. One day, when flying back from setting nets under two metres of ice off Herschel Island, a low fog rolled in. With the ground invisible, the pilot flew inland until they reached the British Mountains and found a notch in the mountains that he and Johnston were sure was the Running River.

“We flew down the notch, under the fog, and followed the river, just a few feet off the deck,” Johnston says. He spotted bear tracks in the snow and suggested the pilot follow them. “I think I know where he’s going.”

Sure enough, the bear tracks led them, straight as a beacon, to the garbage dump off the end of the Shingle Point runway. They were home.

In 1976, Johnston set up the first salmon enumeration program at the mouth of the Klukshu River. No one really knew how many fish were in the system and how many it could support, he says. In 1982, he oversaw the first annual Yukon River tagging program to learn more about the salmon runs on the Yukon River. Resources were tight, he says, so he relied on volunteers, including crews from the youth program Katimavik and local fishers.

“My wife volunteered too,” he says. “I remember her chasing a fish wheel down the river and swimming for it.” The annual program ran until 2005 when Fisheries and Oceans Canada started phasing it out in favour of sonar monitoring, operated jointly with American colleagues.

Johnston spent much of the past three decades providing technical support to the negotiation and implementation of the Transboundary and Yukon chapters of the Pacific Salmon Treaty. Today, both management and research are co-ordinated across the international boundary, under arrangements set up through that treaty.

First Nations and industry groups are important participants, especially on the Canadian side of the border, Johnston says. “First Nations and commercial and sports fishermen have really taken conservation to heart and have sacrificed a lot to rebuild stocks.”

He says the state of knowledge about salmon is much better than when he started in the field, although the current state of some stocks is of concern: “The more you know, the more questions you have.”

This column is co-ordinated by the Northern Research Institute at Yukon College with major financial support from Environment Yukon and Yukon College. The articles are archived at