Local experts monitor the pulse of Old Crow’s ‘fuel fishery’

Salmon have been ferrying energy and nutrients to the landlocked ecosystem near Old Crow, and to the Gwich’in people there, since well before the contact period of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Salmon have been ferrying energy and nutrients to the landlocked ecosystem near Old Crow, and to the Gwich’in people there, since well before the contact period of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Generation after generation of Gwich’in maintained an eager, sometimes anxious, watch on the Porcupine River and its tributaries – starting in July when the first chinook showed up, extending through mid-August when the chum arrived and on into December when the last of the big coho swam in under the ice.

The cultural significance of these fish, so essential to the vitality of the whole region, cannot be overestimated, says Ben Snow, a biologist with EDI Environmental Dynamics Inc.

Nor should centuries of accumulated local fisheries knowledge be neglected; the fish are “part of the rhythm of life,” he adds.

“A big part of what we’ve done over the years is collect that knowledge and do our best to unite it with the scientific work,” says Snow, who is the project biologist assisting the

Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation with the salmon-survey initiatives.

“The biggest (EDI) projects done there have been related to stock assessment of the chum salmon,” says Snow. “They’re a smaller fish than chinook and coho but in general have much bigger runs.” They are smoked and fed to sled dogs over the year and are essentially fuel for transportation. Though snow machines have proliferated in the region, it is unlikely that the dogs will ever be fully replaced, says Snow.

“EDI’s involvement in the survey started because one of our former employees – Isaac Anderton – lived in Old Crow before he joined our company,” Snow recalls. “He did a number of projects going back through 2001. He was a member of the community. His work helped connect us with the First Nation and into the training opportunities that go with it.”

“It really comes down to having a good project where you can involve and train local people who are interested in fisheries work,” he says. “Also making sure that you have that work year after year, so the people have a chance to hone their skills and have something to depend on and come back to.”

Meanwhile, having local people on the scene to monitor changes to salmon-migration numbers proves valuable when the Vuntut Gwitchin government makes management decisions.

Snow has been involved in Old Crow salmon work since 2008, though VGFN’s chum surveys have been underway there since 2003. For seven years they conducted a “mark-and-recapture” program, which meant that salmon were caught in gillnets, tagged, released and then re-captured again further upstream.

“If you tagged 100 fish, then at the upstream site you captured only tagged fish, you would know there were not many fish in the river at that stretch,” he says. “Conversely, if you caught only a few tagged fish at the second site, among a number of untagged fish, you’d know the population is much larger because you are only catching a small amount of those tagged.”

Though apparently super simple and straightforward, the mark-and-recapture program presented challenges. The Porcupine River, which flows through northern Yukon, has a will of its own. Over the spawning season, the water level on the Porcupine River fluctuates and can rise so high that fish evade the gillnets.

A different program further upstream used a specialized fish fence, called a weir, to try and get at the same question – how many fish were migrating up the Porcupine River each year? Unfortunately, the weir site was 370 kilometres upstream of the community of Old Crow. “So that by the time you were counting fish up there, they were already two weeks past old Crow, so decisions made about harvests suffered from a time lag,” says Snow.

“So the VGFN looked for another solution and hit upon sonar.” In 2009 the team located a promising sonar site and over the next three years moved away from weir and gillnets in favour of the newer technology for counting chum. “What makes a good sonar site does not necessarily make a good gillnetting site and vice versa,” Snow says.

Among other attributes, a sonar system can be on the job 24 hours a day. Except for occasional repositioning it is on all the time and records to a laptop computer. “So part of what we do is train local technicians, specifically hired for the job, to monitor the sonar output,” says Snow. A big component of the salmon-monitoring project has been to maintain and increase the community involvement over time, he adds.

While the importance of salmon to the VGFN is a major motivation for salmon surveys near Old Crow, there’s another reason why the local counts are so important, says Snow. The Porcupine River is the only major Yukon tributary of the Yukon River that branches off inside Alaska before it reaches the Canadian border. This means that border surveys on the Yukon River don’t account for the Porcupine River salmon.

The biologist says he feels lucky to be able to work with the VGFN on northern salmon research: “Onsite logistics, hiring, training, management … It’s their project and its success is a testament to the VGFN; we’re just glad to be able to provide the practical science to bring these projects together.”

Lessons learned over years of chum surveys are now employed when monitoring coho and Chinook in rivers around Old Crow. The successful chum salmon programs have broadened the capacity of the First Nation to manage other nutritious drivers of the Gwich’in yearly round.

This column is co-ordinated by the Yukon Research Centre at Yukon College with major financial support from Environment Yukon and Yukon College. The articles are archived at http://www.yukoncollege.yk.ca/research/publications/your_yukon