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 

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Dr. Brendan Hanley, Yukon’s chief medical officer of health, speaks to media at a press conference about COVID-19 in Whitehorse on March 30. The Yukon government announce the first COVID-19 related death in a press conference announcement Friday morning. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
UPDATED: Yukon announces first COVID-19-related death

The person was an older Watson Lake resident with underlying health conditions, officials said

Wyatt's World for Oct. 30.
WYATT’S WORLD

Wyatt’s World for Oct. 30

Health Minister Pauline Frost insists no one who shows up at the Whitehorse Emergency Shelter for dinner will go without a meal, despite no drop-in dinner service being offered starting on Nov. 1. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Non-profits concerned as Whitehorse Emergency Shelter ends drop-in dinner service

Minister Pauline Frost insists everyone who needs one ‘will be provided with a meal.’

Housing construction continues in the Whistle Bend subdivision in Whitehorse on Oct. 29. Affordability challenges is being described as being among the most pressing issues facing housing markets throughout the north in a report released Oct. 29 by the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Home, rent prices increasing in Whitehorse, northern housing report says

Affordability continues to be a major challenge, report says

Premier Sandy Silver talks to media in Whitehorse on March 19. According to the premier, who is also the finance minister, the Yukon government ran a $2.6 million deficit in the 2019-2020 fiscal year, instead of the surplus it had originally predicted. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Yukon government ran a $2.6 million deficit in 2019-2020

Deficit attributed to lower-than-expected revenue, higher expenses on health and social side

Catherine Constable, the city’s manager of legislative services, speaks at a council and management roundtable discussion Sept. 26, 2019. During an Oct. 29 meeting, Constable highlighted a number of potential changes to the City of Whitehorse procedures bylaw. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Work on City of Whitehorse procedures bylaw continues

Officials will look at procedures for other municipalities

Premier Sandy Silver, left, and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley at a COVID-19 press conference in Whitehorse on Aug. 26. Hanley said the source of the outbreak in Watson Lake may not ever be found, but contact tracing in the community continues. (Alistair Maitland Photography)
New Whitehorse COVID-19 case is unrelated to Watson Lake cluster, officials say

Chief medical officer of health says avoid indoor Halloween parties, monitor for symptoms

Joel Krahn/Yukon News file Whitehorse City Hall.
Whitehorse city council, briefly

Updates on matters before city council on Oct. 26

An online fundraising campaign in support of the six-year-old boy, Edgar Colby, who was hit by a car on Range Road Oct. 25 has raised more than $62,000 in a day. (Submitted)
GoFundMe for Whitehorse boy hit by car on Range Road raises more than $62k in a day

The boy’s aunt says the family is “very grateful” for the support they’ve received from the community

A proposed Official Community Plan amendment would designate a 56.3 hectare piece of land in Whistle Bend currently designated as green space, as urban residential use. Whitehorse city council passed first reading on a bylaw for the designation change at its Oct. 26 meeting, prompting an upcoming public hearing on Nov. 23 ahead of second reading on Dec. 7. (Courtesy City of Whitehorse)
Local contractors will be given an advantage on a contract for the design and construction services that will see a new reception building at Robert Service Campground decided city councillors during the Oct. 26 council meeting. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Local firms will get advantage on contract for new Robert Service Campground building

Yukon-based companies competing for contract for new reception building will receive 20 extra points

Fallen trees due to strong winds are seen leaning on to power lines which caused some power outages around the territory on Oct. 26. (Courtesy of ATCO)
Wind knocks out power around the Yukon

High winds on Oct. 26 knocked out power to Faro, parts of Whitehorse and beyond

The Yukon government is asking for all claims in a lawsuit over the Takhini elk herd be struck by the court. (Mike Thomas/Yukon News file)
Yukon government asks for Takhini elk lawsuit to be struck

The Yukon government is asking for all claims in a lawsuit over… Continue reading

Most Read