The Ta’an Kwach’an Council is reporting that nine chinook salmon have returned to spawning grounds in Fox Creek this summer.
The creek is a tributary of Lake Laberge, about 50 kilometres north of Whitehorse. It used to have a healthy salmon run, but salmon stopped coming back to spawn in the 1950s, for reasons that remain unclear.
Since 2007, the First Nation has been releasing juvenile chinook salmon into the creek as part of a restoration program undertaken in partnership with Yukon College and Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
Each year, between 26,000 and 50,000 salmon fry have been released into the creek from eggs collected at the Whitehorse fish ladder. This year, about 38,000 fish were released.
The first of the stocked salmon returned to Fox Creek in 2013 – two males and a female that successfully laid eggs in the creek. This year, that number has grown to nine.
“I’m delighted to announce that our program has shown success again and that TKC is contributing to not only preserving an important part of our heritage but the protection and enhancement of the chinook salmon,” said Ta’an Kwach’an Council Chief Kristina Kane in a news release.
Paul Sparling, a local fisheries technician, said the results from Fox Creek are exciting. He said the actual number of returning fish is less important than the impact of this success story on public morale.
“It’s not necessarily going to produce a major impact on everything, but it’s something for people to look at,” he said. “The more people talking about it and looking at it, the better.”
Sparling said it’s always a good idea to try and reestablish fish populations, but cautioned that creek conditions can sometimes change naturally over time, which can make recovery efforts more challenging.
For instance, if water flow declines in a creek, beavers are more likely to move in and build dams, which can be a major barrier to migrating salmon. In fact, beavers have been listed as a possible contributor to the decline of spawning salmon in Fox Creek. Sparling added that forest fires can cause the level of water tables to decline, which is also bad for spawning salmon.
But he said the most important consideration for the Ta’an Kwach’an Council now is whether to keep stocking the creek or to wait and see if the returning fish can establish a natural population on their own. He said stocked salmon tend to outcompete wild counterparts in the same watercourse.
“I’m just suggesting that stocking is a contentious issue sometimes,” he said. “I like the idea of not stocking it again.”
This year’s chinook salmon run has met escapement goals, with more than 58,000 salmon crossing the Yukon border. But the total is still much lower than historic runs, which numbered around 150,000 fish.
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