A chinook salmon at the fish ladder in Whitehorse on Aug. 12, 2019. The Chinook salmon run on the Yukon River is starting to wind down, with mixed results recorded at sonar stations across the territory. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)

Mixed numbers across Yukon as Chinook salmon run winds down

The Chinook salmon run on the Yukon River is starting to wind down, with mixed results recorded at sonar stations across the territory.

Fish are continuing to trickle over the Alaska-Yukon border, with the Eagle sonar having counted a total of 47,857 as of Aug. 26, falling roughly in the middle of target escapement goal of 42,500 to 55,000 Chinook.

Based on numbers provided by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, this year’s run appears to be late, with all other runs since 2005 having made it across the border by Aug 22.

The sonar on the Upper Porcupine River, in the Old Crow area, had counted 5,388 Chinook as of Aug. 25 — the second-highest count for the six years the sonar’s been in place (2016 was the highest, with 6,337 fish).

The numbers on the Pelly River are lower than last year’s, with 6,433 Chinook counted as of Aug. 25 compared to 9,752 last year. However, the sonar has only been in place since 2016, with this year’s number on the upper end of the available data.

Most dramatically, though, are the numbers from the Whitehorse fish ladder. As of Aug. 26, 270 Chinook had been counted — a far cry from the average of about 1,200.

“That’s very much a concern,” Yukon Salmon Sub-Committee vice-chair Al von Finster told the News Aug. 26.

“… I guess it could be said that the runs have been delayed on the river and the Whitehorse rapids are about the farthest up you go. But unless there’s a sudden burst now, we’re going to have one of the lowest runs since the 1970s.”

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s website provides numbers recorded at the Whitehorse fish ladder back to 1988; the lowest number recorded was in 2008, when the Chinook counted at the ladder totaled 399 with the last fish counted on Sept. 4.

The tail end of the Chinook run also coincides with the release of a report by Fisheries and Oceans Canada on the state of Canadian Pacific salmon, which found, overall, that populations are likely declining due to the impacts of climate change.

Those impacts include warmer waters and lower water levels, with the impacts felt more severely by species that must enter fresh water compared to their mainly ocean-dwelling counterparts.

Von Finster said that while the state of Yukon River Chinook salmon has “definitely got a climate-change signature on it,” the state of salmon in the Yukon in general is “more complex than that” — the fall chum, for example, have been “coming back fairly strong,” as have Chinook and sockeye on the Alsek and Tatshenshini rivers.

As well, while the Yukon River was up to 10 C warmer than usual in some places this season, this year’s Chinook run seems to be made of hardier fish.

“Something that was quite remarkable this year was that the fish, all the fishers said that the fish were big and healthy,” von Finster said.

“Now, that compared to the last time we had warm water years, 2002, 2003, 2004, that area, when a lot of the fish that were coming up the river were quite weak and they were having difficulty in getting over Fraser Falls on the Stewart River, so I think that the salmon that did enter the river were in great shape and they were able to maintain that all the way through.”

He also said that it was promising that Fisheries and Oceans Canada appeared to be moving towards a more open and collaborative approach when it comes to salmon and their habitats, collecting and condensing information and expertise from people across the coast.

“What happened in the past is that everybody did their own thing and there was no actual leadership, so what I’m looking at right now from an administrative standpoint is some sort of leadership and they’re going to start dealing with climate change in a more sustained manner,” he said.

Contact Jackie Hong at jackie.hong@yukon-news.com

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