Brandy Mayes, lands operations manager with Kwanlin Dün First Nation, poses for a photo after talking to media at the Yukon River Panel 2019 pre-season meeting in Whitehorse on April 9. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

Numbers aren’t everything when it comes to chinook salmon, KDFN lands operation manager says

Brandy Mayes says the value of the fish and the teachings surrounding their harvest can’t be measured

Numbers aren’t everything when it comes to chinook salmon – officials should also consider species’ larger value and meaning to Indigenous people when discussing management and conservation, according to Kwanlin Dün First Nation’s (KDFN) land operations manager.

However, Brandy Mayes told the News, that isn’t happening.

She was among the attendees of the Yukon River Panel’s 2019 pre-season meeting at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre earlier this week. The panel, which consists of officials from both Alaska and the Yukon, meets twice a year to discuss chinook salmon management strategies and outcomes, among other things.

But while Yukon First Nations attend and participate in the meetings, Mayes said in an April 9 interview – one of the days the panel’s meeting was open to the public — that she thinks there’s still a gap between how Yukon First Nations and the panel view the fish.

“Everybody gets drawn into, like, the numbers and the scientific data and we always talk about the First Nations as part of this and subsistence fisheries … but there’s so much value behind the traditional knowledge and the values that fishing salmon teach our people and how important that is, is not being fed into this process,” she said.

“That’s the only part I really find frustrating, we have to come up with some way to make that work … I mean, people talk about (the values and teachings) but it’s not part of how the panel makes their decisions, really.”

While the number of fish is quantifiable, Mayes said that value that the fish hold isn’t something that can be empirically measured, and it’s not just about chinook as a food source — it’s also about how the fish are caught, and the lessons and skills that surround harvesting.

“There’s lots of cultural teachings around (fishing), so not being able to actually fish the fish is … taking away some of the value around what it is to actually harvest your own salmon,” she said.

“So, I mean, bringing it in and cutting it up and drying it, the process is one thing, and distributing it and the respect around that is one thing, but to actually be able to harvest your own fish in your own river and the whole practice that goes (with it), setting up camp and getting ready and pulling the nets and resetting the nets and that process is quite important too.”

The majority of KDFN citizens have not fished for years now, Mayes said, in part due to low chinook numbers — the runs over the past five years have averaged about 73,000 Canadian-origin fish, compared to historical runs of about 158,000 — as well as the amount of time, money and effort it takes to set up and maintain a fish camp.

KDFN is also in a unique position because, as a First Nation primarily based in an urban centre with several grocery stores, its citizens don’t feel the same pressures in regards to chinook as a food source the way First Nations citizens in more remote communities might, Mayes said.

“It’s not that we don’t want to take fish and that we don’t want to keep harvesting. But now, it’s an expensive process for a lot of our people. It’s hard work, (and) trying to pass down those traditions to new generations is hard because there’s not as many people fishing…

“But that being said, we still want to keep that culture alive within our communities, with our citizens, to understand what salmon meant to us and that used to be everything, it was our way of life, it was survival. It was life.”

KDFN is hoping to set up a cultural camp this summer to help address that, Mayes said, but whether participants will actually be able to catch any fish is still up in the air. Like some other Yukon First Nations, KDFN has ordered in salmon in the past to help make up for what its citizens no longer fish out of the Yukon River; last year, it bought 1,200 lbs, Mayes said, mostly to distribute to elders.

“It’s unfortunate, but that’s just the way it is,” she said.

“I hear stories from our elders – the water was red (with chinook) and you could walk across the river on their backs, there were so many,” she added.

“… I remember my grandmother saying that it was (scary) because it looked like blood in the water … But you don’t see that. You’re lucky if you can see a few of them really.”

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

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