Two kids watch as a Chinook salmon swims past a viewing window at the fish ladder in Whitehorse on Aug. 12. The Whitehorse fish ladder saw numbers “well below average,” with only 282 Chinook passing through in 2019. The average is 973. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)

Promising Chinook salmon run failed to materialize in the Yukon, river panel hears

Tens of thousands of fish disappeared between Yukon River mouth and Canadian border

An estimated 99,000 Canadian-origin Chinook salmon entered the Yukon River from the Bering Sea this year, an encouraging number that was predicted to meet spawning escapement goals and harvest allotments.

But by the time the fish made it close to the border, their numbers had dwindled to 45,560, well below all expectations.

What happened to the tens of thousands of Chinook unaccounted for in 2019?

That question was one of the issues that remained outstanding following the Yukon River Panel’s fall 2019 meeting at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre in Whitehorse this week.

Biologists and managers from Alaska and the Yukon delivered presentations the afternoon of Dec. 9 summarizing their data on this year’s Chinook run.

Among the findings: the 2019 run did not meet the lower end of the the interim management escapement goal (IMEG) of getting 42,500 to 55,000 Chinook to their spawning grounds.

The run was three days later than usual.

The Yukon did not get its harvest share of fish, meaning that 23 per cent of the run minus the midpoint of the IMEG, or roughly 11,500 Chinook in 2019, did not make it into Canadian waters.

Alaskan fishermen incidentally harvested more Chinook during their summer chum commercial harvest than Yukon First Nations took in total — 4,284, compared to approximately 3,000 harvested in the Yukon during the entire Chinook season.

“I am not proud of the management performance this year,” Holly Carroll, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s summer season area management biologist, told the panel.

“… We haven’t failed every season but we did fail this season.”

Carroll said although Alaska doesn’t have its harvest numbers yet, the department has “speculated” that about 25,000 Canadian-origin Chinook were harvested in the U.S.

With 99,000 Canadian-origin Chinook counted at the Pilot sonar, located near the mouth of the Yukon River, that should have left about 74,000 fish. Taking into account other causes of en-route mortality, the run should have still comfortably met the IMEG midpoint and Canadian harvest share, a total of 60,250 fish.

But by the time the run made it to the Eagle sonar, the fish numbered only 45,560, compared to a historical average of 57,500. There are still opportunities for Alaskans to harvest after the sonar but before the border, meaning fewer fish than that actually made it into Canada.

Taking the Yukon First Nations harvest into account — no one else has been able to harvest Chinook in the Yukon for years now — it’s impossible the escapement goal was met.

A presentation by Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s (DFO) Michael Folks and Jesse Trerice painted a glum picture.

Of the five sonars monitored by DFO, only one counted an average amount of fish compared to previous years — the Porcupine sonar, which recorded a preliminary count of 4,739 Chinook.

The Eagle, Pelly and Big Salmon sonars counted numbers below average.

The Whitehorse fish ladder saw numbers “well below average,” with only 282 Chinook passing through. The average is 973; Folks said 2019 was the second-lowest count in the fish ladder’s 59-year history, with only 1976 tracking lower.

Carroll suggested three possible explanations for the strong numbers at Pilot but poor showing at Eagle — the Pilot sonar may have miscounted (Carroll said she didn’t believe this to be the case); Alaskan harvest was much higher than anticipated; and there may have been more, and undetected, en-route mortality than usual.

She added, though, that a definitive answer may never materialize.

Long-simmering tensions surrounding Alaskan management and harvest practices compared to the Yukon’s bubbled to the surface again during a question period.

“We have these same conversations from year to year and nothing seems to be getting better,” Yukon panel member James MacDonald said.

“…I hear folks on the Yukon side, I hear their frustration, I hear their pain.”

It’s a “deep source of frustration for a lot of people,” MacDonald continued, when they hear that fishermen in Alaska are doing well when locally, “we’re not catching any fish.”

“We spend a lot of time looking at genetics and graphs and having detail-orientated conversations about this, that and the other when at the end of the day, people are just not eating salmon,” he said.

Another Yukon panel member, Harvey Jessup, pointed out that Alaska was obligated by international treaty to deliver a certain amount of fish to Canada. He suggested that the state could close fishing to people beyond Eagle if it appeared that, as the run passes by the sonar, the proper number of fish wouldn’t make it across.

“Is it possible that the treaty trumps the fairness?” he asked.

The question drew a sharp rebuke from Alaskan panel member Rhonda Pitka, who said she would “strenuously object to any shut-downs in the upper Yukon.”

“That is not only unfair, it’s also illegal and it makes zero sense to shut down at that time,” she said.

“… If we did get shut down, we would probably not only strenuously object, we would have legal grounds to sue.”

The Yukon River Panel will meet again in the spring.

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

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