Chinook salmon numbers are as low now as they were in the early 1970s.
One year in the early part of the decade, about 250 salmon passed through the Whitehorse Fish Ladder.
Five years later, the numbers ascended back to 500 and returned to acceptable levels.
Only 37 salmon — three of which are female — have climbed the fish ladder this year.
“Right now we should have had 300 through,” said Whitehorse Rapids Fish Hatchery operations manager Lawrence Vano.
The Fishway hopes to see 250 to 350 salmon pass through this year, he added.
Last year 457 salmon passed through the Fishway.
“It’s not a good story so far,” said Vano.
Researchers will take data from this year’s run and compile it over winter.
“We need to figure out what went off the rails and fix the problem,” said Vano.
Identifying the problem is not so easy.
“There are 10 different variables, from poor ocean survival to a high by-catch or (the bacteria) ichthyophonus.”
There are plenty of doomsday scenarios circulating about the end of chinook salmon.
“It’s not a false alarm,” said Vano. And it has happened before, he added.
The runs fluctuate, as officials observed in the ‘70s.
“Salmon runs do cycle,” said Vano.
“If this continues for one more year, there’s probably something we’re not addressing.”
Old Crow residents caught seven fish before closing the fishery, said Liberal MLA Darius Elias.
“People are disheartened,” he said.
Old Crow residents are having to turn to their neighbours in Fort Yukon for salmon, he added.
“We used to only fish for three days and everyone had salmon for the winter.”
Now 145 fish will be shipped to Old Crow for distribution among elders and single mothers and families.
“It’s a terrible situation,” said Elias.
Federal Conservative Fisheries and Oceans Minister Loyola Hearn and territorial Environment Minister Elaine Taylor haven’t done enough to combat low runs, said Elias.
“We wouldn’t have this problem if they were effective in their jobs,” he said.
The Yukon has signed international agreements with provisions to protest mismanagement or unfair fishing practices by Alaska.
But the territory isn’t using them in negotiations with Alaska and the US, said Elias.
Some blame overfishing in Alaska for the low Yukon returns.
“I’ve never seen the territorial Environment minister stand up and assert our natural resource rights,” he said.
Permanently closing the fisheries is not an option so negotiations with Alaska have to solve the problem, said NDP Leader Todd Hardy.
“If they don’t listen, the stocks are devastated,” he said.
But Alaska’s government doesn’t “want to interfere with the economic activity of coastal towns.”
First Nations were asked to cut subsistence fishing in half, to 4,000 salmon from 8,000, while commercial and domestic fisheries on the Yukon River have been closed.
At one point in July, only 34 chinook were counted in the Alsek River at a time when 500 is the norm.
The sockeye count is even worse: only three were counted when 700 to 800 is common.
These are the worst returns ever recorded, according to Fisheries and Oceans.
“If we get back to back returns the Chinook fishery will be over,” said Elias.
A co-ordinated approach between the territory, Ottawa and First Nation governments is needed, he said.
“In the Yukon, government leaders rarely worked in isolation on issues like this,” said Elias.
“When are ministers (Hearn and Taylor) going to play hardball with America?”
Hearn spent time in the Yukon last month talking with fisheries biologists and First Nation leaders about the salmon catch.
Alaskan officials have yet to understand the dire situation of salmon returns in the Yukon, he said at the time.
“This is a federal issue — where’s our Member of Parliament?” said NDP leader Todd Hardy.
Liberal MP Larry Bagnell represents the Yukon, but he doesn’t seem to represent the territory’s problems in Ottawa, said Hardy.
“Let’s make sure the criticism is spread evenly.”
Everybody in Canada should be concerned about salmon returns, said Hardy.
“This is tied to how we live and the assumption we own natural resources,” he said.
“That’s an attitude that has to change.”
Minister Elaine Taylor did not return phone calls.