The Yukon First Nation Salmon Stewardship Alliance (YFNSSA) attended the annual preseason meeting of the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association (YRDFA) where it shared its plans to address the salmon population crisis along the Yukon River which is home to the longest salmon migration in the world.
Elizabeth MacDonald, who attended the meeting on behalf of the alliance, made a presentation at the April 19 to 20 meeting in Fairbanks, Alaska and shared what Yukon First Nations have been experiencing for years.
Data from the U.S department of fish and game shows that in the Yukon area, chinook salmon have a projected run size of between 62,000 and 104,000 with 41 percent of those fish having origins in Canada. There is no harvest expected for salmon in 2023 in the Yukon due to the small population size.
MacDonald said the salmon crisis started about 30 years ago with the Teslin Tlingit Council asking for a closure of fishing for a Chinook life cycle (about seven years).
“In the Dawson area, they started asking for voluntary closure about 10 years ago and this was before the crash that we are currently in,” she said. “Now, more First Nations are asking citizens not to fish because of the current situation.”
The salmon crisis refers to the diminishing of the population of salmon along the Yukon River. Salmon is a key part of the diet for many in Yukon communities who also rely on the fish as means of income.
“I went into all the actions that Yukon First Nations have been taking to protect the salmon habitat, which include participating in development assessments, legislation/policy creation and updates [and] habitat protection,” MacDonald said.
She said work also includes restoration projects as well as policy and legislation work done with the federal and territorial governments as new regulations come up.
“These are the things they have been doing over the years and seeking political support to address the crisis,” she said. “We also looked at hatchery as a restoration tool and this includes instream incubation and what people would think as a typical hatchery as an option. Yukon First Nations want to continue having the conversation with their community to see if that was a viable option.”
MacDonald, who is also the the manager of fisheries for the Council of Yukon First Nation, explained that hatchery is a process of taking the eggs and milt from fish and raising them, usually in a facility for instream incubation in or on the side of a river.
There are many types of hatcheries, she said. But people are most familiar with large production hatcheries that raise salmon for commercial or sport fishing.
“There are also hatcheries that are focused on restoration, which isn’t the same as a production hatchery,” she said. “Here the goal is to restore salmon that should be in the river, not add extra salmon to the system.”
The objectives of these hatcheries, she said, make a difference on how they are run and operated but also the impact they have on wild stocks.
“Production hatcheries make extra salmon that can compete with wild salmon, adding more stress to wild populations. Restoration hatcheries instead try to boost wild populations.”
MacDonald said Alaska has more salmon than Yukon so the crisis doesn’t really appear dire there.
“So, we wanted to stress that during the meeting and have some habitat restoration projects that are going on and off for 15 years,” she said. “It was important to share that.”
She noted that perceptions among some Canadians question why Yukon is bothering to protect the habitat and doing restoration projects since it benefits only Alaskans.
“What they mean by that is that under the treaty, if they say no to some developments or they do a restoration project and all the baby fish head into the ocean and then they grow and then enter the river as adults. If there is enough for a harvest, 75 per cent of the harvest go to Alaskans while they only get 25 percent benefit. That’s what they mean by that,” she said.
MacDonald said salmon are nearing extinction on the Yukon side of the river, adding that just a small number of salmon have come across the border over the last few years.
“We are really worried about some of the smaller population. Just to show how bad things are on our side, it isn’t new that there have been real concerns about the salmon population,” she said.
On the solution to the salmon crisis, MacDonald, speaking from her position as the vice-chair of the Yukon Salmon Sub-Committee, said the big elephant is climate change which many people, including experts, see as one of the big contributors of the crisis.
But it’s not just the Yukon River that is struggling. Across Alaska and British Columbia rivers, salmon are also struggling and not doing well across the board, MacDonald said.
“I think I need to stress how bad things are along the river and how the salmon population is struggling,” she said. “The Alaskan side is also struggling. Without having any salmon opening for a few years which has affected their livelihood, I know that they are really struggling with the crisis both for food and for a little money to buy gas, so they can go out hunting — to get berries or a moose.”
She told the News the ocean is the place that all the salmon go and “what we are seeing in the ocean is extremely warm water and this appears to be changing the food that [salmon] have access to with less calories, at least that is what science is showing. That makes it harder for them to grow and survive and migrate. So, they have less food, calories and nutrients and vitamins.”
Fighting climate change, which seems to be the biggest impact on salmon, is difficult because it’s a global issue, she noted.
“It can only stop if the world comes together and makes a dramatic change. So our step right now is to do (as much as) we can for the salmon so that hopefully they can survive this warming period,” she said. “We can do that by decreasing our human impact on them by not fishing them because their population has drastically reduced in the last 10 years. That’s a good place to start because it’s something we have direct control over.”
MacDonald has a different view about hatchery as a solution to the problem.
“If you ask me my personal opinion last year about hatcheries, I would say no to hatchery. There is a lot of evidence that they can negatively impact the population of salmon,” she said. “But I personally don’t have a great solution for a restorative project that can make a big difference other than a hatchery. They are not going to survive at the level we are currently seeing. Restorative hatchery may be one of the solutions to fixing the issue. It may help in improving the population dramatically over the next year or two.”
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