Chinook salmon at the Whitehorse Fish Ladder in 2013. Selkirk First Nation says that as of Aug. 5, its sonar on the Pelly River has counted about 7,900 fish. (Ian Stewart/Yukon News file)

Selkirk First Nation says chinook salmon numbers similar to last year’s

Sonar on the Pelly River had counted just more than 7,900 chinook as of Aug. 5

This year’s chinook salmon run on the Pelly River appears to be mirroring 2017’s, says Selkirk First Nation’s (SFN) fish and wildlife officer, with a slow start to the season and a similar numbers of fish being counted by the sonar.

In an interview Aug. 6, Eugene Alfred said as of Aug. 5, the sonar has counted just more than 7,900 chinook, about the same number of fish it counted this time last year.

That’s despite the much smaller number of fish making up this year’s total run — the Pilot Station sonar, located near where the Yukon River meets the Bering Sea, counted about 160,000 chinook enter the river this year, compared to more than 259,000 last year.

At this point in the season, Alfred said, it appears that the run on the Pelly River has peaked and the number of fish passing through is gradually decreasing. He added that it’s likely the total run this year will square up with 2017’s, which saw about 9,000 chinook pass through.

The Pelly River sonar, located near the mouth of the river and operated by SFN, has only been in place since 2016 (when it was only counting for a month), meaning that not enough data has been collected yet to pick out any major trends. SFN is also still ironing out details on how to ensure the best data collection — for example, this year, SFN put the sonar in a week later and plans to leave it in longer to see if more fish appear later in the season.

Also new this year is SFN’s Pelly River salmon management plan, which Alfred said was only completed last week.

“One of the big backbones of that management plan, it talks about our Doòli, which is our traditional law, and it talks about the four principles of that, which is caring, sharing, teaching and respect…. It kind of helps you live in harmony with your surroundings,” he said.

“This plan, I think it’s a wonderful opportunity that this can be a template (for) other management plans, whether it’s moose, sheep or caribou or other (fish).… It gives the community an opportunity (to show) that they can be managers and not be managed.”

While SFN fish camps have been able to harvest chinook this summer, Alfred said the First Nation is still very much in conservation mode, which has been the case for at least the last three years. SFN is recommending that camps take only up to 30 fish, that they use only one 50-foot net with five to six-inch mesh and that citizens release all live females and larger males.

Alfred said citizens have been responding well to the recommendations year to year, and that management plans come with some built-in flexibility — for example, some larger camps may harvest more fish as they have larger families to feed. On the other hand, if the numbers of chinook coming in are “just too low,” SFN will also “be respectful and withdraw” from harvesting at all.

Overall, about 90 per cent of this year’s chinook run is estimated to have crossed into Canada, with the Eagle sonar station, located on the Yukon River near the Alaska-Yukon border, counting 53,092 chinook as of Aug. 6.

In an interview Aug. 7, Fisheries and Oceans Canada fishery manager Mary Ellen Jarvis said that “the picture’s pretty clear” at this point that the run will meet this year’s escapement goal of 48,750.

She added that it’s been “an odd year,” explaining that usually, chinook arrive in “pulses,” but this year, the migration started “very slow” and then turned into a prolonged, “fairly steady stream of fish.”

Officials were also concerned earlier in the season about the extreme heat throughout the territory and the impact it could have on the run (chinook do best in cool water), but the recent weather has alleviated that worry.

“It’s good to see that things are cooling off now, now that we’re getting into active spawning season,” Jarvis said.

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

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