The Teslin Tlingit Council will hold two fish camps this summer to preserve its traditions and teach young people about the life cycle of the chinook salmon.
But the First Nation plans to harvest just 40 salmon — 20 from each camp.
“We’re trying to find a balance between conserving the salmon and also preserving our tradition,” said Duane Aucoin, the Yanyeidi executive councillor with the Teslin Tlingit Council.
The First Nation has restricted its chinook salmon fishery for the past 17 years, first to five days a week and then to a weekend fishery, Aucoin said. In 2014, it imposed a complete moratorium, which meant no more fish camps.
But Aucoin said that’s had an impact on the community’s culture, and especially on the younger generation.
“Some of our young children have never experienced fish camp,” he said. “They’ve never experienced the natural life cycle of the chinook salmon.”
This year, as for the past two years, the number of chinook salmon crossing the Alaska-Yukon border has surpassed the minimum threshold for First Nation fisheries. As of Monday morning, 51,400 salmon had crossed the border and the first few had begun to arrive at the Whitehorse Fish Ladder. The cutoff for a First Nation fishery is 42,500.
Aucoin said the Teslin Tlingit Council has decided to only allow fish camps if the border escapement is higher than 48,750 chinook.
And even this year’s fish camps, which will take only 40 salmon, are largely symbolic, Aucoin said.
“Traditionally, in the heyday … Teslin would harvest approximately 1,000 a year,” he said.
Though minimum targets are being met, this year’s chinook salmon run is still very low.
“Although we’re getting reasonable escapement … the overall run size is still half of what it used to be in the ’80s and ’90s,” said Mary Ellen Jarvis, a resource manager with Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Historical runs numbered around 150,000 fish, she said.
And Aucoin said it’s not just the numbers that are down. “It’s also the quality of the runs that has dropped drastically.”
He can remember running nets with his mother as a child.
“I was terrified,” he said. “The salmon were as big as me that she was pulling in.”
Now, he said, the salmon are mostly younger and smaller.
Still, this year’s fish camps will allow elders to teach the younger generation about the fishery and to share stories and songs.
One of the camps will take place on the Teslin River, and the other on Teslin Lake. Aucoin said the youth will get to set and run the nets, and harvest, clean, smoke and eat the salmon.
They will also perform a ceremony to welcome the first salmon. Aucoin said the first salmon caught will be put back in the water, facing the ocean. The people will thank the salmon for coming and ask its spirit to return to the ocean and tell others how well the people treated them.
After the camps, the community will hold a feast. Aucoin said leftovers will be smoked and dried and handed out to elders and youth.
The dates for the camps haven’t been set yet, but they will likely happen between the second and third weeks of August to allow the first females to pass through safely, Aucoin said.
Despite the First Nation’s decision to open camps, Aucoin harbours no illusions about the state of the fishery. This year, the Teslin Tlingit Council will continue to fly Taku River salmon into the community so that people don’t have to go without.
In 2014, the Teslin Tlingit Council committed to a full closure of the fishery for six years, or one lifecycle of the salmon. When that ends in 2020, the elders council will revisit the issue.
“Who knows, maybe they’ll loosen the restrictions a little,” Aucoin said. “But I don’t think we’ll ever get back to full-blown, back to the way it was 20 years ago.
“I think we will always be in conservation mode.”
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