Spring chinook salmon. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo)

Spring chinook salmon. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo)

Weak salmon run on Yukon River halts harvesting in First Nations

Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in and Vuntut Gwitchin First Nations ask members not to harvest salmon

Concerningly small returns of chinook salmon up the Yukon river have prompted two Yukon First Nations to close their members’ subsistence harvest of the migrating fish.

The notices of closure were circulated last week by the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation and the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation. They come on the heels of low numbers of salmon making it back into the Yukon after running up the river from the distant west coast of Alaska.

A July 15 notice from Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in states that the First Nation’s council recently approved an emergency subsistence harvest withdrawal for chinook salmon due to concerns that the 2022 return of the salmon will be similar to or even less than what was observed last year.

The notice states that the concerns stem from the fact that only 21 chinook had passed through the sonar station managed by the First Nation’s natural resources department. As of July 13, only 913 fish had reached the sonar station in Eagle, Alaska which is near the site where the Yukon River crosses the Alaska/Yukon border.

The notice says that Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in people have voluntarily forgone a salmon harvest for several years now in an effort to allow stocks to rebound and will be asking its citizens to avoid harvesting again in 2022 to assist conservation efforts.

“The dwindling salmon stocks is devastating news for our people. Salmon are integral to our identity as Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in,” said Hähké (Chief) Roberta Joseph.

“It is more critical than ever that the chinook salmon have a chance to arrive at their spawning ground. That means, once again, making sacrifices today so our future generations might enjoy the abundant stocks which our ancestors once did.”

The Vuntut Gwitchin government circulated a similar notice July 12 asking its citizens to abstain from harvesting chinook. It states that only 51 chinook had been counted on the Porcupine River as of July 10 compared to a historical average of 454 for that date. It tells VGFN fishers to target only freshwater fish using nets of four-inch mesh or smaller — the nets are to be well supervised so any chinook that are caught can be revived and released.

The VGFN notice says information collected by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans suggests that will likely be the case.

Marc Ross, who is the Department of Fisheries and Oceans manager of treaties, fisheries and salmon enhancement for the Yukon River, said an estimated 41,000 to 61,000 Canadian-origin chinook had been expected to make it back to the Yukon via the Yukon River and its tributaries.

With only 42,000 fish counted at the river’s mouth, he acknowledged that this is likely to be the worst year on record for the chinook. Two decades ago, relatively strong years saw as many as 70,000 fish reach the Yukon.

Ross added that this is not the first time that Yukon First Nations have curtailed their subsistence harvest of chinook as numbers have been in decline for the past decade. He said Alaska has also imposed a closure on subsistence harvest of Salmon there. The last open year for recreational angling for chinook in the Yukon was 2011 and a commercial harvest has not been allowed since 2006.

Along with the issue of fewer fish entering the Yukon River system, Ross said fewer are reaching the sonar station in Eagle, Alaska to be counted as they enter the Yukon. He said this is likely caused by en-route mortality. The salmon that spawn towards the top reaches of the Yukon River system face the longest migrations of any salmon in the world. For this reason, Ross said their condition when leaving the ocean is especially important to ensure their survival. He added that studies are ongoing with some focusing on diseases and warming temperatures in the Bering Sea as possible causes of fish mortality en route to their spawning grounds.

Contact Jim Elliot at jim.elliot@yukon-news.com