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With chinook harvests on hold, First Nations fear loss of traditions

First Nations around the territory are biting the bullet this summer in support of restrictive regulations to help boost the much-diminished Yukon River chinook salmon population.

First Nations around the territory are biting the bullet this summer in support of restrictive regulations to help boost the much-diminished Yukon River chinook salmon population.

Although Alaska has met its border escapement goal of getting at least 55,000 fish into Canadian waters, this year’s run is made up primarily of younger, male salmon.

As a precautionary measure, most Yukon First Nations continue to voluntarily ban harvesting chinook, despite being given the green light to access their total allowable catch two weeks ago.

In communities like Teslin, meanwhile, residents fear they are losing ancient traditions tied to catching salmon.

Tom Cove, the Teslin Tlingit Council’s director of lands and resources, said the effects are far-reaching.

“It certainly affects food and diet, but it also has a devastating effect on cultural continuity,” he said.

“There’s an intimate and culturally unique relationship with fish and wildlife. It’s passed on from generation to generation but also between people and the fish.”

Cove said fishing for salmon isn’t done in isolation of other activities on the land, such as gathering food, plants and medicine. The self-imposed fishing ban means it’s a lot quieter around the community this summer.

“Some of the most dramatic evidence is when you see vacant fish camps, where people would have otherwise been at the height of their activity on the land,” he said.

“It’s growing weeds. There are very limited ways of mitigating the negative effects of the ban.”

The TTC has been one of the more proactive Yukon First Nations when it comes to chinook conservation.

For many years, they’ve opted to fly fish into the community from the Taku River during the salmon runs there.

Cove said it provides temporary relief to the situation, but it’s by no means a satisfactory replacement.

Pauline Frost, chair of the Yukon Salmon Sub-Committee, said Yukon First Nations have shown “great leadership” in the interest of chinook repopulation.

“For many years, Canada was bearing the brunt of conservation,” she wrote in a news release on Aug. 12.

“With the proactive management in Alaska and the sacrifices on the part of Alaska communities, we have had a year where one river, two nations, and many governments have worked together to get as many fish on the spawning grounds as possible.”

As of Aug. 10, more than 64,000 Yukon River chinook salmon had passed into Canada through the Eagle sonar, according to the subcommittee.

Roughly 70 per cent of those fish are male, which creates uncertainty in the overall ability of the fish to replenish its population in the coming years.

In Mayo, the Na-Cho Nyak Dun First Nation has also publicly supported a voluntary fishing ban.

The government recently purchased a metric tonne of sockeye from Skeena River, B.C. and is offering two fish per citizen.

Matthew McHugh, fish and wildlife officer for the First Nation, said the closure is a huge concern for members of the community.

“People are used to fishing right now, they’re twiddling their thumbs and antsy to get out there,” he said.

“It’s fine and dandy to provide a bit of a food source, but it doesn’t really address the whole culture and tradition of the fish camp, and pulling fish out of nets and smoking them on the river.”

To help alleviate some of that loss, the community is holding a fall fish culture camp, targeting chum salmon, at Fraser Falls.

McHugh called it “a bit of a crap shoot” because they have no idea of the abundance of chum salmon in the area, but they’re hoping to get elders and youth together so they can interact on the land.

“That’s the big concern - the youth aren’t learning the techniques out there,” he said.

In recent days Tr’ondek Hwech’in First Nation, Kwanlin Dun First Nation and the Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation have issues news releases stating their support for voluntary bans on catching chinook.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans confirmed that two First Nations had decided to harvest chinook salmon for cultural or ceremonial purposes, but wouldn’t say which.

The commercial, recreational and domestic fishery of chinook will remain closed for the remainder of the 2014 season in order to protect salmon stocks, according to DFO.

Cove said TTC is calling on other communities along the Yukon River to stop fishing the chinook entirely.

“At some point we believe the fish will find a way to recover and come back,” he said.

“We have to concentrate on the chinook, this unique, remarkable species of fish that through no act of its own, is suffering a threat to its very existence.”

Contact Myles Dolphin at