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Yukon salmon runs facing difficulty again

Salmon harvesting has been halted in the face of low population
Chinook salmon runs at a low ebb. (Sonny Parker/Yukon News)

Bernadette Jordan, federal minister of fisheries and oceans, closed 79 out of 138 commercial fishing licenses in the B.C.-Yukon region on June 29, in a last-ditch effort to help the species survive.

“The fish are disappearing before our eyes,” Jordan said.

The pattern of declining salmon returns has been evident over the past century, with Indigenous leaders calling for recognition of the decline many years before federal agencies followed suit. 

Chinook salmon runs have been in decline since the 1990s, according the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). The chinook run was closed last summer, and the Yukon Salmon Sub-Committee recently announced that it is unlikely there will be enough chinook for harvesting this year.

The committee is concerned that high water and other environmental conditions could further reduce the number of chinook salmon that reach their spawning grounds. As such, the Yukon Salmon Sub-Committee is asking fishers to plan on not harvesting Chinook this year (acknowledging that there will be minimal exceptions for ceremonial purposes).

Alaska has also closed all their salmon fisheries in the coastal areas and in the Yukon River this year.

The Yukon Salmon Sub-Committee was established under the Umbrella Final Agreement (UFA) in 1993 as an advisory body established under the Yukon Fish and Wildlife Board. It provides formal recommendations directly to the Minister of Fisheries and to First Nation governments on all matters related to salmon and their habitat.

Carl Sydney is vice-chair of the Salmon Sub-committee and a member of the Teslin Tlingit Council First Nation. He has been paying attention to salmon for a very long time. The story behind decreasing salmon runs is not just about the numbers.

“It was over 20 years ago that elders in Teslin knew that something was wrong,” Sydney said. “The huge seven- and eight-year-old salmon had disappeared from the rivers.”

These big fish, weighing up to 80 or 100 pounds, were not making it into the system. The ‘big ones’ had become targets of Russian and Japanese fishing operations, sought after for their size and weight.

The factors contributing to the salmon decline are cumulative, speculative and complex, according to Sebastian Jones, the fish, wildlife and habitat analyst for the Yukon Conservation Society and a commercial fisherman.

“It’s not just one thing,” he said in a July 8 interview.

Declining runs are caused by everything from warming ocean waters; trawlers with gigantic nets scooping up marine life; increased acidity of the ocean; garbage; and large numbers of foreign hatchery fish gobbling up a short supply of food in the oceans.

Then, after facing ocean hazards, salmon face another set of challenges in the extraordinarily long Yukon River system: more fishnets, eroding riverbanks, turbidity, and fewer rest eddies and reparation areas along the route.

These are not the same fish from 20 years ago.

Those older fish were not just huge and meaty, they were also the big spawners.

“When they disappeared, the size of the salmon dropped to one-third of their previous size, and their reproduction rate dropped in half,” said Sydney.

This incremental reduction in reproduction rates affects food supply, especially for people with fish camps and who rely on dried and smoked meat for winter sustenance.

Contact Lawrie Crawford at