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News archive for December 4, 2013

‘Something has to be done if we want the salmon back’

More alarm was sounded Tuesday about the dwindling strength of the annual Yukon River chinook salmon migration.

By Chuck Tobin on December 4, 2013 at 4:26 pm


Photo by Whitehorse Star

NUMBERS ANALYZED – Alaska research scientist Stephanie Schmidt explained to the Yukon River Panel the steps taken to implement further restrictions on the stateʼs subsistence chi- nook fishery (right). Star photo by VINCE FEDOROFF SOUND ALARM, AGAIN – In keeping with the warning the Teslin Tlingits have been sounding for years, Tlingit elder Doug Smarch told the international salmon panel Tuesday if something isnʼt done, the Yukon River chinook will disappear for good. Star photo by CHUCK TOBIN

More alarm was sounded Tuesday about the dwindling strength of the annual Yukon River chinook salmon migration.

For the Tlingits of the Teslin region, the chinook was not just a source of food. The fish were a part of them and everything else.

They understood the chinook to be essential to nature’s life cycle, bringing sustenance for them and everything around them – the bears, the birds.

It was the chinook which brought the Teslin Tlingits together at their fish camps every summer where they passed down their stories and songs.

There was a time when the Tlingits of the Teslin area would harvest 1,100 or more chinook every year.

Last year, they took 24.

Teslin Tlingit elder Doug Smarch told the international Yukon River Panel he remembers the days when they’d pull 50- and 60-pound chinook from their nets.

The salmon these days are a fraction of that size, he said.

Smarch said in the days gone by, he’d have his family’s food in two drifts down the river.

Today, you could make 100 drifts, and still have nothing, he told the panel.

“Something has to be done, something really strong, if we want the salmon back,” the Tlingit elder warned. “The way it is going today, we are not going to have it forever. They are going to be gone.”

Technical evidence suggests this past summer’s run was among the poorest ever, if not the poorest.

The commercial chinook fisheries in Alaska and the Yukon have been prohibited in the last few years, but the returns are still diminishing.

The Yukon River Panel holds two public meetings a year – one in the Yukon, one in Alaska – to gather technical and public input into the state of the river’s salmon stocks.

The panel of 12 members – six from each country – is charged with reviewing efforts to manage salmon stocks to achieve goals as well as meet obligations set out in the international Pacific Salmon Treaty.

Efforts to increase conservation of chinook salmon in the Alaska portion of the Yukon River were explained in detail.

There were, however, blunt questions asked of U.S. technical experts regarding the whereabouts of thousands of Yukon-bound chinook which never made it to the border.

Under the treaty, for instance, Alaska is obligated to manage the chinook fishery to ensure a minimum of 42,500 chinook reach the Yukon-Alaska border below Dawson City.

Approximately 30,750 crossed the border this past summer, according to the scientific estimates, and 34,000 crossed the border last year.

This year’s aboriginal harvest was 1,902, not including the 242 harvested on the Porcupine River by the Vuntut Gwitchin.

It was the lowest harvest along the mainstem in the last 40 years, and a long way from the 10-year average of 5,000 chinook annually between 2002 and 2011.

In the 1990s, it was unusual for the Yukon’s aboriginal harvest to top out at more than 8,000 chinook a summer, while Dawson City’s commercial fishery would take as many or more.

In 1995, for instance, the Yukon’s commercial harvest of chinook totalled 11,146 while the aboriginal food fishery took 7,942, according to records. In Alaska, the commercial boats harvested 122,728 chinook in 1995 while the subsistence fishery harvested 48,535.

There was no commercial fishing allowed on either side of the border last year, and the Alaska subsistence fishery was estimated at 26,065, the lowest in more than 35 years.

The panel heard yesterday how Yukon First Nations have promoted strict conservation measures among their citizens, and how some aboriginal fishermen have taken it upon themselves to keep boats on shore.

The panel also heard of increased regulations on the aboriginal and subsistence fishery in Alaska.

The state has outlawed large-size mesh on gill nets to protect the accidental catch of chinook while fishing for smaller summer chum salmon.

Alaska, the panel heard, has increased the number of fishing closures in its attempt to deliver more chinook to the Yukon-Alaska border.

The state has prohibited the use of drift nets in certain areas, and insists anybody who wants to fish for summer chum must use dip nets, so that if chinook are accidentally caught, they can still be released alive.

Alaska’s subsistence fishery has been asked to voluntarily harvest just one quarter of the chinook it’s used to taking, the panel heard.

It heard how the disappearing strength of the chinook migration has kicked the life out of the once-vibrant aboriginal fish camps in the lower part of the river.

U.S. panel member Andy Bassich of Eagle said the subsistence fishery in his community would routinely harvest between 1,000 and 2,000 chinook not so long ago.

Then the harvest fell to an annual average of about 500.

“This year, the estimate was 91.”

Canadian panel member Pauline Frost-Hanbery of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation applauded the efforts of Alaska to increase conservation methods.

“We have seen you have taken some drastic measures, and that has not gone unnoticed,” she said.

“With the significant gains and differences we have made to 2013, what I would like to know is what the U.S. plans to do in future years.”

Panel member Wolf Riedl of Haines Junction wanted to know what happened to all the chinook salmon of Yukon origin which were supposed to show up at the Yukon-Alaska border, but never did.

The science presented to the panel indicated of the 114,000-plus chinook which entered the river this year, approximately 61,000 were of Canadian origin – 30,750 made it to the border below Dawson City.

Riedl pointed out most of the first and largest pulse of chinook – 72 per cent – were of Yukon origin.

If steps were taken to close Alaska’s subsistence fishery to let the first pulse go by all the way up the river, as well as additional closures during the second and third pulses, he asked, what happened to all the Canadian fish that never reached the sonar at Eagle?

Alaska research biologist Dr. Stephanie Schmidt said they are still compiling the results of the subsistence harvest survey to determine how many chinook were taken.

They are also reviewing their analysis during the run to determine if their predictions could have been thrown off by the huge number of summer chum salmon which were in the river at the same time, she explained.

Schmidt explained when the first pulse of chinook passed Pilot Station, and the genetics indicated 72 per cent were Canadian fish, there was optimism about the ability to meet the border target of 42,500 or get close in what was predicted as a below-average year even before the run started.

When the first pulse didn’t arrive at the Eagle sonar in the strength as expected, there was deflation, Schmidt said.

The panel heard it may be time to consider closing the chinook fishery on both sides of the border for a period to let the stock recover, and to figure out a better approach to managing the chinook.

CommentsAdd a comment

Sam Holman

Dec 4, 2013 at 5:57 pm

This is very sad and also very interesting. If 61,000 Chinook were on their way to Canada and only 30,000 arrived at the border then about 60,000 Chinook were taken in Alaska because they harvest US fish when taking Canadian bound fish.

Was the US sonar near the mouth off (an overestimate?), was the sonar near Eagle off (an underestimate?) or did the subsistence fishery take 60,000 fish when they were heavily restricted? Or, was it a combination of all of these factors.

Why did DFO allow any fish to be harvested in Canada? They knew the spawning goal would not be achieved.
The US put harsh conservation measures in place. That has to be recognized and commended.

The sky is very dark but not falling. With conservation on both sides of the border our salmon runs can be restored.

north of 60

Dec 4, 2013 at 6:24 pm

Meanwhile not a word about the tens of thousands of salmon ‘bycatch’ killed by the fishing fleets, way more than makes it up the river to spawn.

The American pollock fishery must not be inconvenienced, what would McDs do?

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