The Last Salmon15

In photos: The fight for the Yukon River’s last salmon

For two decades, the Yukon River’s once-vital salmon runs declined while American and Canadian governments bickered over who was entitled to the last catch. While the governments argued over catchment numbers, the individual First Nations who live along the river, focused on salmon for future generations, began taking salmon conservation into their own hands.

The Yukon River, one of the largest and longest in the world, begins on the U.S. side of the border in the Bering Sea. The Yukon River salmon, that mostly spawn in Canada, must swim against the current for up to 3,000 kilometres before reaching their spawning grounds. That cross-border journey has caused tensions, especially around the harvesting of chinook salmon (known as king salmon in Alaska) with runs half their historic size. The low numbers have been attributed to harvesting, man-made barriers such as the Whitehorse hydroelectric dam, degraded spawning grounds due to placer mining, climate change and unintended by-catch of salmon by ocean going commercial vessels at the mouth of the river.

In 2017 the Alaska Department of Fish and Game briefly opened up its Chinook salmon fishery, citing the strongest returns since 2005, before quickly shutting it down in the face of opposition from First Nations and Native fishermen on both sides of the border. Now, Indigenous peoples are taking management into their own hands, coming up with agreements to deal with the jurisdictional squabbles and implementing voluntary fishing restrictions within their communities.

All photos by Peter Mather.

Peter Mather is an award-winning photographer and fellow in the International League of Conservation Photographers.

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