In the beginning, freshly hatched from the luminous prison of their eggs, the Chinook appear in the river as minnow-sized fingerlings, barely recognizable as fish. Ravenous with the needs of their rapidly growing bodies, they eat insects, phytoplankton, nymphs: anything that will fit into their mouths.
Should these thumb-sized gluttons manage to avoid becoming an hors d’oeuvre for a legion of would-be predators — gulls, pike, trout, kingfishers — the fry will eventually make their way some 3,000 kilometres down the Yukon River to the Bering Sea.
Once there, they will enter the salt water, spending between four and six years in the ocean and growing to a tremendous size. The largest and most reproductive fish can push 14 kilograms, although much larger fish have been recorded.
Then they return to the river, fighting their way to the streams where they hatched, eating nothing during their migration, relying entirely on the fat and muscle reserves of their own bodies as their sex organs enlarge and their stomachs shrink.
The Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) of the Yukon River make one of the longest salmon migrations in the world — and, arguably, one of the most politically and socially complex.
A staple food and cultural touchstone for First Nations living along the Yukon River, Canadian-origin salmon are born in the Yukon, spend their adult lives in the Alaskan and international waters of the ocean, traversing thousands of kilometres to breed. They are managed jointly by the U.S. and Canada under the Yukon River Salmon Agreement, which is part of the Pacific Salmon Treaty.
This year, Chinook returns in the Yukon, particularly those at the Whitehorse fish ladder, came in far below expected numbers (although the run was stronger than average in Old Crow). Returns at the Whitehorse fish ladder were at their lowest since 1977 with only 282 fish counted, compared with 690 last year.
According to Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans, treaty-obligated escapements — the number of fish that make it back over the Alaskan border into the Yukon to breed — were “not achieved in five of the past 11 years,” though the trend has been positive in recent years — at least until now.
(For more details on escapement numbers over the years, see this document from the Yukon River Joint Technical Committee.)
There are serious economic and cultural impacts of this decline for communities along the river, especially Yukon First Nations, who have been hardest hit.
Many Yukon First Nations, including the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in of Dawson — the site of a short-lived commercial fish processing plant, Han Fisheries, which closed in 1997 — have voluntarily either decreased their traditional harvest or given it up entirely in order to help the Chinook recover.
This has created tension and resentment among many Canadian and First Nation fisher folk towards their Alaskan counterparts, who take a much bigger share of the fish.
Along with the drop in numbers, the survival rate of offspring is falling. Only one to two fish are returning per successful mating, just enough to keep the population at its current level, but not increase numbers.
There has also been a marked decline in the size of returning fish. Larger, older fish, especially females, are more productive. They lay more eggs, set them into their redds more effectively and create better survival outcomes for their offspring than smaller, younger fish.
‘They overfished everything’
Tommy Taylor keeps track of his days on the river with a Coca Cola wall calendar. Each day he goes out fishing, he notes down the details of his catch — how many, what species, what sex — in firm, neat script, square by square. Sitting at his kitchen table, Taylor points out his best excursions.
“Yeah, I started fishing here,” he says, pointing to July 4. His finger moves across the blocks of the calendar, head turned to the side, reading his own writing. “That’s it, that’s one male king there. Then three the next day … I think my best day is like, maybe 10 or 11 fish … I only fish for the month of July, then I shut it down for August.”
Taylor has lived by and on the Yukon River for nearly 60 years; he once fished professionally, as did his father before him, before the closure of Han Fisheries.
Now he runs Fish Wheel Charters, a company hosting scenic boat tours of the Yukon River. His fish wheel — a device that uses the power of the river to catch and deposit salmon into a well for later processing — is a sight-seeing attraction.
“In the past, fishing was a good source of food and income that we used to make a living, but the size then, they were bigger. The biggest salmon I’ve ever seen come out of that river was caught on a fish wheel and weighed 94 pounds … and the biggest one I‘ve ever seen come out of my father’s fish wheel was 72 pounds,” Taylor says.
“But that’s over now. Over. In the last ten years, the Chinook salmon, the numbers have been down, and also the size of the salmon — nothing bigger than 15 pounds.”
“Yeah,” he says, leaning back in his chair, hands flat on the table before him. “That’s all over now.”
Although he still holds a commercial licence, Taylor doesn’t “fish seriously” any more, either for Chinook or chum, he says. He takes just a few fish for himself and, if he gets a female in his fish wheel and he gets there in time, he puts her carefully back in the water.
“When we had the fish plant open here, in the ’80s … they caught a lot of big salmon,” says Taylor. “They overfished everything. Even a year [of overfishing] affects the salmon.”
For many First Nation people — including Taylor’s nation, the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in — fishing for Chinook salmon at all is a weighty and emotional issue. The restrictions on fishing for the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in are voluntary, the result of an ask by the nation’s general assembly in 2013 to take pressure off the fish and help them recover.
The ban, which isn’t set to expire until 2021, has serious cultural impacts for the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in. This year, at their annual fish camp — a cultural on-the-land teaching camp designed to pass on traditional skills to Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in youth — they used frozen chum instead of fresh-caught Chinook.
“When I came here in the early ’90s it was like a total fishing village,” says Natasha Ayoub, fish and wildlife manager for the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation. “There were boats coming in and out, there were fish camps up and down the river.”
“Fishing was a huge part of Dawson City.”
All those camps are gone now, she says.
Ayoub says she feels like the ban was “fully necessary.”
“People were still fully engrained in fishing,” she says. “We needed to take a step back and evaluate, to you know, look at the harvest on this side of the border, and the TH [Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in] took the lead in that.”
Even though the ban is voluntary, Ayoub says it’s still a “very rigid resolution.”
“The whole request to withdraw from your traditional harvest is sort of a rigid umbrella especially when you recognize that there are going to be good years and bad years [in the fish cycle]. There’s also a whole bunch of cultural implications, you know, cultural loss and generational disconnect.”
‘Conservation fatigue’ and cross-border tensions
In Eagle, Alaska — the final count point for Alaskans, with a population of 83 people — about 800 fish have been harvested on average since 2013.
That’s more fish than are harvested by the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, which take only an estimated 200 fish, Ayoub says. The average harvest for the entirety of the Yukon for the last five years is about 2400.
The discrepancy is hard on morale, she notes.
“For the first three or four years, there was a great uptake [on the fishing ban],” Ayoub says.
“But this is the other thing, because of the border, [because] of the politics … For a number of years [before the ban] there were a lot of [Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in] citizens choosing not to fish … but now [First Nation people] are looking around and saying ‘hey, there’s no leeway here, and the Alaskans had a great summer’ … now people are suffering from what I like to call ‘conservation fatigue.’ ”
Ayoub points out, however, that the solution is not as simple as Alaskan communities cutting back on how many fish they take — many would say they are already cutting back, a little bit at a time — because there simply isn’t any other industry in those communities.
If the fish don’t come, not only do people lack salmon to eat but they don’t have any other source of income. The salmon fishery, both for chum and for Chinook, is integral to the survival of some Alaskan communities.
Although Ayoub says the voluntary fishing ban on Chinook has been well received, Ali Anderson, fish and wildlife stewart for the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, says it’s not quite that cut and dried. Lots of people aren’t happy about it, including Anderson himself. He misses the fish camps, and would like to see more kids out there and more folks fishing for the elders, whom he says miss the Chinook the most.
“I’d like to see more [Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in] people out on the river, fishing for themselves,” he says. “You don’t have to get crazy about it — just enough for themselves and their families … Fishing for me is just a way of life.”
“Everyone is complaining — all the older people are complaining … I mean, they get a couple salmon, that will last them, but I don’t think they got hardly any this year.”
“If you live on the river,” he adds, “that’s what you want to do — you want to go fishing. I’d like to see more of that, but it can’t be helped. We’ve got to try our best to help nature.”
Taylor, whose warm, tidy home is full of fishing knicknacks, says a number of issues are impacting the salmon: water temperatures are higher and levels are lower, winter ice is thinner and the flow of the river is changing.
Does he think the Yukon Chinook can be saved?
He leans back in his chair with his hands on the table in front of him and sighs.
“That depends,” he says carefully, “on the Americans.”
American overfishing is the biggest problem, he says.
“Why come talk to us about how many fish we take?” Taylor asks, “I mean, it’s good to take down numbers, but go talk to these American people that are taking the majority of the fish.”
Alaskan management a ‘failure’ in 2019
That sentiment is echoed beyond the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in community.
Sebastian Jones, fish and wildlife analyst for the Yukon Conservation Society, says one of the troubling things about dealing with Alaskan conservation policy is the way the U.S. constitution handles resource management. Jones is a West Dawsonite, one of the hardy off-grid folks who live on the other side of the river in Dawson. He still fishes for chum salmon for subsistence, mainly as food for his dogs.
Essentially, the Alaskan constitution guarantees that resources such as salmon be handled in such a way as to allow as much harvest as possible for the Alaskan people, so the Americans view anything over the agreed upon escapement values as “a waste,” Jones says.
“Unfortunately, I think the only thing that’s going to cause a shift [in American policy] is a complete collapse,” says David Curtis, a long-time West Dawsonite, fisher, and friend of Jones. Curtis says the treaty agreements regarding the fish between Canada and the U.S. has not been well implemented.
“I think one of the biggest challenges is that the treaty is in place and there is a lack of implementation due to, maybe, a lack of teeth by DFO [Fisheries and Oceans Canada].”
“These fish cannot be saved without the Alaskan side completely shifting their management.”
“It’s only been the last, oh, 10 years or so that [the Alaskans] have really even begun to consider, let alone implement, restrictions because they’re so scared of going against the ethos of liberty and rugged individualism and ‘take what you want.’ That’s a cultural thing that can’t really be addressed.”
At the most recent Yukon River Panel — a body split between Canada and the U.S. representing interests on both sides of the border — held Dec. 9 in Whitehorse, Alaskan Department of Fish and Game told Canadian representatives they believed Alaskans had harvested about 20,000 to 25,000 Canadian-origin fish.
“We have these conversations from year to year and nothing seems to be getting better and people aren’t satisfied. More and more there are deeply rooted frustrations,” Canadian panel member James MacDonald told Holly Carroll of the Alaskan Department of Fish and Game during the meeting.
“You [Alaskans] caught more in your commercial incidental catch than we caught [in the Yukon] all season and that is a deep source of frustration for a lot of people,” he said.
“I feel your concerns and I understand your frustration,” Carroll replied. “As an area management biologist, I am frustrated with the results of this season … we thought we had fish to harvest, we harvested some fish and then not enough arrived at the border. It is always the goal of [the Alaskan Department of Fish and Game] to meet its management objectives.”
“I am not proud of the management performance this year — it is a failure,” Carroll added.
“I’m sorry for the frustrations that everyone feels and we are going to work on it.”
Forrest Bowers, area management biologist for the Alaskan Department of Fish and Game, says Canadians have many misconceptions about Alaska’s management of Yukon River Chinook. One misconception is that fish are managed for “maximum” yield for Alaskans, he says.
In fact, the Alaskan constitution does not guarantee a maximum harvest, but a harvest in keeping with “sustained yield principles” designed for “the maximum benefit of the Alaskan people,” Bowers points out.
“Certainly, the farther up the river I go, the more pessimistic people are [about the runs],” he says.
Some Alaskans also speculate that Canadian mining operations in the Yukon are taking a toll on Chinook populations on their side of the border, although in what way is unknown, he notes.
“The population isn’t producing the numbers it has in the past, but it isn’t, you know, threatened,” Bowers says. “We had 219,000 Chinook come through Pilot station this year. You know, that’s a good number of fish, in my opinion.”
What happens to all those fish once they are counted at the Pilot station, however, is difficult to determine. There are hundreds of kilometres of river with countless tributaries.
“It’s a balancing act for us to provide fishing opportunity for everyone along the river,” he says.
“You know the flip side of that is that if you are too conservative with a lower river you would maybe have forgone harvest opportunity there and maybe exceed escapement goals in the upper river.”
“There’s two sides to that coin and that’s the challenge in fishery management, is to balance those tradeoffs.”
Fostering understanding about the decline of Chinook
Stephanie Quinn-Davidson, executive director of the Alaska-based Yukon River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission says there are misconceptions about what is causing the decline in Chinook stocks — and how those stocks are managed — on both sides of the border.
Created in 2014, the commission works to create a unified voice for Yukon River Alaskan Natives to manage and restore the salmon. Quinn-Davison, who used to work for the Alaskan Department of Fish and Game, is not Alaskan Native, but describes herself as “Lower 48 Native.”
The sheer distance between communities plays a part in fostering misconceptions and blame, and is “a huge problem,” Quinn-Davidson says. The resentment from Yukon First Nations towards Alaska — and the perception that many Alaska Native communities take more than their fair share — is mirrored all along the river on the Alaska side, with people farther up river blaming people down river for the same kind of behaviour.
“Everyone starts pointing fingers, everyone wants to find a culprit for why the numbers are lower than what we expect,” she says.
It used to be the communities all along the river could all harvest as much as they needed, she says, but there also used to be fewer people and more fish — numbers now are about half of what they used to be — and so the idea that everyone can take as much as they used needs to be revisited.
Size is also a factor, she says.
“You know, a 30-pound salmon, maybe a family only has to catch 10 of those [to feed itself],” Quinn-Davidson says. “But now the salmon are 10 or 12 pounds and you need to catch more, three times as many.”
Part of the goal of the inter-tribal fish commission is to foster understanding between Yukon First Nations and Alaskan Natives along the Yukon River, she says, and towards this end the group alternates meetings between Anchorage and Whitehorse, often bringing people back and forth to meet their distant river-neighbours — although this is wildly expensive, she notes, adding it cost $30,000 to get eight people to the most recent meeting in Whitehorse, which took place Dec. 7. To that end, though, it helps because then people can meet and share and understand what the other is experiencing.
“So now, maybe next summer, instead of harvesting 60 fish, a [Alaska Native] will say, ‘Oh, but I heard Madeline from Teslin tell me about how she hasn’t fished in 15 years and she’s made that choice because she wants to ensure there are enough Chinook for future generations, so maybe this year, I’ll just target 25 [fish],’ ” Quinn-Davidson says.
“You know, on the other side Yukon First Nations hear the stories of our [Alaska Native] fishermen living out in rural Alaska with no job, no economy, no way to purchase groceries at the store. The river and the land is their grocery store. In order to feed their families during the winter, they need to harvest 200 fish because they have their grandparents, aunts and uncles and kids, they’re feeding 15 people in their family,” she says.
“It’s by making those personal connections … and understanding the sacrifices that everyone is making on both sides of the world that we’re going to be able to actually conserve the Chinook. If people don’t have that broader understanding, it’s always going to be the mentality of ‘you know, I’m only looking out for myself,’ … and we need people to have that bigger, broader perspective in order to do conservation.”
First Nations and Alaska Natives both want the same thing in the end, she adds — to protect the salmon.
As for the way the fish are managed governmentally, things are more complex than they appear, and ideas about how to best conserve the fish may not line up with government policies about how best to harvest the fish.
“To put it bluntly [in Alaska] the fishery is managed under the commercial fisheries department … And commercial fisheries is about maximizing harvest for the economic benefit of the users. That doesn’t fit within a subsistence framework, right? That doesn’t fit in with a First Nations framework,” she says.
“In a commercial fishery, forgone harvest is a very bad thing — that’s money, right down the drain. That’s the mentality of that department.”
Despite their differing viewpoints, Quinn-Davidson is optimistic and has a great deal of respect for the Alaskan Department of Fish and Game, she says, where there are “lots of good people working” and trying to do their best, she adds.
Changing climate, changing food availability
Overfishing and mismanagement — on either side of the border — may not be the only culprits in the decline, however.
For his part, Bowers says he suspects the decline on the Yukon side may be because a changing climate is altering the timing of food availability for young fish.
Regardless, it’s a “false assumption that having more spawners will produce more returns,” he says.
“In the case of most depressed salmon stocks, such as Chinook, we believe that early marine survival is really the limiting factor and producing more juvenile salmon that are just going to die when they get into the ocean is not really the solution. You’re going to forgo harvest opportunity to put those extra fish onto the spawning grounds and they’re not going to result in increased returns.”
Elizabeth MacDonald, executive director of the Yukon River salmon sub-committee, says the first step is to determine how many Chinook are out there, noting that it’s a fraught and complicated job to figure out exactly how many salmon are coming up the river and how many are spawning.
When the fish start entering the river from the sea, they are initially counted at Pilot, Alaska, using sonar. This system, says MacDonald, is “more of an estimate than a count.” It’s a bit like estimating the number of jelly beans in a jar — you take a snapshot, count up the beans in a set area, estimate the amount of space and make an educated guess.
From there, the fish swim through through tributaries, branching off into other natal rivers to spawn on the American side. The Canadian-born salmon keep going to about 100 spawn sites on Canada’s side of the Yukon River, says MacDonald.
The Yukon River Salmon Agreement sets the number of Chinook that must leave Alaska and reach their spawning grounds back in Canada at 42,500 to 55,000 fish, which is referred to as an escapement goal. These fish are counted at Eagle, Alaska, which provides much more definitive numbers than the Pilot count, according to MacDonald.
What gets reported as official spawning escapement numbers are the amount of fish that make it back past the border and are not harvested on the Canadian side.
Canada sets its fishing quotas based on the Eagle numbers, but the Alaskans set their fishing quotas based on the Pilot numbers; if they waited for the salmon to get upstream to Eagle, the Chinook would already be long gone.
If the estimates are off or something happens to the fish along the way — the Alaskans are entitled to 75 per cent of the entire run beyond escapement — then they can end up taking more than they are technically entitled to, which “often happens,” MacDonald says.
This also means the Canadian side can peg fishing on escapement numbers, because the escapement quota might be all the fish coming.
When that happens — as it often does — the Chinook fishery is usually only open to First Nations subsistence, who usually favour caring for the future of the fish and take “very conservative quotas,” MacDonald says, noting they usually take only one-quarter or one-third of the catch to which they are entitled.
Even when escapement goals are met, however, there is no way to determine how many Chinook are making it to their natal streams and spawning successfully.
The missing 40,000
Somewhere between Pilot and Eagle, tens of thousands of Chinook went missing this year.
“We’re actually missing about 40,000 fish,” MacDonald says.
To put that into perspective, that’s one fish for every single person living in the Yukon.
Sometimes, the estimates made in Pilot can be complicated by runs of chum salmon which often begin at around the same time. This year, however, says MacDonald, the runs began late so the Chinook counts at the Pilot station can be considered to be more accurate than usual.
She finds that disturbing because the missing fish likely can’t be dismissed as a miscount, but could be a pre-spawn die off.
“This is an indication that something is definitely going on,” says MacDonald.
A pre-spawn die off occurs when a large number of salmon die before they reach their spawning ground, sometimes as the result of human interference, as in the case of hundreds of pink salmon on the Cheakamus River near Squamish this year.
At other times, conditions fish cannot handle — such as disease, increased temperatures or other inclement environmental factors — either kill fish en masse or deplete their reserves to the point where they don’t have the strength to make it to the spawning grounds.
Temperature is ‘the master factor’ for fish populations
Climate and climate change play an important role in these die offs, according to University of British Columbia forestry professor Scott Hinch, who specializes in salmon survival, migration and conservation.
Temperature is “the master factor” when it comes to fish populations, Hinch says, driving everything from metabolic processes to disease resistance and progress to when to migrate and mate. When the temperature changes, the salmon’s physiology and behaviour change, and there’s a limit to how much change a salmon can tolerate.
Both Alaska and the Yukon had unprecedented heatwaves this past summer, with water temperatures reaching record highs in some rivers.
How increased water temperatures affect fish is a multifaceted issued, Hinch says. When the water temperature rises above a certain point, salmon cannot efficiently extract enough oxygen.
They can go into an “oxygen debt” which may send them into cooler waters — provided those waters exist — for a short period of time. This is not dissimilar to red-lining an overheated engine; you can push it to the next gas station, but do it too long and your car is toast.
This year, water temperatures in the Yukon River reached 18 degrees.
Carroll says the high temperatures caused the death of thousands of chum salmon in Alaska this past year.
“The chum are in a system with shallow water so we saw their bodies floating and washed up on sand bars,” she says. “But you don’t hear about that in Canada because a lot of chum don’t make it back across the border.”
She says that while the same wasn’t witnessed with Chinook, which could have been less visible if they died in deeper water, there is reason to be concerned about heat-stress for the species.
Even if the salmon make it to cooler water, they’ve used up precious energy reserves and may not have strength left to make it to the spawning ground, especially if they encounter hot conditions again and again. For salmon like the Yukon River Chinook, whose migration is especially long, this energy expenditure can mean the difference between making it to the spawning ground or dying before they can breed.
Increased water temperature has the additional effect of increasing pathogen activity in the water. The salmon are already immunosuppressed, Hinch says — this is among the suspected reasons why Pacific salmon species die after spawning — and an increased pathogen load means fish are more stressed and may not have the resources to make it to the spawning grounds.
It’s possible for the salmon to adapt to higher water temperatures over time but “how quickly natural selection can do that is the question,” Hinch says.
With so much working against them, can the Yukon River Chinook rebound?
That depends on whom you ask.
Anderson says he thinks the Chinook can recover — as long as people take just what they need, not like “the big trawlers in Alaska — but it will take time.”
Taylor, for his part, says he thinks “the fish are slowly coming back,” although not at the same sizes or numbers as before. The females he’s been seeing recently are some of the largest fish he’s caught, which he says is unusual.
“Before this summer, I never would have thought the fish were doomed,” Ayoub says.
“I would have thought our management efforts could have rebounded them, but this summer –— and this is absolutely staggering — the entire length of the Yukon River had an average of four and a half degrees centigrade warmer temperature than average and the average has been going up for years … When I saw that, I thought, ‘Oh, the fish are doomed … .’ They can’t survive that.”
“Am I optimistic?” Jones says. “No, I’d have to be on drugs to be optimistic.”
“The only thing we can control is our own behaviour.”
“I think that salmon are incredibly resilient creatures,” says Quinn-Davidson.
“And if you give them half the chance, they will rebound. We have seen salmon, repopulate areas that have been damaged by mining damaged by natural disasters and, you know, areas in the lower 48 where they’re taking dams out, and now salmon are running up those rivers.”
“You just gotta give them half a chance.”
Update December 20, 2019, 1:24 p.m. PST: This article was updated to clarify Chinook escapement goals and that these goals have been unmet on the Canadian side of the border in five of the last 11 years, not five of the last seven years as previously stated. This article was also updated to correct the fact that Chinook harvest in Eagle, Alaska, is on average 800 fish per year between 2013 and 2018 and not 3,000 as previously reported. Additions have been made to qualify the danger higher water temperatures pose to Chinook salmon and to note the death of thousands of chum salmon from heat-induced stress in Alaska this year. This story previously reported that 22 degree temperature waters is lethal to salmon, but on the advice of experts, who say further research is needed to identify lethal thresholds, we have removed this reference.