Up Here magazine, May/June 2001

The Few That Got Away

by James Hrynyshyn

At the end of every summer, the salmon return to the multitude of lakes and tributaries that form the headwaters of the Yukon River. It's a natural ritual that's been enacted annually over thousands of years as the stocks of chinook and chum work their way home. It's a 3000-kilometre journey that begins in the Bering Sea and ends in spawning beds across the southern reaches of the Yukon territory and the state of Alaska.

The salmon return is special to the people who live along the Yukon River and its tributaries. The orange flesh of fish, toned from one of the longest spawning runs in the world, has sustained them since the glaciers retreated in to the mountains. The fish themselves occupy a special place in the culture and heritage. Today, however, that significance goes beyond history and tradition. Today, the chinook and chum of the Yukon River are special because there are so few of them. The mighty salmon never became an economic engine in the North as it did in southeast Alaska and along the coasts of British Columbia, Washington and Oregon. Still, the fish assumed a critical role, a cultural significance that still unites the communities from the mouth of the Yukon to its headwaters. The task of catching, hanging, drying and smoking salmon involved the whole family. It was a big job and not any fish was suited to the task.

The prospect of life without salmon is almost impossible to imagine for people like Carl Sidney, a member of the Teslin Tlingit Council who has lived most of his 49 years in the community of Teslin near spawning grounds in southeast Yukon. "Even before we lived here, our people used to gather in Teslin to get their supply of salmon for the winter," Sidney says. "They'd meet and visit. They'd get salmon together and collect berries. Then they'd split up and go their own ways."

But life without salmon may be what he faces this year, along with everyone else who lives or fishes along the Yukon. If the scientists who study the chinook and chum found in the estuaries, creeks and lakes that feed the river are right, this will be the fourth consecutive year of poor salmon runs. The situation will likely require extensive closures in the commercial, domestic and recreational fisheries as well as restrictions, or even closures, in the First Nation fisheries. Sidney doesn't fish much for salmon, these days. In Teslin, only elders now set hooks and nets when the fish return. He's got a few years to go before he participates in their voluntary cutback, which is part of a widespread conservation effort that has seen a 40 percent reduction in the take of the First Nation fishery over the entire Yukon River drainage.

It's the same story for Craig McKinnon, a warden at Kluane National Park, who grew up in Champagne-Aishihik territory in southwestern Yukon. "I remember as a kid, it was just fun to be able to go salmon fishing and hunting in the Yukon. It was so plentiful. Now, sport fishing of salmon in the Yukon is a privilege if it can be done. Even then you question whether it should be done because the rivers aren't full of salmon any more." And it's the same story 1000 kilometres north in Old Crow, where the Vuntut Gwitchin have enjoyed the salmon harvest from one of the Yukon River's major tributaries, the Porcupine River. And for the Alaskans who live along the Tanana River in central Alaska. And even for the Eskimos of Norton Sound, where the Yukon meets the Bering Sea.

Salmon populations are notoriously prone to ups and downs, but until 1998 everything appeared well. The number of chinook salmon reaching the spawning grounds was increasing to levels well above target numbers of 18,000 spawners. Catches in all fisheries remained relatively stable, even after 1995 when spawning ground targets were raised to more than 28,000 fish. Chum salmon populations were even healthier with spawning populations rebuilding to target levels ahead of a four-year cyclic schedule monitored by scientists.

Federal fisheries managers, government biologists and fishers were optimistic about the future of Yukon salmon runs. Disagreements between Canadian and American officials over how many fish each country's fishers deserved caused friction (a source of tension that eased in March with a new salmon agreement. See sidebar.) For the most part, however, few were complaining. Chinook were plentiful enough that chum could be reserved for dog teams, just as they had during the Klondike Gold Rush a century before.

Then was then. In 1998 -- the year after chinook spawning ground populations hit 37,000 -- the population nosedived to 17,000. In 1999 and 2000, the spawning numbers sank even lower, to 11,000 and 12,000 respectively. Other statistics presented equally depressing figures. According to estimates published by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, 17,200 Yukon River chinook reached Canadian waters last year, one of lowest returns on record and 60 percent below average. Chum populations were estimated at 60,000. The average is 103,000. As a result, serious restrictions have occurred in all fisheries. Voluntary cutbacks among First Nations in 1998 and 2000 resulted in catches dropping to about half the normal levels. Recreational salmon fishing on the Yukon River closed altogether in these years. The commercial fishery around Dawson City was permitted only one very limited opening in 1998. In 1999, the catch was scaled back to about one-third normal levels. In 2000, the fishery closed for the entire chinook season and was allowed only one fishing period during the chum season. The domestic fishery, a small subsistence fishery limited to eight non-aboriginal people, closed during two of the last three years.

The Yukon Salmon Committee, a community-based advisory body and the lead force in Yukon salmon management, is bracing Yukoners for another poor fishing season. It expects the restrictions applied in 2000 will be necessary in 2001. It also warns that even further cutbacks may be necessary to conserve the salmon resources on which so many depend. Sidney, who chairs the Salmon Committee, doesn't pretend to know why the salmon are doing so poorly. He says he suspects it might have something to do with high-seas fishers from Russia, China and Japan.

The scientists, meanwhile, haven't reached a firm conclusion either, although the favoured suspect among the PhD crowd will be harder to control. Gord Zealand, area manager for the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans in Whitehorse, says he is relatively confident the problem can't be traced to the usual suspects: fisheries management and local weather conditions. "We were in a real rebuilding period. The stuff we'd done in the late 1980s and early 1990s was starting to pay off ... in terms of action on fisheries," he says. "People were being a lot more careful in what they're doing."

In a way, that makes it frustrating. "We've had really good escapements, weather hadn't been terribly unusual. Last year, the water was really high. If you had really high water and then a hell of a winter, you'd expect to lose eggs to frost.We haven't had those sort of situations. The only thing we can put it down to is something is happening out in the ocean."

Something in the ocean. To be more precise, something strange in the Bering Sea. To understand how that makes a difference requires some basic fish biology. Most salmon -- even some species we don't usually think of as salmon, such as steelhead and cutthroat trout -- are diadromous fish. They spend part of their lives in freshwater and the rest in the ocean. The chinook (also known as king) and chum salmon of the Yukon River spend a relatively shorter portion of their lives in freshwater than other species and stocks of salmon, such as pink and coho salmon found further south. They are, nevertheless, genetically programmed to return to the gravel riverbeds where they were born in order to spawn and then die. Within a year of hatching, the successful escapees migrate to the open ocean of the Bering Sea. Yukon River chinook live to about seven or eight years of age. All but the first and last few months of life are spent in the ocean. If they can't find enough food there, they won't have the fat and muscle to make it back to spawn. And no salmon swims further to spawn than Yukon River salmon, which explains why the chinook can put on as much as 25 kilograms or more.

Unfortunately for the salmon, the Bering Sea isn't what it used to be. Scientists like Tom Vania of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game call it a "regime shift," a change in the state of environmental conditions. And biological production at the bottom of the food chain in the Northeast Pacific has been undergoing puzzling developments. As a result, there may not be enough food for the salmon to bulk up on during some regimes, leaving them too weak to survive the return migration. At least, that's the theory, Vania says. "It's tough for us to say on the Yukon that, yes, this is the precise problem.' But a lot of the evidence does point towards something changing in the marine environment."

Although regime shifts take place every few decades, they're not regular enough to be easily predicted. One occurred in 1946. Another in 1977 and then again in 1989. Alan Springer, a climate researcher at the University of Fairbanks, says another shift may have taken place in 1998. The data are still being analyzed, but the evidence includes new and large blooms of a hard-shelled algae known as coccolithophores. Salmon don't eat these new algal invaders and Vania speculates they could be disrupting the food chain on which the salmon depend.

On top of that, there's the infamous El Niño phenomenon. It's another version of regime shift originating in waters off Peru and is sufficiently powerful to make itself felt around the world, changing ocean temperature, productivity levels and rainfall in coast areas. The last major El Niño, in 1997, took place just before the decline in Yukon River salmon returns. The two events may be linked. If the regime shifts are to blame, it's just a matter of time before the Northeast Pacific shifts back to a regime that favours salmon. But there's another problem relating to the weather: global climate change. At the Pacific Biological Station on Vancouver Island, DFO researchers David Welch and Dick Beamish have been working on the problem for the past few years.

Their conclusions are not exactly good news. It turns out that salmon are extremely sensitive to open ocean temperature. Specifically, they don't tolerate warm waters well. And as oceans around the world warm due to climate change brought on by rising greenhouse-gas emissions, the region of ocean that can serve as suitable salmon habitat shrinks. Welch suspects this may be behind some of the declines in returns of salmon along the coast of British Columbia. It could also be amplifying or disrupting El Niños or regime shifts. Whether the same is happening to the Yukon River salmon is an open question. The upshot of this climatological speculation is that there's not a lot fisheries managers in Alaska or the Yukon can do to mitigate declining salmon returns. The advice Vania gives his government bosses is straightforward: "All we can do now is reduce harvests until a time that production changes for us and starts getting more bang for the buck ... We're pretty much going into the 2001 season saying that there's not going to be any commercial fishing in the Alaska portion (of the Yukon River). All we can do there is reduce harvest for subsistence fishing. That's the only other adjustment we can make."

After holding community meetings through the spring, the Yukon Salmon Committee is expected to make similar recommendations. For committee members like Craig McKinnon, that means the only way he's going to be able to relive the glory fishing days of his youth is to head down to Haines, Alaska, where he keeps a boat and has the opportunity to catch plenty of coho. "Sport fishing down in Haines or Skagway is more economically viable. A lot of Yukoners go down there ­ you're buying licences, you're spending time down there fishing," he says. "In the Yukon it's not the same." Indeed, the proximity of still-abundant salmon runs in Southeast Alaska is now about the only reason it makes any sense for Glenn Babala to keep stocking the shiny pixie lures (the ones that salmon supposedly can't resist) in his Whitehorse fishing shop. Though you can almost see the Yukon River from the Sports North store, many of Babala's customers who drop in to buy licences and lures for fish aren't heading for the local waters, but those of Haines and Skagway, where coho and chum are still running strong.

But even there, signs of trouble for the salmon are everywhere. Sockeye are no longer running in large numbers on the Chilkoot River. Babala says he only orders half as many pixies and sells half as many Alaska licences as a few seasons back. Yukoners, meanwhile, are adapting to the new conditions.

"Flyfishing has picked up big, and the lake trout fishing is getting big," says Babala, who celebrates 30 years in operation this summer. And with change in gear comes a new psychology. "It used to be a Œcatch, catch, catch' attitude. People have more respect now. They're just enjoying the day. They're satisfied with that." Well, not everyone is satisfied. Carl Sidney is on the receiving end of frustration over a threat to a way of life for many of the territory's fishers. "As chairman of the Salmon Committee, I get a lot of flack from all the departments ­ from the sport fisheries, from the commercial fisheries, they pretty much perceive it as Carl's the one who's the gatekeeper. In natural fact, my biggest concern is conservation." Gatekeeper or conservationist, at this point the label is pretty much beside the point. If the scientists are right, all Sidney and the rest of the salmon committee can do is sit back and wait for nature's cycle to come around, if it still can.

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