Ready, set, swim! 10,000 salmon released at Yukon campground

About 10,000 Chinook salmon are making their way downstream in Yukon. Some even got a wave goodbye. This weekend, children took part in the annual release of Chinook fry raised at the Whitehorse Fish Hatchery.

Whitehorse fish hatchery releases fry into the wild

Children carry the fish to Wolf Creek. It's the start of a 3,000 kilometre migration which will see some fish reach the ocean. After several years, they return to Yukon to spawn. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

About 10,000 Chinook salmon are now making their way downstream, after being released over the weekend in Whitehorse. Some even got a wave goodbye. 

The annual release is a popular event for children and families. About 200 people crowded the Wolf Creek campground this year. 

"I've never seen this many families out," said Lawrence Vano of the Whitehorse Fish Hatchery, which raises the fry as part of efforts to boost the wild population.

Children each took plastic bags with a few fish and released them at the creek side.

The Chinook fry are a big attraction. 'I've never seen so many families here,' said Lawrence Vano of the Whitehorse Fish Hatchery. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Chinook salmon are unique because of their migration. The fish are born in fresh water then travel to the ocean. 

After several years, they make their return by swimming upstream to spawn.

The hatchery is owned by Yukon Energy, which operates the Whitehorse hydroelectric dam. 

The dam was built in the late 1950s, and later installed measures to reduce its killing of salmon. A fish ladder was built in 1959 to allow fish to circumvent the turbines. 

However, "the basic premise for the program is to replace any fish that [die] going through the dam," Vano said. 

A declining population 

Biologists say the number of Chinook returning to Yukon has declined.

Last year, early counts indicated about 57,000 returning fish in the Yukon River at Eagle, Alaska. This was just above the biologists' minimum target of 55,000. However, that number still pales in comparison to average run sizes in the 1990s, which measured about 150,000 fish.

Gordon Zealand, executive director of the Yukon Fish and Game Association, believes a recent rebound is mainly due to harvest reductions in Alaska.   

"It's wasn't because of the resource. We were the benefactors of Americans' taking really good action. It was thanks to them we got the escapements that we did," he says. 

The decline of Chinook stocks over the years has been blamed on over-fishing, low reproduction and the catch of Chinook as unwanted ocean by-catch in the commercial pollock fishery. 

Fish are tagged

The Chinook fish are equipped with a metal tag in their nose cartilage, as well as a tag on their fins to aid research. 

Zealand says he hopes the fish will make it back from their 3,000 kilometre migration. 

"It's great to watch them go. It's better to see them come back," he says.