Disagreement on management of Yukon River Chinook fishery

At the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council is meeting in Carcross, delegates are trying to maintain good relations while also acknowledging some controversies: There are allegations of overfishing and not everyone agrees on the significance of recent Chinook surveys.

More than 70 First Nations and tribes discuss Chinook salmon in Yukon this week

Chair of the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council George Shepherd says he has no doubts Alaskans 'care about the river' as much as Yukoners. However the meetings have not been without controversy, as he accuses some Alaskans of over-harvesting. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Recent counts of chinook salmon in the Yukon River have been encouraging and some leaders of the First Nations that rely on them say it's time to increase the fishery for subsistence hunters.

Others say it's too soon. 

The different opinions are sure to test the commitment to cooperation made by the 70 Canadian and Alaskan First Nations and tribes of the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council as they meet in Carcross this week to discuss the fishery.

Delegates are trying to agree on management approaches to salmon that pass through different First Nations' traditional territories and past national boundaries as they migrate between Yukon and the Bering Sea.

The Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council gathers more than 70 First Nations and Tribes from Yukon and Alaska. The fish migrate past national borders, and so one village or nation's actions can affect the others. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Commercial fishing allowed in Alaska this year 

This year the Alaska Department of Fish and Game briefly allowed commercial sales of chinook (known as king salmon in Alaska) for the first time since 2011. The department says it allowed the sales because the salmon runs were the best since 2005.

The move was strongly opposed by some Indigenous fishers from both US and Canada. As a result of that opposition, the department closed the commercial fishery only a few hours after opening it.

Several Alaskan tribes have also re-opened education camps and expanded the subsistence harvest this year in response to Chinook numbers.

That doesn't sit well with everyone.

Sarah James, a Gwich'in elder from Arctic Village in Alaska, says chinook numbers should be allowed to solidify for a few years before any increased harvest.

"The commercial (fishery) should wait until they know we are getting it back. For the subsistence hunters, they should only take what they need and not over-harvest," she said.

Sarah James, a Gwich'in elder from Arctic Village, says any commercial fishery should wait a few more years and subsistence harvesters should take only the bare minimum. She cautions that higher numbers could lead to 'greed' and people over-harvesting Chinook. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Accusations of over-fishing   

Council chair, George Shepherd, has accused some Alaskans of over-fishing. 

In an interview with CBC this week, he made some pointed remarks about some Alaskans' practices, but declined to single out any one village or tribe.

"You can't sit in front of a river and take all the fish before they get here. And that's exactly what they do. They sit in front of the river and take it all," he said.

Chinook runs in the Yukon River are still about half of their historic numbers. The lower numbers have been attributed to harvesting, man-made barriers such as Whitehorse's hydroelectric dam, climate change and the unintended catching of salmon my commercial fishing vessels harvesting other species in the Bering Sea.

Yukon River chinook salmon migrate from the Berring Sea, through the Yukon and into northern British Columbia. The spawning grounds are at the end of the yellow line at bottom right. ( Yukon Salmon Sub-Committee )

'How many meals can you miss?'

Philip Titus of the Mayo Native Council in Alaska says people are hungry in Alaska.

He feels that recent chinook numbers would support an increased sustenance harvest and says voluntary restrictions cannot last forever.

"How many meals can you miss?" he asks. "People are skipping meals from not fishing. Basically that's what it means, if you have to eat food that's flown in, commercial store-bought food," he said.

Focus on water quality

While there is disagreement, members of the Inter-Tribal Watershed Council have pledged to avoid 'fish politics' and blaming one another.

Philip Titus of the Minto Native Council says a voluntary ban on fishing has been painful. 'People are skipping meals from not fishing,' he says. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

The group is focusing on water quality as a rallying issue — hoping that a cleaner Yukon River could help salmon thrive. 

"That is our vision for the next 50 years," said Shepherd. "Our motto is that you should be able to drink the water of the Yukon River."

Meetings continue this week and coincide with the 20th anniversary of the watershed council.