Salmon at the source: Kwanlin Dun First Nation monitors Chinook spawning area

The Kwanlin Dün First Nation has been monitoring Chinook salmon for more than a decade. On September 2, councillors travelled by float plane to reach Michie Creek, a tributary of the M’Clintock River, which lies within their traditional territory.

Monitors count fish, check on recovery of species

Every year, Chinook salmon migrate more than 3,000 kilometres through Alaska and Yukon. It's a roundabout journey that fisheries biologist Nick De Graff calls one of the most amazing in nature. 

"They migrate from the Bering Sea. And they have to migrate up without feeding. That is just an unbelievable journey," he says. 

On Sept. 2, De Graff welcomed two float planes to an isolated camp in south Yukon. There, Kwanlin Dün First Nation councillors had a look at the First Nation's salmon monitoring project, a program that's been running more than 10 years. 

It's a piece of a international effort to research Chinook salmon and understand why their numbers have nearly collapsed since the mid-1990s — though lately, there have been signs of a rebound.

This map shows the annual migration of Chinook Salmon. The spawning grounds are at the end of the yellow line at bottom right. ( Yukon Salmon Sub-Committee )

A visit to the salmon's spawning grounds is a rare thing. 

"Not many people know the fish spawn here, and we like keeping it that way," De Graff says.

Today, there's no fishing allowed in the grounds — people take nothing but pictures.

The Kwanlin Dün First Nation is one of many along the Yukon River that's accepted a temporary ban on subsistence harvesting.

Generational change

Kwanlin Dun councillor Howard MacIntosh is one of many locals whose family roots have been nourished with salmon.

"My grandma used to catch them. We used to set a net in the M'Clintock River and we used to get about 15 a day, something like that," he says. "But I don't think there's that many now."

MacIntosh says he supports a voluntary ban on fishing observed by First Nations, but admits that it can be a painful thing in small communities. 

"It's not so bad in Whitehorse, because we hardly have any people who fish in Whitehorse. But up in Pelly and Mayo and all that, they do that every year. It's harder for them."

When asked about the future of the salmon population, MacIntosh offers a shrug.

"I hope it does [recover]. I don't think it'll ever come back to what it used to be. But it will come back, if we help it." 

Kwanlin Dün First Nation Councillor Sean Smith views the spawning grounds as a sacred place. 'These headwaters are where life goes out to the ocean but it comes back again in a different form,' he says. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Monitors break up beaver dams

Monitors' work is mostly observational. About three times a year, they reach the remote camp, record water temperatures and levels and count fish in the creeks, sending the collected information to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

It's usually hands-off work but sometimes the situation calls for wading in and giving the fish a boost, says De Graff.

"I was out at Tachun Creek in Carmacks," he says. "There were 75 salmon below a beaver dam. We notched it and they went up within hours."

Kwanlin Dun councillor Sean Smith is also no stranger to getting his feet wet with his work in the program — working in a place he says his ancestors have been for 12,000 years. 

"This is the headwaters of basically the entire Yukon river system," he says. "These headwaters are where life goes out to the ocean, but it comes back again in a different form." 

As a Kwanlin Dün citizen, Smith does have the legal right to fish in the area — a right he's not using now. 

"We've got a DFO allotment for 200 salmon, but would we really take that? Do we put our nets in and take that amount of salmon?

"It could take away a large percentage of baby salmon that reproduce in this creek."

Janine George supports a voluntary closure of the fishery. 'It's out of respect, I think. We have to think about 10 generations ahead. If we just pause the fishing, 10 years from now, it'll still be there for the younger generation coming up.' (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Elders 'grew up in abundance'

The councillors are impressed with the state of affairs during today's tour of the creek. Large Chinook salmon swim past, breaking the surface with their backs. Some are bright red. Others have been scrubbed to mottled off-white by the process of digging in river gravel.

John Pattimore, who works with KDFN Land and Resources, says it's important to have monitoring at Michie Creek, which may be the furthest point east in the migration loop.

"Hopefully the conservation efforts that have been happening by the First Nations folks — reducing their fishing by quite a bit — is contributing to the rising nunbers," he says.

Like many here, Pattimore supports the voluntary fishing ban. However, he says that it can affect more than people's meals. 

"(Elders) grew up with abundance and it's been taken away," he says. "So it's been a big loss.

"Plus, the whole culture around catching the fish in fish camps and any other way... it's a way of teaching children the culture of Kwanlin Dün or any other First Nation. So you lose the resource — the food — and you lose a part of your culture."

That gets a nod from Janine George, a Kwanlin Dün youth who's visiting for the day.

"It's out of respect, I think. We have to think about 10 generations ahead. If we just pause the fishing, 10 years from now it'll still be there for the younger generation coming up." 

Returning to camp, the crew has lunch — campfire tea and chili beef. Chinook salmon will have to wait.


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