From 150,000 to just 3: Yukon elder says he 'almost cried' over dire salmon shortage

Yukoners sacrificing way of life and taking new measures in hopes of rebuilding diminished stock

Yukoners sacrificing way of life and taking new measures in hopes of rebuilding diminished stock

Elder Chuck Hume says he's hopeful the salmon will return one day. 'We need the fish,' he says. (Stephen Anderson-Lindsay)

Yukon elder Chuck Hume remembers seeing sockeye salmon runs through his Klukshu village when he was a kid.

They would last from June until December and produce upwards of 150,000 fish.

This fall, that same river's run yielded just three sockeye.

"I almost cried when I saw that," said Hume. "My whole life has been salmon, caring for salmon, respecting salmon."

That knowledge was passed on to Hume by his grandmother: "You only take what you need."

Today, Hume isn't taking any salmon.

I almost cried when I saw that.- Yukon elder Chuck Hume

It's been 12 years since he had a fish on his fish rack; he hasn't been able to demonstrate to his grandchildren how to properly cut and harvest salmon.

The Champagne and Aishihik First Nations elder said he'll sit on the beach with his grandchildren and watch salmon swim by.

"They say to me, 'Grandpa there's sockeye going up,'" said Hume. "I tell them those sockeye, we have to let them go. We have to let them spawn, because those are the ones that are going to bring other sockeye back."

Spawning sockeye salmon are seen here making their way up the Adams River near Chase, B.C., in October 2014. Elder Hume says he saw hundreds of thousands of sockeye salmon as a kid in his Klukshu village. This fall, Hume says the same river yielded just three fish. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Hume has stopped fishing because he's hopeful the fish will return.

"That's my only goal in life," said Hume. "It's not happening yet and that's a terrible thing."

Hume partially blames himself for the current state of Yukon salmon.

"I think I did a very poor job at looking after this resource," said Hume. "I should have been more upfront speaking on behalf of the fish."

Hume speaks out

This week, Hume was one of several elders to be invited to present at a conference on salmon resiliency held in Whitehorse.

The conference is moving away from its traditional approach around the discussion of salmon replenishment.

Dennis Zimmerman, one of the facilitators, said the intention is to take a more holistic approach.

"We tend to just focus on the management and the technical science, the counting of fish and the measuring of fish, but there are so many other aspects to salmon and sometimes the wisdom gets lost," said Zimmerman. "We want western science and traditional Indigenous ways side by side."

A salmon resiliency conference was held in Whitehorse for the first time. More than 100 people from B.C. and Yukon participated in the event. (Stephen Anderson-Lindsay)

At the conference, through stories and song, elders spoke of growing up with salmon, the respect they were taught and the hope they have for the future of the fish in the territory. 

Zimmerman said they will now review what was gathered from the testimonies, stories and songs.

"We'll pull out the values, priorities and traditional principles that we can apply to today's salmon challenges," said Zimmerman.

He said the information will then be given back to the people to help in management of their salmon.

Dennis Zimmerman helped to facilitate a recent conference on salmon resiliency in Whitehorse. He says the aim was to take a more holistic approach and utilize the wisdom of Yukon First Nations. (Stephen Anderson-Lindsay)

Yukon First Nations sacrifice for salmon

In recent years, Yukon First Nations have started to look at non-traditional ways to try to rebuild the salmon stock.

The Teslin Tlingit Council began using an innovative technique called in-stream egg incubation in 2016.

Ben Schonewille is a fish and wildlife biologist overseeing the project.

"What we do is we go to another river that has a healthy run of salmon and we take a small number of those fish, take their eggs, fertilize them and put them back," said Schonewille. "The real value in that is it helps get the most benefit out of those salmon eggs by intervening in their life cycle."

In-stream egg incubation is an innovative method some Yukon First Nations are using to help replenish Chinook salmon stocks. (Minnie Clark)

Schonewille said the intention is to make heartier fish that are more resilient and have adapted to those natural conditions.

Earlier this year, the Tr'ondek Hwech'in First Nation in Dawson City started a smaller trial run of in-stream egg incubation.

That's an extraordinary effort on their part.- Brian Riddell, president of Pacific Salmon Foundation

"More people are getting interested in this method of Chinook restoration for sure."

Brian Riddell is the president of the Pacific Salmon Foundation, a B.C. based organization that put on the salmon resiliency conference in Whitehorse.

He said he's never seen a sacrifice like the one Yukon First Nations are currently making to restore the salmon stock.

"That's an extraordinary effort on their part and not really parallel to anywhere else at this magnitude," said Riddell. "You have a run that's so important to so many people."

And while the mandate of the Pacific Salmon Foundation is to support salmon conservation and restoration in both B.C. and Yukon, little has been done by the foundation here in the territory until recently.

Riddell said that's going to change.

"It's time for us to get invested here and provide some support," said Riddell.

Hume is hopeful the salmon will return one day.

"I have a lot of teaching to do, especially to my grandchildren," said Hume. "We need the fish."

With files from Mike Rudyk


George Maratos

Associate Producer

George Maratos is a reporter and associate producer at CBC Yukon with more than a decade of experience covering the North.


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