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Yukon chinook salmon run could be lower again this year, frustrating First Nations

'When is the time going to come for when we start to see results? We're not seeing results,' said Simon Nagano of the Tr'ondek Hwech'in First Nation. Many Indigenous communities have restricted their harvest to help stocks recover.

'We're not seeing results,' said Tr'ondek Hwech'in First Nation leader at Yukon River Panel meeting

'It's the same thing over and over and over,' said Simon Nagano of the Tr'ondek Hwech'in First Nation, at a meeting of the Yukon River Panel in Whitehorse this week. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

The chinook salmon run on the Yukon River this year is expected to be roughly the same size or slightly smaller than last year — and that's frustrating some First Nations along the river.

Many have restricted their harvest of salmon in recent years, to encourage stocks to replenish. 

"All we hear — let's be honest — it's the same thing over and over and over," said Simon Nagano, deputy chief of the Tr'ondek Hwech'in First Nation in Dawson City, Yukon.

"When is the time going to come for when we start to see results? We're not seeing results."

Nagano was speaking Tuesday in Whitehorse at a meeting of the Yukon River Panel, an international advisory body on salmon management made up of members from Yukon and Alaska. The panel meets twice annually to review salmon runs and harvest numbers and make recommendations to better manage the stocks.

Yukon chinook runs have been in general decline in recent decades. The last few years have seen annual runs averaging about 73,000 fish, compared to runs averaging around 158,000 in the 1990s.

An underwater camera at the Whitehorse fish ladder and hatchery captures chinook salmon travelling by. The last few years have seen annual chinook runs in the Yukon River averaging about 73,000 fish, compared to runs averaging around 158,000 in the 1990s. (Yukon Energy)

"It used to take days to process 600 or more chinook that we caught. Now, if we caught any chinook, it would take a half hour to 10 minutes," Nagano told the panel.

"That was then, and now ... we eat salmon from a can."

This year's run is expected to be somewhere in the range of about 69,000 to 99,000 fish, which is similar to what was predicted last year. Experts say that suggests the actual run size may be the same or slightly smaller than in 2018.

Duane Gastant' Aucoin of the Teslin Tlingit Council also described how things have changed in his community. He remembers being a child and going with his grandmother to pull in her nets.

"She would be pulling in salmon almost as big as her ... we don't see that anymore. We don't see that size and the numbers," he said.

"They're a lot smaller, there's a lot less females, the production rate is a lot lower, so all of these are a concern to our people back home."

'Alaska catches the salmon'

The Teslin Tlingit Council decided years ago to put a moratorium on its traditional fishery. In 2016, the community harvested its first few chinook in 17 years. 

Other Indigenous communities on both sides of the border between Canada and the United States have also restricted their harvests in recent years — but there's been tension over how many fish are still harvested.

A chart shown at Tuesday's meeting illustrates a general decline in chinook runs in recent years. The blue part of each bar represents the size of the Alaska harvest that year, and the red indicates the Canadian harvest. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Some Yukon First Nations have blamed over-fishing in Alaska for reducing the number that reach spawning grounds in Yukon.

"Yukon hatches the salmon, Alaska catches the salmon," Nagano said.

Last year, the U.S. harvest of Yukon River chinook was 19,266 fish. In Canada, it was 2,790 fish.

John Linderman of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said the Yukon River Panel is about working together across the border, and finding ways to monitor and manage the stocks.

People listen at Tuesday's meeting in Whitehorse. The Yukon River Panel meets every spring and fall. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

"We have common goals, common interests, common values," he said.

"The United States, and the state of Alaska, made a commitment to this process. We have agreed to and signed off on a treaty between the two countries — that's why we're all here."

The panel's meeting continues Wednesday.

Written by Paul Tukker, based on reporting by Philippe Morin

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