Teri-Lee Isaac and her family would look for cues that have long dictated it was time to get ready for fish camp.
The phone lines, or more recently, the Facebook group chat, would start to light up — “What day are we leaving? Who’s bringing the hotdogs?” — when the soap berries and salmon flies were out and there were bubbles on the river, the smell of salmon wafting on the current.
They also relied on another millennia-old indicator the fish were on their way: word of mouth from downriver, where the chinook had already arrived.
“It’s kind of like smoke signals,” Isaac, a Selkirk First Nation (SFN) citizen, said from Pelly Crossing, a primarily Indigenous community of about 380 people in central Yukon, about 300 kilometres north of Whitehorse. Her family’s fish camp is among those sitting along the Pelly River, a tributary of the Yukon River where chinook salmon come streaming up every year.
Or used to.
While chinook once ran so thick that elders described feeling like they could walk across the backs of the fish, and Isaac’s family could pull their nets from the river over and over without worry, recent runs have been more akin to a trickle; 2022 is the smallest run ever recorded.
The decline has happened dramatically, in less than a lifetime — Isaac is only in her 40s. This year, for the first time in its history, Selkirk First Nation asked its citizens to refrain from harvesting due to the critically low number of fish.
That meant that instead of pulling them from nets, Isaac’s family members collected their salmon from freezers this year, purchased from down south by their First Nation so citizens could have something.
Isaac and a few relatives brought their thawed salmon to fish camp to fillet and hang up anyway, in an attempt to keep a piece of tradition and culture alive. But it’s not the same.
“We kind of knew that the salmon was depleting in the last five years, but we never thought there would be a day where we’d never be allowed to fish,” Isaac said.
“And this was the year…. I am scared about the future of the salmon.”
As the fish swims
Yukon River chinook salmon make one of the longest freshwater migrations on Earth. The river stretches more than 3,000 kilometres from the Bering Sea, across Alaska, into Yukon and south to the headwaters, located on the northwestern edge of British Columbia, near the Yukon border.
A chinook’s journey is arduous; salmon stop eating once they enter freshwater and, while swimming against the current, must also dodge predators and deal with ever-changing water conditions to arrive at the spawning grounds where they themselves hatched years ago. Some Yukon River chinook spawn in Alaska, but others will traverse the near-entirety of the river to return to Canadian waters.
Among the markers of the chinook salmon’s nearly Sisyphean ordeal is a physical transformation — a spawning fish trades its silvery blue-green scales for reddish-bronze ones instead, and males grow a sharp beak while females have blunt, rounded heads.
Historically, up to 450,000 fish would enter the Yukon River, with anywhere from a quarter to more than a third destined for Canada. For the better part of the past two decades, though, the total figure has been closer to around 150,000 to 200,000 — still enough to feed people on both sides of the border, but a decline that has raised conservation concerns.
Listen to the documentary ‘When the salmon disappear’ from The Current:
Under an international agreement between Canada and the U.S., at least 42,500 chinook — the minimum number managers believe are needed to sustain the population — are supposed to reach their Yukon spawning grounds. However, that goal hasn’t been met for four years in a row now.
Preliminary counts from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game say only 44,581 Chinook entered the river in total this year, the smallest number on record. Only 12,025 salmon made it to Canadian waters — not even a third of the spawning minimum.
Salmon people with no salmon
The situation is a sore spot for many Yukon First Nations along the river system. While First Nations have the right to fish regardless of the rules authorities may place on other anglers, many have asked citizens to voluntarily refrain from harvesting chinook for years.
The Tr’ondëk Hwëchin, for example, entered their ninth season of a voluntary fishing closure in 2022. The First Nation, whose traditional territory includes the area in and around Dawson City, had hoped what was supposed to be a temporary sacrifice would mean more salmon in the future — the opposite of what’s actually happened.
“It’s actually quite depressing,” Chief Roberta Joseph said.
“We’re not able to carry out our traditional lifestyle, our culture and our spiritual identity with land…. We’re starting to begin to have a whole generation, and I know some other First Nations may have two generations, who have not been able to harvest.”
The Tr’ondëk Hwëchin, like a number of other Yukon First Nations, are salmon people to their core.
Salmon feature prominently on their crest and is even in their name: Tr’o is a reference to “a special rock — hammer rock — used to drive salmon-weir stakes into the riverbed,” according to the website for the First Nation’s cultural centre.
Other salmon people who have stopped harvesting chinook — some for more than two decades now — include the Carcross/Tagish First Nation, Teslin Tlingit Council, Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation and Kwanlin Dün First Nation. Others, like Selkirk First Nation, have asked citizens to limit or reduce their harvest.
“It’s heartbreaking,” said Brandy Mayes, a Kwanlin Dün citizen and operations manager for her First Nation’s lands department.
Mayes, in her 50s, has never harvested a chinook and fears she never will. Her First Nation’s territory includes areas in and around Whitehorse, which is also home to a fish ladder meant to help salmon get past the Whitehorse hydroelectric dam.
Chinook who make it to the fish ladder are the salmon who migrate the farthest. While upward of 1,000 fish would historically pass through, this year, the ladder saw a grand total of 164.
Many problems, few fish
What exactly is causing the decline of chinook on the Yukon River is a matter of heated debate, with possible causes in two categories: problems in the river and in the ocean.
In the river, climate change has made water conditions both warmer and more unpredictable. Heavy rains or record snowpacks rapidly melting in the spring can raise water levels and increase debris in the water, which in turn can impede already-stressed migrating salmon and harm smaller, weaker fry.
Chinook are also sensitive to heat and will slow down or even die if the water gets to 18 C or warmer — something, according to a 2020 study in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, that’s happened almost annually in the Yukon River since the 1990s.
More recently, biologists on both sides of the border have raised concerns about a parasite called ichthyophonus that’s prevalent in Yukon River chinook. In 2020, approximately 30,000 fish counted using sonar at Pilot Station, near the mouth of the river, “disappeared” before reaching the U.S.-Canada border, suggesting something was killing them en route.
Tensions have run high at the twice-yearly Yukon River Panel meetings between Alaska and Yukon. Yukon delegates have accused Alaska of poor management and chronic over-harvesting; Alaska, until recently, had emphasized the need to allow the residents of the dozens of remote villages with no road access to fish for basic food needs whenever possible.
However, harvest hasn’t been a major factor for at least two years now. Besides Yukon First Nations voluntarily refraining, Alaska imposed a total ban on fishing for chinook in both 2021 and 2022 due to how critically small the runs have been.
“On a personal level, I think all of the salmon users are doing their part,” said James MacDonald, chair of the Yukon Salmon Sub-Committee, which helps develop recommendations for the territory’s salmon management strategy.
“Whatever’s happening to these salmon stocks is likely happening in the ocean, the Bering Sea and elsewhere, and you know, that’s such a vast area — it’s not really clear what’s taking place out in the high seas.”
The number of juvenile chinook in the Bering Sea has steadily declined for the past two decades, according to surveys by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, though the reasons for that are also murky. Climate change, increased competition for food and chinook being scooped up as bycatch in commercial fisheries, especially for pollock, have all been floated as contributing factors.
“There’s a lot of fact and a lot of opinion and a lot of varying opinion in the research community as well,” said Marc Ross, Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s manager for treaties, fisheries and operations for the Yukon River.
“However, on a good note, I think we would say that salmon have that ability to turn around in a few lifecycles, which is good.”
For now, he said, the federal agency was using “fishery management techniques” — i.e. not allowing commercial or recreational angling for chinook — as its primary tool for conservation.
On the other side of the border, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Yukon River fisheries manager Holly Carroll said besides closing fishing, resources are being thrown into research.
“Right now, we cannot manage it successfully because it’s coming back too small. There’s not enough fish by half and we have to understand why that’s happening to this river in particular.”
‘We have forgotten how to call them back’
About 350 kilometres south of Dawson City sits the traditional territory of the Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation (LS/CFN), which, in August, co-hosted a salmon gathering and ceremony with the Council of Yukon First Nations, among other organizations, at the site of an old fish camp at the confluence of the Yukon River and Tatchun Creek.
(Tatchun in Northern Tutchone, the language of the region, means a salmon’s back — specifically, the portion that sticks out of the water as a fish makes its way upstream.)
Council of Yukon First Nations senior analyst Ed Schultz, himself a LS/CFN citizen, said the event was meant to serve as a “counterbalance” to other salmon meetings that often put Western science — studies, sonar stations, statistics — at the forefront.
“We need to do those things, but the missing element was rekindling our spiritual relationship to salmon,” Schultz said. “A lot of the old people say that we have forgotten how to call them back.”
The return of the salmon — or anything, for that matter — was never taken for granted, Schultz explained.
“If one was to look at the history of our peoples, the connectedness between us and salmon has been so intertwined for thousands of years that the salmon really influenced our languages, our behaviour, our values and traditions, our customs,” he said.
All those things, Schultz continued, were passed down from generation to generation at fish camp, where practical skills like setting nets or gutting a fish were inextricable from larger, more philosophical teachings.
But as the number of salmon have declined, so have the fish camps. While the fact that LS/CFN and other First Nations didn’t fish in 2022 was a “disaster,” Schultz said the issue was far larger than the number of salmon, or lack thereof, hung up in smokehouses.
“What’s more of a catastrophe,” he said, “is the practices that we’ve had for thousands of years that are now compromised and are going to be weakened by not having those annual gatherings at the fish camp.”
The gathering at Tatchun Creek, he said, was meant to carry on at least the spirit of fish camp — people gathered, shared knowledge, sat around campfires while laughing and eating.
Attendees even got a taste of chinook in the form of a single frozen fish, killed as part of an Alaska study on ichthyophonus.
A precarious future
Depending on who you ask, the 2022 Chinook salmon run on the Yukon River can either be interpreted as a death knell or a final wake-up call before the point of no return.
“Some people say we’re fighting a losing battle. And I say, well, we have to fight harder,” said Steve Buyck, the acting fish and wildlife officer for the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyak Dun in central Yukon.
“We have to do everything we can. We need to do more, and I keep reminding that to some of our people. No one should be fishing. We all need to step up to the plate.”
MacDonald, the chair of the Yukon Salmon Sub-Committee, agreed.
“It certainly feels like it’s a slow-motion extinction process, but I do have hope,” he said. He’d like to see the Yukon trial more small-scale conservation hatcheries and local habitat restoration and protection efforts.
“I don’t know anybody who doesn’t care about salmon, and I know a lot of people… So long as we work together, you know, agree to put salmon first, I think there’s hope for us yet still in the future and hope to bring back these salmon.”
Shawn Bruce, a citizen of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation in northern Yukon, who travelled the territory learning fishing techniques from local First Nations, was more blunt.
“I have hope for it,” said Bruce, who hasn’t fished for 20 years now. “What’s life without hope?”
Others, like Sebastian Jones, are less optimistic. Besides being the fish and wildlife analyst for the Yukon Conservation Society, Jones is a longtime fisherman himself; he’s personally seen the salmon slow to a trickle from his home in West Dawson, across the river from Dawson City.
“What’s happening this year is far worse than I think even the most gloomy person predicted,” he said. “This is just awful.… Up until this year, I would have said, yes, I think we do have a chance.”
But for Isaac, the Selkirk First Nation citizen who brought frozen salmon to her fish camp this year, said she felt no choice but to believe the chinook would return; the alternative, for her, is nearly incomprehensible.
“It is scary to think that this may not be something, maybe, my grandchildren will experience,” she said. “And I feel like we need to fix it now or it’ll forever be gone.”
Writer: Jackie Hong | Copy Editor: Lisa Johnson | Digital Producer: Althea Manasan | The Current Producers: Elizabeth Hoath and Benjamin Jamieson | Senior Producer: Brandie Weikle | Executive Producers: Kanina Holmes and Raj Ahluwalia