This has become the norm in recent years — the closure of the once popular recreational and commercial salmon fishery on the Yukon River. And it’s happening again this summer, for both chinook and chum salmon.
“We’ve been seeing this gradual decline in salmon stocks in the Yukon River for more than 10 years,” said Steve Gotch, director of operations for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) in the Yukon.
“And while some numbers may be stabilizing, unfortunately they are stabilizing at very low levels.”
DFO announced this week that sport fishing for chinook and chum salmon will be closed in the Canadian portion of the Yukon River, as well as the Porcupine River and its tributaries, this summer and fall. Commercial fishing is also closed.
The number of spawning Chinook salmon in the Yukon River has been in steady decline for more than a decade. The last time recreational fishing for chinook was allowed on the river was in 2010.
The decline of chum salmon is more recent. Gotch calls it “somewhat alarming”.
People could catch and sell chum salmon in the Yukon until a few years ago when it was much more plentiful than chinook, but Gotch said the past two years have also been “a really bad time” for the chum salmon.
Closing the fishery could help numbers rebound in coming years, he said.
“We are currently at a point on the Yukon River where all of the adult salmon returning to the system are needed for spawning. So to sustain the population in the future, there is not what we call a surplus, or there are no additional fish available to be harvested,” Gotch said.
“We need every one of these salmon to spawn in order to start rebuilding these tracks for the future.”
The low numbers have also affected the traditional subsistence harvest of Indigenous communities in the Yukon and Alaska, with many voluntarily giving up their harvest in recent years.
“Abnormal increase” in ocean temperature
It’s unclear what happened to the stocks, or whether they will eventually rebound. Gotch said salmon migrations generally rise and fall over time as part of a natural cycle, but now there are new environmental conditions that could disrupt things.
He mentions the Bering Sea, where Yukon River salmon spend most of their lives, and where there have been “abnormal increases” in water temperature in recent years.
“And with this warming trend, we’ve seen different species of smaller fish or predators move into the Bering Sea, which in some cases are in direct competition with salmon for food,” he said. .
“As a result, the survival of Yukon River salmon in this marine environment is changing and, unfortunately, getting worse.”
Sebastian Jones, a Dawson City fisherman who sits on the Yukon Fish and Wildlife Stewardship Board, still holds a commercial Yukon River chum salmon license, though he can’t use it now. He said what is happening should be a major concern for everyone, not just the people and communities who depend on fish as a nutritional and cultural resource.
“It indicates that we have really messed up the ecosystem of the largest ocean on the planet,” he says.
“It’s hard to see when you look at the ocean how much we’ve done there. But, you know, we’ve been plundering it for too long.”
Still, Jones said you have to be optimistic to be a fisherman, and he’s confident salmon stocks will eventually recover.
“I don’t know when, it may take longer than I have,” he said.
“Salmon have been around for literally millions of years. And I’m confident they’ll figure out how to deal with what’s going on right now.”