Whitehorse fish ladder sees ‘heartbreaking’ low of just 13 Chinook salmon

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Dozens of people gathered at the fish ladder in Whitehorse on Wednesday for a “salmon appreciation night”, but the mood was dampened this year by the shockingly low number of chinook salmon.

Only 10 salmon had made it through the fish ladder, which bypasses the Whitehorse Rapids Dam on the Yukon River, said fish ladder supervisor Amy Jacobsen. By Thursday, the number had risen to 13.

Last year there were 274 salmon, which is below the annual average of 1,000, she said.

The numbers typically peak in mid-August, and Jacobsen is hoping for a late surge. If the numbers stay this low, it could be their worst year on record.

“If there’s going to be a silver lining, we’ve got the habitat,” she said. “If they come, we have a place for them. And that’s our hope.”

Every year, people gather at the Whitehorse fishway to watch Chinook salmon spawning. On Wednesday, the property hosted a “Salmon Appreciation Night”. (Leslie Amminson/CBC)

The Whitehorse Fish Ladder is the longest wooden fish ladder in the world and is a popular destination for Yukoners and tourists.

The fish have one of the longest migration routes in the world, swimming from the Bering Sea to the Yukon River to reach their spawning grounds.

“Even from the beginning of the Yukon River, through the Bering Sea and Alaska, their numbers were 90% lower than last year,” Jacobsen said.

This part of the river typically sees between 100,000 and 500,000 Chinook salmon each year. Jacobsen says that this year there were 44,000 Chinooks counted there.

An underwater camera at the fish ladder and hatchery in Whitehorse captures Chinook salmon passing by in 2017. (Yukon Energy)

A cultural loss

Chinook salmon hold deep cultural significance in the land, especially among First Nations, who have fished for chinook for centuries. In recent years, several First Nations have chosen not to fish to rebuild the stock.

Paul Josie is deputy chief of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, which has chosen not to fish for chinook this season. He traveled to Wednesday’s event from Old Crow with his young daughters.

Vuntut Gwitchin deputy chief Paul Josie, seen here last fall, traveled to Whitehorse to show his daughters chinook salmon and says dwindling fish stocks are making it more difficult to teach young people about springs traditional food and culture. (Mia Sheldon/CBC)

“I grew up on the Porcupine River, which connects to the Yukon River,” Josie said. “A lot of what I wanted to do today is take my girls up the fish ladder to see what salmon is, to learn about salmon and the Yukon River.”

Choosing not to fish, Josie said, made it difficult to pass on traditional knowledge to her children.

“It’s been part of my culture, my life, my livelihood and my diet for my entire life,” he said.

“It’s kind of heartbreaking that I have to talk about this, because my little girls are so young. They haven’t seen what we’ve been doing for thousands of years.”

The source of the decline is unclear

Scientists are still trying to figure out why the numbers have dropped so dramatically. Travis Ritchie is the environmental, assessment and permitting manager for Yukon Energy, which operates the Whitehorse Rapids Dam.

He called the low numbers “alarming”.

A platform with a view of the Whitehorse Rapids Dam on the Yukon River. Every year Chinook salmon use a fish ladder to swim safely past the dam. (Leslie Amminson)

Ritchie said fellow scientists say there are environmental and human factors that could prevent salmon from returning, such as warming waters, years of overfishing and habitat loss.

Ritchie said Yukon Energy and local First Nations are part of a new task force looking at the operations of the fish ladder and hatchery, which is located just downstream, to find ways to bring figures.

“It affects people’s minds, what we see in the environment,” Ritchie said. “I think there is a contribution to be made by everyone to try and do what we can all together to try and see if we can make improvements”

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