Yukon First Nations, advocates push for chinook salmon protection

Protecting salmon and their habitats were of central focus during a recent parliamentary committee. Yukon First Nations and advocates are calling on Ottawa for more action. (Claudiane Samson/CBC/Radio-Canada)

Whitehorse dam, infighting among governments and mining impacts among talking points at committee

Warning of looming extinction, delegates at a recent parliamentary committee told lawmakers challenges faced by Yukon River chinook salmon are manifold and in need of swift action.

They said teeming hatchery pinks are outcompeting chinook for food in the ocean, mining and hydroelectric dams are killing the fish and destroying their habitat, all while the territorial and the federal governments pass the buck to each other.

Nicole Tom, the chief of the Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation, presented during the Feb.15 meeting, during which she said without stronger efforts, the extinction of the entire species is all but guaranteed.

“Our Elders, who are used to this, they’re used to the vitamin D and all of these wonderful omegas that come from it — they’re feeling it in their bones,” Tom said. “They just want to have the salmon so bad.”

The number of chinook salmon swimming back into Canadian waters has been declining for decades, with the past two years in particular yielding some of the worst tallies recorded on the Yukon River.

The disappearance of salmon, Tom said “is a soul wound. It’s affecting everything we are.”

One of the central problems affecting salmon is mining, she said, namely the abandoned Mount Nansen mine, the tailings dam of which could, at the very least, overflow during freshet this spring. 

“There’s [sic] so many deadly contaminates in there that would go into Dome Creek, into White River, into the Yukon River — the very ecosystem that is already suffering for the salmon.

“This is the death of the environment.”

Tom and others in attendance — like Brandy Mayes, the Kwanlin Dün First Nation’s heritage, lands and resources operations manager — also said the Whitehorse dam is another top problem affecting salmon, and call on Ottawa to launch more research into the impacts.

Yukon Energy’s bid to relicense the dam for the next 25 years has become a flashpoint issue into how to protect salmon passing through the facility. The dam could be killing juvenile chinook salmon at high rates — a problem that affected Yukon First Nations and others want addressed through, among other things, a better fish ladder or compensating for peak salmon migrations by powering down the turbines.

Lopsided focus

Stephanie Peacock, with the Pacific Salmon Foundation, also presented, saying the federal government is, by and large, preoccupied with the wrong thing — counting the number of fish crossing the international border into Canadian waters. While escapement goals are indeed important, the focus is geared toward them and, as a result, too narrow, she said.

“In the face of unprecedented declines, we need to re-examine this agreement and sharpen the focus on biodiversity conservation and rebuilding,” said Peacock, referring to the bilateral Yukon River Salmon Agreement, an annex of an international treaty between the U.S. and Canada.

The federal government, she continued, can support this by, in part, improving access to data.

“We need to improve monitoring and data availability and data availability at the scale of conservation units to be able to identify when and where actions are required to avoid local extinctions and loss of biodiversity,” Peacock said.

The federal government defines a conservation unit as a distinct group of wild pacific salmon that, if it becomes extinct, “is very unlikely to recolonize naturally.”

Yukon and federal governments are passing the buck

The Yukon Salmon Sub-Committee states the territorial and federal governments often deflect responsibility for the fish, which are “on the verge of extinction.”

A new submission, signed by Chair Tim Gerberding, states Ottawa is in charge of salmon found in riparian zones — land that skirts around bodies of water, while the Yukon government has jurisdiction over territorial land, including that upslope from where the fish spawn.

“The Government of Yukon asserts that the Government of Canada is responsible for salmon, and accordingly takes little action to protect salmon in the regulation of Yukon land uses like mining,” the submission states. “The result is that salmon habitat in the Yukon is not well protected, with neither government actively taking responsibility.”

The submission calls on the governments to halt further mining exploration and development in salmon habitat until studies are completed to identify where salmon spawn, rear and overwinter.

“Canada cannot continue to allow its proxy to violate Canada’s treaty commitments and continue to turn a blind eye to the destruction of salmon habitat. If the Government of Yukon is unwilling to take effective steps to restore and protect salmon habitat, Canada needs to intervene and lay down the law.”

The submission also states hatchery fish are “undoubtedly a major factor” contributing to chinook salmon declines.

The species now compete for food against “billions of pink and chum salmon” pumped into the northern Pacific Ocean, it states, and notes chinook are about half the size they were 30 years ago.

“Yukon River salmon are stressed and find it difficult to fatten up for the long swim homes,” the submission states.

The fish “used to be plump and robust, with bulging bellies and voluminous eggs-sacks. Now they’re shaped more like torpedoes.”

The committee will reconvene later this month to further discuss problems.

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: Yukon Energy puts focus on salmon as it seeks new 25-year licence for Whitehorse dam, CBC News

United StatesNew research suggest some salmon species expanding their range in the Arctic, Eye on the Arctic

Julien Gignac, CBC News

Julien Gignac is a reporter for CBC Yukon. He can be reached at julien.gignac@cbc.ca.

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