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The Whitehorse Fish Ladder allows returning Chinook salmon to bypass the Whitehorse Rapids Power Dam the during their annual spawning run on the Yukon River.Mike Thomas/The Globe and Mail

Hanging over the bar of the Jack London Grill in Dawson City, Yukon, is a piece of local history: a stuffed Chinook salmon as long as a golden retriever, so thick you might have trouble wrapping your arms around it. Few folks in living memory have ever seen a Yukon Chinook so large; it’s a relic, preserved from the days when the salmon population was not only abundant, but thriving.

Those days, however, are gone.

Yukon River Chinook have been in serious decline over the last decade, and this year’s run is the worst on record. As of Sept. 1, only 163 Chinook were recorded at the Whitehorse Fish Ladder, a wooden structure that allows fish to pass through a hydroelectric dam nearby. That’s a decline of nearly 84 per cent from the average of around 1,000.

Yukon River Chinook make one of the longest freshwater migrations in the world, with some fish travelling up to 3,200 kilometres to reach their spawning grounds, which dot the length of the Yukon River, beginning at the mouth of the Bering Sea in western Alaska, crossing the state before wending deep into Yukon Territory. The journey, arduous as it is for the fish, also represents a politically and socially fraught situation for the people who rely on the salmon for food, income or both.

The fish are internationally co-managed under the Yukon River Salmon Agreement, which is part of the Pacific Salmon Treaty. But how to best manage salmon populations – and determining who gets to harvest what, when, and how much – has been a contentious issue, especially as populations decline.

Under the agreement, a minimum of 42,500 fish must cross the border to reach their Canadian spawning grounds. This year, however, fewer than 45,000 fish entered the river from the sea to begin with, and a scant 11,000 crossed into Canada.

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A mountain biker rides a trail that follows the Yukon River near Whitehorse on July 22, 2016. Yukon River Chinook have been in serious decline over the last decade and this year’s run is the worst on record.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Declining salmon populations mean more than simply lost fishing opportunities; in many Yukon and Alaskan communities, salmon are vital to food security, especially in remote areas where groceries aren’t widely available or are prohibitively expensive.

This is doubly true for First Nations, who feel the loss not only in their freezers and wallets, but culturally and spiritually. In recent years, for example, the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation, whose traditional territory includes the Dawson City region, has resorted to using frozen chum salmon instead of Yukon River Chinook at their annual fish camp, which is intended to teach traditional skills to youth.

“The numbers are really alarming for us,” says Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Chief Roberta Joseph. “Many First Nations have relied on Chinook salmon for millennia, and it’s really difficult to live without traditional foods.”

“It really has a detrimental impact on our ability to go out on the land and to be able to teach our young people, to bind together as families and as a community,” she says.

The Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in are only one of many First Nations in Yukon and Alaska which have traditionally relied on the Yukon River Chinook, and the loss is felt from the Koyukon Athabascans along Alaska’s Yukon Flats to the Vuntut Gwitchin of Old Crow, to the Northern Tutchone people of Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation and the Tlingit of Teslin – peoples and communities with their own unique languages, histories and cultures, thousands of kilometres apart.

Scientists are still trying to understand what’s causing Yukon River Chinook populations to drop, and there are likely numerous factors, says Marc Ross, manager of Treaties, Fisheries and Salmon Enhancement for the Yukon River with Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

Past overfishing, as well as the pressure of selectively fishing for larger salmon – smaller Chinook lay fewer eggs and have lower reproductive success than bigger ones – are probably factors, Mr. Ross says. The current leading theory, however, doesn’t have to do with what’s happening in the river, but in the Bering Sea, where the salmon spend up to five years of their lives.

“In the past several years, we’ve seen an increase in the temperature of the Bering Sea, and the latest hypothesis is that it’s doing multiple things to the ecosystem there,” says Mr. Ross.

This warming is believed to be “the biggest driver in the decline,” he says. This is changing the type and quality of food for young salmon, a situation made worse by warming waters that invite more marine mammals and increase predation on the Chinook themselves.

Given the severity of decline and the rate at which salmon spawn and grow, Mr. Ross estimates it might take 20 to 30 years for stocks to recover with no or restricted fishing in place.

“I think [people] really need to understand that these fish have been here for likely 10,000 years and for as long as we know First Nations have been here. It’s truly part of their culture, not just their food,” says Mr. Ross.

Helping a species as complex and widespread as the Yukon River Chinook is a challenge. Because runs are cyclical, the low return numbers affect not only how many young Chinook are born, but how many return to spawn in five to seven years’ time.

“The only real lever we have to pull is through fishery management – to not fish and allow as many fish as possible to return to the spawning ground,” Mr. Ross said.

Recreational fishing for Chinook on the Yukon side of the river has been closed since 2010, and many First Nations on the Canadian side have been voluntarily refraining from harvesting salmon in recent years in an effort to help the fish rebound, although commercial and subsistence fishing continued on the Alaskan side.

The low numbers from the last two years, however, have led to a complete moratorium on Chinook salmon fishing on the Yukon River on both sides of the border.

Chum salmon – a smaller, traditionally less desirable species – have seen similar population declines. Fishing for chum has also been suspended in recent years.

Sebastian Jones, a fish, wildlife and habitat analyst for the Yukon Conservation Society, is also a West Dawsonite who lives off grid, and is one of the many settlers along the Yukon River who have typically fished for chum. He says salmon fishing isn’t just a subsistence or economic activity – its loss leaves “a hole in people’s hearts.”

Mr. Jones says that, in addition to the fishing bans, stronger habitat protection in the ocean has been lacking for years.

Randi Newton, conservation manager for the Yukon chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, echoed Mr. Jones. Moratoriums and habitat protection are important, she said – but so is hope.

“I think that’s really the only way to move forward, is to hope,” she says.

“Hope keeps you putting one foot in front of the other.”

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