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Tlingit band councillor Duane Aucoin and elder Madeleine Jackson stand on the banks of Teslin Lake on July 18, near where her family used to hold its traditional fish camp.

BOB WEBER/The Canadian Press

Salmon no longer collect in the nets along the Teslin River where the Tlingit people have harvested them for thousands of years. Now, they come from the sky.

"It's the new salmon run," Duane Aucoin, member of the Teslin Tlingit Council, said recently. "For the past few years, we've been flying in salmon. A lot of our young kids, they think that's normal – 'Oh, the plane's flying over. The salmon are here.' It is funny, but it's also sad."

Mr. Aucoin and his people live on the tail end of one of Earth's great animal odysseys. The run of chinook salmon up the watershed of the Yukon River is the longest and largest in the world.

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It's a flexing of migratory muscle that pushes fish 3,000 kilometres from the Bering Sea, across Alaska, through Yukon and into the northern reaches of British Columbia in their need to return to the creeks where they spawned so they can do the same.

Up to 150,000 chinook – the richest and tastiest salmon species – returned to the Canadian side of the Yukon and its tributaries as recently as 15 years ago.

This year will see about half that, federal biologist Mary-Ellen Jarvis said. Worse, the river's productivity has sunk like a stone.

"Historically, we would get four fish back for every spawner," she said. "Now, we're getting one."

The seven- or eight-year-old salmon Mr. Aucoin remembers seeing in his childhood are gone.

"I experienced my grandmother being in the boat and pulling in salmon bigger than me."

First Nations along the river are severely restricting their catches.

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The Council of Yukon First Nations estimates aboriginal fishers used to haul in 8,000 chinooks every year during the run. This year, it'll be closer to 1,000.

Mr. Aucoin's community used to take about 1,000. The band council has ordered that this year's harvest will be no more than 40. The gap has left a hole in First Nations culture that no one quite knows how to fill. "They are a central part of being Tlingit," Mr. Aucoin said.

For centuries, Tlingit families would gather about this time of year at their traditional spots along the river during the salmon run to spend weeks catching, cleaning, preparing and preserving fish for the long winter ahead.

"It was really good," Tlingit elder Madeleine Jackson recalled. "Lots of fish hanging up. You'd see all the salmon and the eggs. That was a treat for everybody. Mom and dad would show us kids how to take care of fish, how to cut it and look after it, say that's what you've got to do and you've got to teach your children that too.

"The excitement," she recalled with a smile. "Get up early in the morning to run net and you see all the salmon in the net. Oh boy! There's our winter food."

Fish would be dried, fried, canned, smoked, half-smoked, baked and boiled. Everything from eggs to eyes was used.

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"We ate the whole bloody thing outside the fish head," recalled Peter Johnston, grand chief of the Council of Yukon First Nation. But it was about more than food.

"Fish camps were such an important part of our culture," Mr. Aucoin said.

"That's where the families and clans would gather. There were so many teachings that took place – not just about how to set a net and how to run a net and how to harvest salmon and dry it. Sitting around the campfire with your grandparents and your aunts and your uncles, how many stories were told and how many teachings were passed to future generations at fish camp.

"It's not just the salmon that we're missing. We're missing the whole salmon-camp experience."

The camps are the main reason the Teslin are harvesting those 40 salmon. The two camps the band has authorized will be the first in 15 years. "The youth will once again experience what it means to be at fish camp … and also hear the teachings of being around the fire at night. That's something I think the salmon will completely understand, that we're taking just 40 of them to honour them and continue on these traditions."

Different bands are handling the situation differently.

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While Teslin has all but banned the fishery, the Selkirk First Nation is allowing a harvest, but limiting it to 40 fish a camp.

"There's different situations for different people," Chief Johnston said. "First Nations are taking different approaches and you have to respect what they're doing."

There's pressure to keep some kind of fishery alive over fears of losing it altogether, Chief Johnston said.

"If we're not making those numbers, government looks back at us and says, 'Well, you're only consuming 40 fish. Realistically, do you need the numbers in the past?' You can understand why certain nations are hard on the fact they want to consume not only for traditional processes but to keep the numbers up."

Chief Johnston said everybody supports the need to conserve the salmon.

They're just too important to lose, Mr. Aucoin said. "To us, salmon are people. We don't mean a people just like us, but we believe the salmon are a people who live in the ocean and return every year and they share their life with us. Not just with us, but with the bears, the wolves, the eagles, the forests.

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"They're such an integral part of all of our lives, that's why so much respect is shown them."

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