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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Genesee Keevil in Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation. Photographs by Peter Mather

‘A soul wound’: a First Nation built its culture around salmon. Now they have to fly it in frozen

First Nations man banging a drum by Yukon River
The First Nations who live along the Yukon River are taking salmon conservation into their own hands Photograph: Peter Mather

In late summer every year, when buckbrush on the mountains turns yellow and the soapberries grow soft and translucent, families from Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation gather at the mouth of Tatchun creek to fish for their namesake.

The creek itself, in Canada’s far-flung Yukon territory, is named after the fin on a salmon’s back that sticks out of the water as the fish fights its way upstream. Tatchun empties into the Yukon River, home to the world’s longest run of chinook salmon. Elders say the fish used to be so plentiful they could have walked across the water on their backs.

But when Yukon First Nations gathered at Tatchun this summer, it wasn’t to fish. It was, in the words of the Little Salmon Carmacks chief, Nicole Tom, to “call the salmon back”.

A sacred fire burned and there was traditional dancing, drumming, prayers and a feast. “It is very traditional that you make a big pot of fish soup and share the first salmon,” says Tom.

Only now, there is no first salmon. Instead, they had to boil a frozen one, shipped in from Alaska.

The Yukon River’s once vital salmon runs have declined
The Yukon River’s salmon runs, once abundant with fish, have declined by a catastrophic 95% Photograph: Peter Mather

This year marks the lowest run of chinook ever recorded in the Yukon River – down a catastrophic 95% from previous levels, according to experts. Communities throughout the Yukon that have the fish at the heart of their culture are relying on expensive frozen salmon.

Many here fear an integral part of their traditional lifestyle and spiritual identity is about to disappear for ever. “Our name, culture, language, ways of knowing and doing, our intergenerational teaching, storytelling, ceremony – everything surrounds salmon,” says Tom. “Even our vitamins.”

As many as 450,000 chinook once entered the mouth of the Yukon River each summer, after spending five years in the Bering Sea, says Teslin Tlingit elder Carl Sidney, who attended the Tatchun salmon ceremony. Once in the river, salmon stop eating and rely on their fat reserves to get them through one of the longest, most formidable freshwater migrations on the planet. The Yukon River stretches 3,200km (2,000 miles) across Alaska, into the Yukon territory and south to its headwaters. About 200,000 chinook would push upriver to Canada each year, darting past predators and fishing nets to spawn in the streams where they once hatched.

Then, after dwindling for decades, salmon stocks suddenly plummeted. Last year, little more than 32,000 chinook made it upriver to Canada. This year, it was fewer than 12,000. No one knows precisely what caused the crash, though a number of factors are likely at play, from problems in the ocean, including commercial overfishing and bycatch, to climate breakdown, disease and competition from hatchery fish.

The impact of growing up without salmon is affecting a whole generation, says Sidney. As a boy, his family caught 100lb (45kg) chinook that weighed twice as much as he did. In a week, they’d harvest enough fish to feed five families for a year. “I was pretty much raised on the land, by the land, and salmon were one of the staple diets of our people.”

Carl Sidney (facing camera, check shirt) at the ceremony ‘to call the salmon back’
Carl Sidney (facing camera, check shirt) at the ceremony ‘to call the salmon back’ Photograph: Peter Mather

Sidney’s people still rely on salmon, even though it’s flown in. His First Nation has set up workshops to teach young people traditional ways of cutting and drying salmon. Other Yukon First Nations are even trying to keep fish camps alive using frozen salmon, but it’s not the same, he says.

As chinook numbers have declined, many local families have turned to plentiful chum salmon for sustenance – a fish that was historically used to feed dog teams. “We’ve been working to change the perception of chum,” says David Curtis, a fisher based in Dawson City.

Now, chum numbers are also plummeting. This year’s run is the second lowest on record, surpassed only in 2021. “This is red-alert time,” says Curtis. “This is not just about human needs; it’s about the whole ecosystem and the nutrients from the salmon that go to the bears, wolves, trees, berry plants – the whole riparian zone.”

Woman holding photo of salmon fillets hanging from a wooden frame
Annual fish camps were part of the Teslin Tlingit culture, where enough salmon would be caught, filleted and hung from poles ‘like drying laundry’ Photograph: Peter Mather

“I am living through the extirpation of these species,” says the Yukon Salmon Subcommittee chair, James MacDonald. “In my lifetime, I can see that happening.” MacDonald has photos of himself as a little boy holding 42lb salmon at his family’s fish camp. He can’t recall the last time he fished.

“We’ve got all these resources for salmon,” says MacDonald, who sits on the Yukon River Panel, established to co-manage salmon under the Pacific salmon treaty’s Yukon River salmon agreement. “We’ve got a treaty to prescribe how we are going to manage salmon, and what we can expect for salmon returns – we just don’t have any salmon.”

Until recently, Alaska’s commercial fisheries, as well as subsistence fishers along the Yukon River, harvested unlimited numbers of chinook destined for Yukon spawning grounds. “They were so bountiful we never considered net-size restrictions, or windows of when to fish or not fish, or how many fish you could take,” says MacDonald.

A moratorium on Yukon River chinook fishing was finally put in place in 2021. Many believe it is too little, too late. “We could have pumped the brakes a lot sooner,” says MacDonald. “It’s no longer about conservation. We are fighting for survival of these species.”

Still, he isn’t giving up hope. Some Yukon First Nations have started in-stream incubation programmes and are considering fully fledged egg-rearing facilities, as well as hatcheries. Hatchery salmon are not the same as wild stocks, but it it better than nothing, he says. “I just can’t imagine a world without salmon. To me, that is unimaginable poverty. It’s a poverty of the ecosystem; it’s a poverty of culture; it’s a poverty of spirit.”

Despite the moratorium, chinook destined for the Yukon are still being caught as bycatch. In 2021, pollack fisheries in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands caught more than half a million chum and chinook. Bycatch has always occurred, but with runs so critically low it could now have a biological effect, says Holly Carroll, an Alaska biologist and manager of the Yukon River federal subsistence fisheries.

She doesn’t blame bycatch alone. Overfishing, as well as commercial fisheries’ practice of catching the largest and most fertile females, has resulted in smaller chinook that lay fewer eggs and have lower reproductive success.

The Yukon River
The Yukon River stretches 2,000 miles across Alaska, into the Yukon territory Photograph: Peter Mather

Climate breakdown, too, is causing marine heatwaves and algae blooms in the Bering Sea, affecting salmon and their marine food web. The Yukon River’s average temperature is increasing and salmon do not do well in warm water, says Carroll. Fluctuating river levels and turbidity from higher than normal snowpack, melting glaciers and permafrost are messing with salmon migration. There has been a resurgence of a parasite called ichthyophonus, which is fatal for fish, while pollutants and invasive species are all playing a role.

Across the Pacific as a whole, commercial fisheries harvest close to 2m tonnes of salmon and steelhead annually – the equivalent weight of six Empire State Buildings – while in Alaska’s Bristol Bay, fishers broke records this summer, harvesting 46.6 million sockeye salmon.

“We have original agreements with the salmon,” Tom says. “Before land-claim agreements, our first agreements were with the animals, the land, the plants, the trees, the air and the water. If we look after and respect them, they will look after and respect us.”

Indeed, First Nations along the river used to spend late summer and early fall at fish camps, where families, including aunts and uncles, elders and children, would gather to catch a year’s worth of food. Crimson fillets of salmon were cut and hung like drying laundry over rows of poles to preserve the fish for the cold months ahead.

Fish camp was hard work, says Tom, but also a time for stories, laughter, celebration and learning traditional ways of respecting the fish and one another. Whenever Tom passes the Yukon River, she gives thanks. So do her children.

Yukon First Nations at a salmon gathering this year.
Yukon First Nations at a salmon gathering this year Photograph: Peter Mather

Now her seven-year-old daughter, who went to fish camp as a little girl, keeps asking when they can go again: she wants to learn how to cut fish. “That’s heartbreaking,” says Tom. “It’s a soul wound, not to be able to practise your culture.”

This year, Tom decided not to buy frozen salmon to help feed her First Nation. “We brought in a bunch of frozen salmon last year, but are unsure of how to deal with that piece because you are buying it from the fisheries who are part of the problem in the ocean,” she says. “It’s contributing to the problem without actually figuring out what the issue is and how we solve it.”

Yukon First Nations are grieving, she says. “We have traditional teachings about not dragging nets, or messing with salmon, or having fish farms, and that speaks to what is happening in the ocean. It’s against traditional law.” But they don’t need that traditional knowledge preserved for posterity, says Tom: “We need it instilled in power-making decisions.”

Sidney says: “It’s almost the end of the salmon.”

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