Federal politicians are voicing concerns over the collapse of Yukon River salmon stocks and the urgent need to establish a game plan with American authorities just as a critical bilateral meeting gets underway this week.

Yukon MP Brendan Hanley told Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray that salmon stocks are at a “critical state” along the river, which originates in Canada with its lower half crossing Alaska before emptying into the Bering Sea.

“A sense of urgency to address this issue remains after another dismal season last summer,” Hanley told Murray during a House of Commons committee on fisheries and oceans last week.

Last summer’s Canadian chinook runs were the lowest ever recorded and the fall chum run was estimated to be the second-lowest on record, with only 2021 being lower, according to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). Predictions for the coming year are also poor, with closures slated along the Yukon River system for commercial and recreational fisheries as well as First Nations food fisheries.

Hanley raised his concerns around salmon at the parliamentary committee just before a scheduled bilateral Yukon River Panel meeting to manage salmon stocks taking place in Whitehorse this week.

Beyond the danger warming waters in the ocean and river pose to endangered salmon, other issues have also cropped up before as Canadian concerns.

It’s not entirely clear to what extent Yukon River salmon, Canadian stocks in particular, are being netted as bycatch in other fisheries, particularly the commercial pollock fishery in the Bering Sea. And last year there was disagreement between U.S. and Canadian authorities on the health of salmon runs and how many fish need to be allowed to move upriver to sustain stocks. DFO is looking to boost the salmon population and reduce the numbers being intercepted along the way.

The minister told Hanley she has raised Yukon salmon concerns and the need for a precautionary approach when dealing with threatened stocks at international conferences and with leadership at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), including Richard Spinrad, undersecretary of commerce and NOAA administrator.

“I specifically [mentioned] concerns about the overfishing of salmon by the U.S. fishery at the mouth of the Yukon River,” Murray said.

Federal politicians are voicing concerns over the collapse of Yukon River salmon stocks and the urgent need to establish a game plan with U.S. authorities just as a critical bilateral meeting gets underway this week. #YukonRiverPanel #Canpoli

Hanley asked Murray about convening a different special summit or a dedicated meeting involving all concerned parties to come up with solutions and commitments from U.S. stakeholders.

“A number of my constituents are really expressing an urgent need to engage with the Americans in a really meaningful way to try to highlight the key issues across the border and on this problem of relative overfishing compared to the numbers that we now see,” he said.

It was a worthwhile idea she’d explore, Murray said, citing the current difference in the two countries’ management approaches to salmon stocks on the Yukon River.

U.S. authorities use a maximum sustainable yield (MSY) approach, Murray said.

The focus of MSY is to secure the highest possible annual catch that can be sustained over time, a tactic critics suggest is too simplified and contributes to overfishing already reduced stocks.

Canada’s management of the Yukon River is abundance-based, which makes stock conservation the primary objective and involves fluctuating fishing levels based on the current health of stocks rather than maintaining pre-determined fishing thresholds, according to DFO.

“I aspire to see a parallel precautionary approach with U.S. partners for these stocks,” Murray said.

The bilateral Yukon River Panel, which is responsible for the shared conservation and management of salmon in the river, is holding its pre-season meeting until April 5, with public input scheduled on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Conservation groups, such as the Yukon Salmon Sub-Committee (YSSC) are calling on both countries to develop a shared vision so imperilled salmon stocks can recover to benefit the land and people on both sides of the border.

Cheyenne Bradley, YSSC vice-chair and land steward officer with Kwanlin Dün First Nation, said her ancestors had fish camps along the Yukon River that were critical to their survival.

“Salmon were a huge part of our lives. And they’re almost gone,” Bradley said in a statement.

“It’s extremely disheartening to see the low numbers and to come to terms with the possibility that we may not have salmon in the very near future.”

Rochelle Baker / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer