The Yukon Territory is home to the Salmon People, and salmon is a key source of their culture. As the Indigenous peoples of this region, they continue to have a deep bond with salmon, and it remains a key part of their cultural identity. However, salmon populations in the region have been declining for decades, which in turn has affected their connection to Yukon salmon.
In this episode of the Canadian Mountain Podcast, we welcome Nicole Tom, Chief of the Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation and Elizabeth MacDonald, Manager of Fisheries at Yukon First Nation Salmon Stewardship Alliance. They share insights on the decline of salmon, effects on the environment and how conciliatory management plays a role in moving forward to restore Yukon salmon, ecologically and culturally.
Listen to the podcast here!
Connection between salmon and Yukon culture
As seen in the name of the Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation, salmon is indeed the backbone of their culture. Chief Nicole Tom spoke of the original agreements made long ago by the First Nation with the land and specifically the salmon. These agreements ensure a respectful relationship with salmon in addition to laws that govern how that agreement is maintained.
During summer, community members – from youth to Elders – gather for fish camps, where knowledge holders share stories, knowledge, language, oral histories, ceremonies and significant cultural skills. All these cultural transmissions are centered around fish camp, where the salmon are harvested and preserved to provide sustenance throughout winter. Today however, due to the salmon declines, fish camps have become a rarity among the Salmon People. Multiple factors are propelling the declines, including commercial overharvesting, industrial mining and climate change.
Declines of Yukon salmon and impacts on communities
Elizabeth MacDonald stated that the number one threat to salmon today is climate change. There are many complex interactions between salmon and various climate change-related changes, such as warmer oceans, which increase salmon parasites and decrease the availability of high-nutrition foods, that do not provide salmon enough reserves for their long migration. In fact, Chinook salmon on the Yukon River have the longest migration in the world.
Chief Nicole also discussed cumulative effects due to other drivers, such as unregulated activity in the ocean, such as trolling, salmon bycatch and fish farming, as well as mining, and intense climate change impacts, such as flooding, landslides and forest fires, which add even more disturbance to waterways.
This salmon decline has been occurring for at least 40 years, but in recent years, there has been a new and alarming crash. There is still uncertainty where the salmon are dying in their life cycle and migration, and therefore how best to address the issue. More research, funding, biologists and resources are needed to better understand how to prevent further declines and restore healthy salmon populations.
Chief Nicole described the impact of the salmon declines on her community as a ‘soul wound’, impacting the children to the Elders as well as the identity of the whole First Nation, who are already dealing with legacies of residential school, the gold rush and cultural genocide. Their connection with salmon is at once physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, and they fear losing generations going forward.
Solutions to salmon declines and moving forward
Chief Nicole shared that it is taught in Indigenous culture that water is the number one medicine, and if we disturb it or interfere with it, we will suffer negative consequences. She pleads that we increase the protection of water and habitat, for example, not allowing salmon bycatch in the ocean, and regulating or not allowing mining in certain areas.
Nicole and Elizabeth stressed that the acknowledgement of First Nations rights is of vital importance in protecting salmon. For example, most Yukon First Nations have a government with similar power to the territorial government, where they manage their land, citizens and fisheries. However, a First Nations person would not use the word ‘manage’ but rather ‘relationship’ to the land, waters and peoples.
They also reminded our listeners that First Nations have ‘managed’ their fisheries in ways that have maintained the ecosystem since time immemorial, using traditional laws and knowledge that have been proven to work over millennia. They have always known what the solutions were but were not listened to. Science has its limits, and the First Nations have a long-standing working relationship with the salmon. At the same time, many First Nations, government, technicians, biologists have greatly contributed to the respectful relationship with salmon.
Yukon Salmon Knowledge Hub
The decline of salmon is a collective issue that requires collective solution. One such solution is the Yukon Salmon Knowledge Hub, which was funded by the Canadian Mountain Network and launched in 2021 to support the stewardship and restoration of Yukon salmon through co-managed community-driven solutions that bring together Indigenous knowledge and Western science. The Hub is made up of people who have a connection to Yukon salmon, including First Nations, academics, and not-for-profit organizations. The Hub brings together traditional knowledge and Western science perspectives to benefit salmon.
The Salmon Knowledge Hub is centered on the land-based annual salmon ceremony and gathering, which helps contribute to the revitalization of salmon by providing knowledge holders a medium to share the traditional laws and practices from one generation to the next. The Hub supports research projects that identify valuable info regarding salmon habitat and location data that will help Yukon salmon in the years to come.
Calling the salmon back
Chief Nicole cautioned that what is happening in the North with salmon is only an indication and sign of what is coming for other species and the human race, in other parts of the world. The Indigenous peoples of the North are experiencing massive cultural shock due to the rapidly changing environment and climate change.
Traditional knowledge is integral in addressing complex ecological problems, especially in areas where First Nations hold deep ancestral knowledge of the land. However, Chief Nicole cautioned that traditional knowledge should be shared in the context of power-sharing in decision-making and finding common solutions. One important priority is the recognition of the importance of reconnecting with salmon culture: “We need to remember our ceremonies, our original agreements and work hard in unity to call the salmon back. Let’s listen to what the Salmon People are saying and let’s help call them back”.