Originally published in the Northern Journal newsletter and republished with permission.
The salmon crisis in Western Alaska is prompting new discussions in the U.S. and Canada about an idea that would have been a non-starter a decade ago: building hatcheries to stem the steep fish declines on the Yukon River.
Indigenous culture along the Yukon, in both the U.S. and Canada, is centered on wild salmon runs. Historically, those runs supported both commercial fisheries that rural residents depended on for cash income, and subsistence fisheries that kept freezers and dinner plates full through the winter in a roadless region where groceries can be unaffordable.
But crashes in both Yukon chinook and chum salmon stocks have led U.S. and Canadian managers to completely shut down those fisheries in recent years — precipitating new talks about whether hatcheries could help reverse that trend.
Hatcheries incubate fish eggs and release them into the wild as juveniles, though the ones already in Alaska are designed to enhance or supplement natural populations — not to restore depleted stocks. There’s already one small hatchery on the Yukon, in the territorial capital of Whitehorse, that’s designed to compensate for migrating juvenile salmon that are killed when they pass through the turbines of a local hydroelectric project.
Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration last month put money for a restoration hatchery and related studies on a preliminary wish list of earmarks to U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski. And at a meeting of U.S. and Canadian officials in Whitehorse this week, a representative of a First Nations group said that members have expressed surprising openness to the idea.
“There were real concerns that if we have a hatchery, our salmon would no longer be wild,” said Elizabeth MacDonald, manager of fisheries at the Yukon First Nations Salmon Stewardship Alliance. “There was also this kind of confession that maybe hatchery salmon are better than no salmon.”
Officials involved in hatchery discussions include Alaska Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang, who described the hatchery conversation as in its early stages and acknowledged that the subject is polarizing. Critics argue that putting more juvenile salmon in the Yukon won’t solve the larger problems they cite as driving the salmon population crashes, like bycatch and warming waters in the Bering Sea.
There’s also deep anxiety about tinkering with the natural river system, which some hope could ultimately repair itself.
“You want to say goodbye to Yukon River kings? Put a hatchery in,” said Stephanie Quinn-Davidson, fisheries and communities program director at the Alaska Venture Fund, a philanthropic group that advocates for sustainable development. “Where have hatcheries ever worked?”
But the dire state of Yukon River salmon populations is prompting new openness to the hatchery idea.
Runs in recent years have hit record lows. In 2021, managers counted 154,000 summer chum salmon, compared to a historical median of 1.6 million. Last year, the summer chum count was 464,000.
Chinook counts had already been on the decline for more than a decade, but last year they dropped off a cliff. Managers predicted that between 41,000 and 62,000 chinook would return to Canada last year, but the actual run size was estimated at just 13,000 — less than 10% of the returns two decades ago.
Those numbers have forced managers to completely close both subsistence and commercial salmon fishing on the Yukon — an outcome that residents along the river describe as an existential threat.
“I’ve always said I want a wild river with wild salmon. But I think we’re at a point where we have to have a discussion about, what are we going to do?” Brandy Mayes, the land operations manager at the Whitehorse-based Kwanlin Dun First Nation Government, said at the Yukon Territory meeting this week. “It’s just to know that we have salmon in our ecosystem, providing nutrients to the land, the trees, the air.”
There appears to be more openness, at least initially, in Canada, which is higher up on the Yukon and naturally sees lower fish returns than Alaska. At a January workshop hosted by the First Nations salmon alliance, the Yukon Indigenous group, most participants in an informal survey said they agreed that hatcheries should be a viable proposal to rebuild salmon stocks.
“I was really surprised by these results — I had expected a lot more ‘no’s’ judging from the previous conversations that have been held,” said MacDonald, who presented the survey’s results at the Whitehorse meeting this week. “I think people are just feeling like if they don’t do something, we’re going to lose our salmon.”
The results, MacDonald added, are “not a ‘yes’ to hatcheries.” She described the alliance’s January workshop as a starting point for discussion and community engagement.
That’s also how officials from GOP Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration are framing their position. Vincent-Lang, Alaska’s fish and game commissioner, was also at the Whitehorse meeting, where he said he discussed the use of hatcheries as a “restoration tool” with the Yukon’s environment minister.
“I think there are some people that are ready to build one right now. But we just want to start that discussion,” he said in a phone interview Friday. “And we recognize that it’s a sensitive discussion.”
Dunleavy’s office has made an earmark request to Murkowski for up to $50 million for “depleted fish stock studies” and a “potential Interior hatchery,” according to an email released in response to a public records request.
Officials at the meeting in Whitehorse this week said that any hatchery proposals would have to comply with relevant sections of the U.S.-Canada treaty that governs international salmon management. And before any such hatchery could be authorized, Vincent-Lang said, the state would also have to revise a regulatory document for the Yukon River called a comprehensive salmon plan.
Vincent-Lang also stressed that any push on hatchery construction would not be a substitute for work on other issues that could be driving salmon declines.
“When you’re putting a fire out, you don’t just rely on an ax. You bring as many tools as you can,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we’re not going to do anything about bycatch or we’re not going to do anything about intercept fisheries. We’re doing things. But does that mean we shouldn’t bring yet another tool into that crisis that we’re facing, and try to use as many tools as we can to preserve culture? I think we should.”
Murkowski’s office, in an emailed statement, did not directly answer a question about her openness to the hatchery idea. But spokeswoman Hannah Ray said the senator “continues to work on ideas and priorities for this year’s bills” and has been listening to constituents’ testimony on fisheries.
“Sen. Murkowski is gravely concerned by the salmon declines in Alaska, including in the Yukon,” Ray said. “She is also keeping in close touch with the Alaskans affected by this crisis.”
Vincent-Lang said residents and groups along the Yukon have wide-ranging opinions about hatcheries; some are open to the idea, while others have “no interest.”
Ragnar Alstrom, who leads an economic development group called the Yukon Delta Fisheries Development Association, said that “everyone” along the river is opposed to hatcheries aimed at boosting stocks above natural levels. But, he said, he’s open to discussion about the potential for hatcheries to restore diminished salmon populations.
“I’d like to hear what the Canadians are proposing, and what they’re thinking about as far as restoration hatcheries — just to listen to see what they are,” Alstrom said in a phone interview Friday. “Very controversial on both sides. But at least we should listen.”