Tlingit Tribe Celebrates Chinook by Debbie Kay
For the Teslin Tlingit, there is not a single child who has ever seen a traditional chinook harvest. This is because the tribe, in order to try and save this resource, went on a fishing hiatus in order to give the fish time to repopulate. Now, the tribe’s youngest legal adults will get to witness the first fish taken since they were babies, and the children are going to see the first fish of their lifetime taken. This is not only a return of a critical species to the habitat and an important food source, but the spiritual heart of this tribe.
Tlingit Tribe Celebrates Chinook
The salmon is a crucial element of Pacific Northwest Tribal culture. It is one of the major foods, and these populous fish leave each spring and summer, only to return en masse in the fall to feed their people. The return of the first salmon plays a very important part in the culture of most Northwest tribes, and is the focus of one of the most important annual ceremonies. The agreement to reinstate a fishery of 40 chinook for the Tlingit of Teslin, Yukon, is the first opportunity that the Tribe has had to use their own local fish for this ceremony, instead of flying fish in from Southeast Alaska.
How the Hiatus Has Worked
The tribe is still holding off on any large harvests on the Teslin River or the nearby Lake Teslin. Their quota for 2016 is a mere 40 fish, taken from two fish camps. Traditionally, the tribe would have taken between 1,000 and 8,000 fish, which they would smoke (and with modern conveniences, freeze) so that they would have enough to last them the year.
Fish in the Yukon
Even with the tribal moratoriums, the salmon populations in the Yukon are struggling. A combination of warmer temperatures from global warming, riverside development and lack of adequate food are just some of the pressures that the fish face. Slowdowns in fishing can help to ease the fishing pressure, but without adequate food and habitat to repopulate, the fish will, at best, return very slowly. As the Teslin River represents some of the farthest-reaching areas of the Yukon River watershed, over 1500 miles from the Pacific, they have had some of the lowest runs of all. As a rule, salmon will migrate until they find an adequate spot, and if they have to fight other fish for that location, they will continue on until they find a better location.
Plans for Future Years
It is hard to say how the tribal council will choose to allot a salmon quota in future years. A small, ceremonial harvest to preserve culture is a definite possibility. For now, as management plans have not brought the hoped-for returns to this once-mighty river system, it may be the closest thing to the best of both worlds and the Tlingit Tribe celebrates Chinook again.