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Yukon River: Scaling Fish

Salmon spawners get over a dam

More on the Yukon River:
Yukon River:
Route of the Gold Rush

North to Alaska:
War brings a highway to the Yukon

Bonanza - The quest for Klondike gold

Staking a Claim:
A First Nation's right to the land

Cold Rush:
Stampede up the frozen Chilkoot Trail

Scaling Fish:
Salmon spawners get over a dam

Heal and Purify:
A First Nation recovers from cultural suppression

Spreading the Word:
Yukon storytelling tradition welcomes the world

Losing Track:
The White Pass and Yukon Route

The Yukon River is one of the most important salmon-breeding rivers in the world. Each year, the river and its tributaries witness the return of huge Chinook salmon to spawn in tributary creeks. Returning salmon have been a vital food source to aboriginal peoples for thousands of years.

Some experts believe the salmon use a powerful sense of smell to trace their route back to gravel beds where they were hatched six or seven years earlier. However they find their way, the salmon migration begins far out at sea where salmon mature. Yukon salmon that have been hatched and tagged near Whitehorse, were later caught as far away as Japan.

Until 1957, the Yukon was free-flowing from its headwaters in British Columbia all the way to the Bering Sea on the north coast of Alaska. Salmon swam freely through the Whitehorse Rapids to spawn in the tributaries and creeks upstream of Whitehorse.

The river was dammed at Whitehorse in 1957 to provide electrical power for the small city. The salmon's natural migration route past Whitehorse was suddenly blocked by the power dam.

To provide a partial remedy, an artificial channel - the Whitehorse Fishway - was built beside the dam. The Fishway is 366 metres in length, the longest wooden fish ladder in the world.

The Fishway is a sloping trough fitted with a series of partitions. Water courses down the trough from the reservoir behind the dam, flowing over and through the partitions.

The partitions slow the flow and provide climbing fish with resting places. The fish can jump over the partitions but most swim through the underwater doorways joining each compartment.

Halfway up the Fishway, the salmon enter a viewing chamber where they are counted and measured by Fishway staff looking through glass windows. The fish are then removed from the viewing tank with nets and placed in the upper section of the Fishway to complete their climb over the dam.

By the time they reach the Fishway, the salmon are exhausted and fringed with fungus growing on their injured skins. They have spent three months swimming the 3,000 kilometres of the Yukon River, without eating.

The digestive systems of all Pacific Ocean salmon degenerate at the start of the migration. By the time they reach the upper reaches of the river, they have just enough energy and determination remaining to built nests and spawn. Soon after despositing and fertilizing their eggs in the gravel nests they build by swishing their tails, both male and female salmon die.

Some of the fish are removed from the Fishway and taken to a nearby hatchery. There, the eggs are squeezed from the females and sperm, called milt, is squeezed from the males.

The eggs are fertilized with the milt and hatched artificially in tanks. The following spring the baby fish, or fry, are released by teams of students into creeks upstream from Whitehorse. This artificial hatching of salmon eggs is needed to make up for the loss of naturally-hatched fry who are killed by the turbines of the power plant as they try to make their way downstream towards the sea.

Very few of the salmon hatched or released upstream of the dam ever make it back home after spending their adult lives in the Pacific Ocean. Most will be eaten by other fish or trapped at sea by commercial fishing boats. Some years, only 150 salmon return to the Fishway.

The biggest return since the dam was built was in 1996 when nearly 3,000 salmon were counted. Fishway staff believe the reason for the large return was the fact that the fish had managed to escape the fishing boats by returning two weeks sooner than expected.

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