The Fishing Branch River is a historically and culturally rich area considered sacred to the Vuntuut Gwitch’in people. The area is also recognized as the principle spawning area for Canadian-origin chum salmon within the Porcupine River watershed. Fisheries and Oceans Canada has operated a chum salmon enumeration weir on the Fishing Branch River from 1971 to 2012 and again in 2015. The abundance of Chum salmon, based on counts at the Fishing Branch weir, has steadily declined since 2006 and has consistently failed to meet the lower end (and now below) the interim escapement goal of 22,000 to 49,000.
In 2013, the Vuntut Gwitch’in Government (VGG) undertook habitat assessment investigations in an effort to better understand potential limits to chum salmon production in the Fishing Branch River. Habitat conditions for chum salmon spawning and egg incubation were evaluated in a study area approximately 5 km downstream of the weir to the upstream end of the continuous wetted river channel, and it was concluded that the current fish habitat, hydrologic and geomorphological conditions in the Fishing Branch River study area were well suited to successful chum salmon spawning, egg incubation and rearing of fry. Furthermore, none of the parameters evaluated indicate that changes to habitat in the Fishing Branch River study area can be attributed to the decline in the abundance of chum salmon, as compared to past observations at the Fishing Branch weir site.
In consideration of the cultural importance – both as a food source and as a component of a traditional lifestyle – of chum salmon to Vuntut Gwitch’in citizens, and in light of current Yukon River Panel Near Term Restoration Priorities, Fisheries and Oceans Canada and VGG are partnering to build on the Fishing Branch River assessment work to date in furthering investigations to identify limits to productivity while also exploring potential stock restoration strategies.
The long term goal of the project is to contribute to the growing body of work on Porcupine River origin chum salmon through a mark/recovery program to better understand factors contributing to the downward trend in stock abundance while maintaining a wild spawning population in the Fishing Branch River – an area generally well suited for spawning, successful incubation/overwintering, alevin development and fry rearing.
The short term goal is to implement a trial egg take /incubation/rearing program to raise and mark 20,000 Porcupine chum salmon fry for outplant and subsequent monitoring and assessment.