Three-year eulachon study ends
The final year of a three-year study on eulachon runs in the Chilkat Valley documented an estimated return of 7.1 million of the smelt-like fish to the Chilkoot River.
The study, administered by Takshanuk Watershed Council for the Chilkoot Indian Association, is the first of its kind here on eulachon, a subsistence staple for Alaska Natives sometimes called “Tlingit penicillin.”
No counts were done on the Chilkat River side, where the braided and silty nature of the river defeated attempted study methods.
“Hopefully we’ll find some funding to keep the project going,” said Luke Williams, environmental coordinator for the CIA. “Even if it’s just clipping and counting to keep the data coming for some more years. We’re still figuring it out.”
The bulk of the Chilkoot run came in five days in early May, said biologist Brad Ryan, executive director of the watershed council. The tribe received a $200,000 grant for the work from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
This year’s run on the Chilkoot compared to 12 million eulachon counted in 2011 and 2 million counted in 2010.
A few male eulachon went as far upstream as Chilkoot Lake, but most don’t go further in freshwater than the site of the Chilkoot Culture Camp, about 100 yards downstream of the outlet of Chilkoot Lake. “The culture camp is basically the cutoff. It’s amazing how many fish go to the culture camp spot,” Ryan said.
With the large run last year, about 40 males were found across Chilkoot Lake, at its inlet.
The study initially was aimed at gauging run size on Chilkat Inlet as well, but the braided nature of the Chilkat River made that impossible. Mark-recapture studies work by trapping, counting and marking fish downstream, then counting their relative abundance among fish upstream.
An alternate method of judging run size – by counting hatched fish leaving the river – also didn’t work on the Chilkat because the river is too silty, the CIA’s Williams said. “Our nets were filling up with silt.”
Ryan characterized the study as the “beginning of a baseline” of knowledge about the fish.
Arriving at an “average” size for the run or a number necessary for escapement would take subsequent years of study, Ryan said. Eulachon fry return to fresh water between three and six years after hatching.
“The numbers are all over the board… There’s a lot of holes left in the data,” he said.
The study succeeded in getting initial information, developing a count method at Chilkoot and training tribal members in study techniques, Ryan said. It also employed “traditional ecological knowledge,” the term for indigenous understandings about wildlife.
At Chilkoot, 49,000 fish were captured and clipped at Lutak bridge, and were recounted among numbers of fish caught by subsistence fishermen at the culture camp. Chilkoot knowledge of the run was critical to the study, Ryan said. “They had the location and timing dialed in.”
One question that remains is whether Chilkoot and Chilkat eulachon are the same. Rob Spangler, a Southcentral biologist who has researched eulachon populations here, says the Chilkoot and Chilkat fish are genetically identical. “Tlingits would tell you that’s not true at all. They say you can tell by looking at (eulachon). One is bigger and darker than the other,” Ryan said.
Continuation of the study is up to the tribe, which stands a better chance of receiving grant funding than the council, Ryan said. “It’s a hard one to fund because eulachon aren’t commercially viable fish. They’re tremendously important to the Tlingit, but most people don’t value them.”
Ryan said purchase of traps, a boat and other equipment with initial grant funds should make the study less expensive in the future. Crews of up to a dozen workers a day are required to conduct the study, he said.
Smith “Smitty” Katzeek will present, “Ins and Outs of Eulachon and Eulachon Oil,” 7 p.m. Thursday, June 28 at the public library.