A river otter feasts on a freshly caught eulachon.

Eulachon have returned to the Chilkoot River after two years of a lackluster turnout.

Environmental DNA and mark-and-recapture data collected by the Chilkoot Indian Association suggest a population of around 4.7 million eulachon on the Chilkoot this year, field technician Meredith Pochardt said. The average eulachon run is around eight million fish, she said.

The first ‘scouts’ showed up April 25 to the Chilkoot River. The run generally lasts from one week to 10 days, CVN previously reported.

On the Chilkat River, population estimates have yet to be analyzed, but Takshanuk Watershed Council staff biologist Stacey Evans said there are some clues that can indicate the size of the run.

“Wildlife can give us an idea of how the run is doing, so this year there have been plenty of gulls and eagles and ducks,” Evans said. “There are some pretty big numbers there, indicating that the run is sizable. They’ve also been feeding pretty high upstream. That also indicates that it’s a sizable run.”

In robust years, eulachon will push as far as 8 or 9 miles upstream in the Chilkat, Evans said. This year, she said eulachon are spawning about 5 mile.

Sally McGuire, who lives on the banks of the Chilkoot River, said this year’s run has attracted the most seagulls she has ever seen. “There aren’t nearly as many sea lions as some years, but that doesn’t bother me,” McGuire said. “I like to see the gulls.”

McGuire suggests spectators come during the flood tide. Sometimes the most activity occurs in the middle of the night, she said.

“I can tell you there’s always a little more action in the middle of the night,” McGuire said. The sea lions can be really loud, and you have to close the window. It’s interesting listening to them too. Each sea lion has its own individual voice. There’s one this year that speaks in a voice I’ve never heard before.”

Eulachon numbers fluctuate each year and can appear in different spots. Unlike salmon, eulachon are opportunistic and not faithful to one specific river, CVN previously reported. Eulachon activity can be sensitive to environmental factors such as water levels and human activity.

“We actually did get a massive run on the Chilkat in 2021,” Evans said. “Even at the 4-mile site, there were high concentrations of E-DNA. That run lasted two weeks. That was one of the years the eulachon didn’t run on the Chilkoot.”

Other years, the eulachon have run up the Taiya River towards Skagway, Evans said. Skagway Traditional Council environmental coordinator Reuben Cash said eulachon activity has been “unusually quiet” this year, but he has witnessed gulls pulling fish from the Skagway River.

Eulachon have been a reliable source of nutrients and important trade resource for the Tlingit for time immemorial.

“The eulachon are endowed with lots of light,” former CIA fisheries specialist Ted Hart previously told the CVN. “They’re the people of the light. When Raven released the light, people were fishing for eulachon and they got scared and took off, but the eulachon were left there and all that light went into the eulachon. Light can be a lot of things: good energy, physical light.”

Eulachon oil is rendered and used as food and gave rise to the “Grease Trail,” the famous trade route from the Chilkat Valley to the Interior.

In Oregon, California, and Washington, Eulachon are considered threatened under the Endangered Species Act and have “teetered on the brink of endangered status,” Evans said. Eulachon have experienced sharp declines over the past few decades.

“That the Chilkoot and Chilkat watersheds still support abundant populations speaks to the quality of habitat that exists here,” Evans said in an email. “Phenomena like the spring eulachon run are becoming rare, and we are extremely fortunate to be a part of it.”