The Chilkat River fish wheel operates on Oct. 23, 2023 near Haines, Alaska. (Photo by Lex Treinen/Chilkat Valley News)
The Chilkat River fish wheel operates on Oct. 23, 2023 near Haines, Alaska. (Photo by Lex Treinen/Chilkat Valley News)

Motorists driving by 9 Mile of the Haines Highway will no longer see wooden fish wheels that have spun in the Chilkat River from June to October since the 1970s. 

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game made the decision this year to not use the fish wheels as part of its research efforts, a decision that came as a surprise for some workers. 

“It is sad — I’ve been comparing it to owning a wooden boat — it’s such a romantic wonderful thing,” said Haines Fish and Game research biologist Shelby Flemming. “But owning one and maintaining it is another story.”

Regional supervisor Lowell Fair said that while not having the fish wheel data will be a break in the data set, the department’s ability to accurately estimate runs won’t be affected. 

“We just weren’t getting a lot of useful information out of it,” said Fair, ““With limited budgets we’re always looking to do cost-benefit analysis.”

Lowell said he consulted with local and regional staff before making the decision to decommission the wheels. The department used fish wheels intermittently in the Chilkat since 1974, and annually since 1994. 

Flemming said fish wheels were hard to maintain in the debris- and fish-filled river. She said repairs of the wheels — anything from mending nets that scooped up fish with the current to replacing axles — happened almost daily, which cost staff time and money.

On top of that, the fish wheels offered only limited research value, since they hugged the river bank and only collected a small fraction of the fishing passing up the river, unlike weirs, which cross the entire rivers. Fish and Game biologists used the wheel to help estimate how many of the fish lower down on the river make it to natal streams using a mark-and-recapture technique in which smolt have coded wires inserted in their noses. 

“Rather than running wheels for five weeks, we can go up to spawning grounds (at the Chilkat Lake weir) to do assessments for just one week,” said Fair.

Flemming called the fish wheels’ research role “redundant” since most of the data could be collected at Chilkat Lake weir higher up the river. Fair acknowledged that the estimate for chinook salmon returns would lose some of their precision, but said the amount was negligible. 

“It won’t affect our estimate of how many chinook in the river, just our uncertainty about that estimate,” he said. 

The research funding for the Haines Fish and Game research program didn’t change, and in total sits at about $1 million per year, according to Fair. Money that previously went to staff the fish wheel will boost other parts of their data collection. 

For example, the department is hiring a second staff member at the Chilkoot Lake fish weir. The department will also put more efforts into collecting salmon at the Chilkat Lake weir. 

The components of the wheels were dismantled as they are every winter. For now, they are sitting on the ADF&G lot just south of its office buildings. Fair said he was looking to see if the wheels could be of any use on the Taku River — the only other river in Southeast with a fish wheel — and if not, he would ask other regional offices.