Chilkat Valley News - Serving Haines and Klukwan, Alaska since 1966

Eulachon make big splash again this year


May 17, 2018

Little silver fish turned the Chilkoot and Chilkat rivers black during last week’s spring eulachon run. Takshanuk Watershed Council Executive Director Meredith Pochardt said an estimated 8.5 million eulachon, a smelt also known as hooligan or candlefish, made it up the Chilkoot River.

“Last year there were 13 million fish which was a mega run, but both were still pretty strong,” Pochardt said.

Takshanuk Watershed Council is contracted by the Chilkoot Indian Association, in conjunction with Oregon State University, for field work on a population research project to help biologists learn more about the habitats of the small, but important, fish. The group has been collecting data on the Chilkat and Chilkoot rivers since 2010, and now work on 11 rivers in the region.

Researchers use a mark-and-recapture method to estimate population and test eDNA, for which water is collected and analyzed for DNA content to estimate how many fish came into contact with that water.

The local eulachon runs have fluctuated by the millions in recent years. About 2.2 million fish passed through Chilkoot River in 2010, which jumped to 12.6 million in 2011, steadily decreased to 320,000 in 2015 and peaked at 13 million last year.

“The fluctuation from year to year is still a bit of a mystery,” Pochardt said. Some reports say the fish are between four and five years old when they return to spawn, but a lack of data leaves researchers unsure.

“In the low years that we’ve seen on the Chilkoot there have been some record returns on the Taiya and Ferebee rivers, so the thought is that since there is low site fidelity, they are more of a regional population rather than a river-specific population,” Pochardt said. That is the reason behind the eDNA studies, she added, to be able to get a population index on many rivers within the region to see how they fluctuate from year to year.

Pochardt said the group started research in early April and collected daily samples through the end of the run late last week. They will go out biweekly for the next month to see fish in the larvae stage.

Chilkat Valley residents spent the week netting eulachon for subsistence and enjoying time with family and friends. Lifelong fisherman Duane Wilson nearly filled his eulachon pit on the Chilkat River. Others tossed throw nets over the Chilkoot River bridge or waited patiently for eulachon to swim into dip nets.

Wilson said the run didn’t seem as large as last year and the fish seemed small, but he’ll get a good return rendering wheelbarrows full of fish for their oil.

“Eulachon oil has a high concentration of vitamin A and omega 3 and it boosts your immune system,” Wilson said. “I put it on baked potatoes, half dried fish, in boil fish soup, and dump it on herring eggs.” Even though eulachon oil has a pungent smell, Wilson said, “it doesn’t taste like it smells.” Other people bake, fry, dry or freeze the fish to enjoy throughout the year.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist Betsy Wilson said she recently counted 1,300 sea lions at Gran Point, also known as sea lion rock, halfway to Eldred Rock. Large pods were spotted at the mouth of the Chilkoot River feeding on eulachon before the females travel to rookeries later this month to give birth. Eagles, seagulls, otters, seals, humpback whales, bears and other wildlife also took advantage of the nutrient-rich fish.


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