By ELISE GIORDANO
You say eulachon. I say hooligan. However you say it, you couldn’t have missed the schools of silver smelt running up the Skagway and Taiya rivers the past two weeks.
It was the biggest run Skagway has seen in the last 40 years, said local fish enthusiast Stan Selmer.
“In the 60s, they would run in the Taiya and the Skagway and would go into Long Bay, too,” Selmer said.
But why are the fish returning now and in such large numbers?
The answer is – we have no idea.
Eulachon are an erratic fish. Their spawning is inconsistent. They do not home in to a specific river. And they tend to not school. All said characteristics make them very difficult to study.
Dave Csepp, a fisheries biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Ted Stevens Marine Research Institute, has conducted the most extensive research on eulachon spawning to date.
“We did an acoustic survey of all the spawning bays in Lynn Canal and found that it seems like there’s a distinct single population of spawning eulachon that’s shared between Lynn Canal,” Csepp said.
But even with that information, he said they know very little about eulachon distribution.
However, Csepp said it is uncommon for them to come through the Taiya Inlet in such large quantities.
Though he couldn’t say definitively, he wondered if their choice of water was due to climate change and the recent warm weather.
“We might have to rethink and do new research on why they are being more erratic than usual,” he said.
Some years the eulachon flock to the Chilkoot River and in others go to Lutak, Berners or other bays and inlets off Lynn Canal.
Brad Ryan, Director of the Southeast Alaska Watershed Coalition, agreed that there isn’t a large genetic difference between the eulachon in Berner’s Bay and the eulachon in the Taiya.
“It seems there’s something we don’t understand that sets them off into these [different] systems,” he said.
Ryan said the coalition began looking at the populations on the Chilkoot River to try and estimate the annual populations, but that too was quite erratic.
The numbers of fish range anywhere from 300,000 to 12,000,000. The lower the run, the more inaccurate the estimate, Ryan said.
Ryan was surprised so many eulachon found their way to the Skagway River. Due to its high energy, it makes for an unlikely waterway for the fish, which Ryan says aren’t the best swimmers.
He noted when the fish are found in high masses, they can often be seen pushing each other up onto the bay, a phenomenon that the Skagway River is no stranger to.
The array of eulachon, both living and dead, attracted hordes of seagulls, eagles, sea lions, seals and whales.
For days, loud shots were heard in an effort to scare away the gulls and clear the runway for planes.
Dead fish littered the banks as the last of the eulachon filtered through the water.
And the river may not see a run like it for another 40 years.
Though the river may not have seen such high numbers in nearly half a century, eulachon are no stranger to Skagway’s history, and in fact, are a large part of it.
The fish were a highly prized commodity for Alaska Natives and Yukon First Nations during the Klondike Gold Rush.
Once caught, the fish would be thrown into a pit where they would rot until their eyes turned red. They would then be cooked and skinned of their grease, also known as eulachon oil.
The oil was a rich, caloric food that kept well, and so was carried over the Chilkoot Trail by the coastal Natives to be traded in the interior. These would be known as grease trails.
Nicknamed candlefish, eulachon are so oily that, once completely dried, can be lit on fire and burn like a candle.
Today, the fish is still used for its oil. But people also like to eat them. Some like them fried and some like them smoked. The seagulls like them every way.
Just like salmon, eulachon are anadromous, meaning they spawn once and then die. They live in salt water but spawn in fresh water.
It is unknown where the eulachon will flock to next year. And wherever they do end up, it’s not likely that we will know the reason why for some time.
“All we do know, is that it does appear that there is a spawning population of eulachon that is shared amongst all the main spawning rivers, inlets and bays of Lynn Canal,” Csepp said. “They are very difficult to study because of their behavior. There isn’t anything normal about eulachon.”