By Melinda Munson

At eight to 10 inches long, the silver colored eulachon may look less impressive than the more celebrated Alaska salmon, but with a greater fat content and an earlier run, the small fish provide much needed sustenance for humans and nature alike as spring starts to creep into Southeast Alaska.

Eulachon, pronounced you-la-con, are often called hooligan, a result of western settlers being unable or unwilling to more closely mimic Alaska Native pronunciation. The creatures are also called candlefish — once dried they can be lit. Eulachon have sustained life for thousands of years, an important food, source of oil and trade item.

The eulachon in Southeast Alaska are the first signs of spring. Locals fish for them by dipping nets in the roiling water, usually filling multiple coolers, later freezing, drying and canning the fish for future use. But this year, there was no flashing of silver bodies and no abundance of eulachon. This is bad news for those who fish, and even worse news for the ecosystem.

“They (eulachon) feed the entire biological community,” said Reuben Cash, environmental coordinator for Skagway Traditional Council (STC). Normally, eulachon runs bring much needed nutrients to plants and animals. The run is “followed by a wave of animals” such as seals, birds and sea lions, who depend on the nutrition after a long winter.

Not much is known about eulachon, which is why Cash, a ginger-haired former bartender turned professional scientist, is studying the species. He theorizes that eulachon have a five to six year cycle. According to Cash, 2016 was a poor run. Perhaps Skagway is now seeing the progeny of that disappointing return.

There might be other explanations. This spring has been unusually cold with snow melting slowly. Eulachon are opportunistic. Unlike salmon, they don’t need to return to familiar waters. They are sensitive to noise and will choose another path if conditions are too loud. According to Cash, the Chilkoot River was the only nearby waterway to have a sizable run.

Cash joined a local study in 2017 to count eulachon. He described it as “really labor intensive” with 4-6 crew members working eight hours a day as they funneled fish through a trap that led to a holding container. Now, Cash uses environmental DNA (eDNA), collecting samples from the water before, during and after the run to estimate eulachon population. Cash said the new technology is less labor intensive and puts less strain on the fish.

STC works in cooperation with Chilkoot Indian Association, Takshanuk Water Council and Oregon State University for the eDNA project. Cash said STC and its partners are at the “cutting edge of science” and isn’t aware of anyone else studying the eulachon in a similar manner.

Along with updated technology, Cash is also reaching out to those who know eulachon intimately — Alaska Natives whose people have depended on and studied the fish for generations, passing down traditional knowledge.

“I think we need to be asking more elders their stories,” Cash said. He noted a recent surge of scientific interest in Native people’s environmental wisdom.

“Western science has finally figured this out. This is a treasure trove,” Cash said.