JUNEAU Spring is here, and along with it comes a parade of events along the coast of southeastern Alaska that prepares many species for the months to come. One of those events is the annual spring-spawning runs of eulachon that occurs in numerous rivers, from March until May.
Eulachon is a fish species that is a member of the smelt family and ranges from northern California to the Bering Sea. Eulachon are known by many names, including hooligan, oolichan, saak, ooligan, and candlefish.
Like salmon, eulachon spend most of their lives at sea and return to spawn in rivers. Although eulachon are small, about 8 inches, they are very high in fat and energy content and densely aggregated, thus making them a very important seasonal resource to many consumers throughout the region.
In Southeast Alaska, eulachon spawn in many river systems such as the Taku, Stikine, Chilkat, Chilkoot, Unuk, Alsek, Berners Bay, and numerous others. In Berners Bay, about 40 miles north of Juneau, eulachon return to spawn in both the Antler and Berners/Lace River systems in April and early May.
Prior to ascending the lower reaches of the rivers to spawn, eulachon aggregate in Berners Bay along the bottom near the mouths of the rivers. These densely aggregated, high-energy fish provide a seasonal pulse of energy for marine mammal species that visit the bay, including humpback whales, harbor seals and Steller sea lions.
When eulachon are present in the bay, it is not uncommon to see humpback whales cruising the bay, harbor seals staging in the mouths of the rivers, and sea lions floating about in large groups. In fact, several hundred Steller sea lions have been observed foraging in large groups in Berners Bay when eulachon are present in spring.
Eulachon may be an important seasonally available prey resource for sea lions prior to the breeding season, which begins in May. Male sea lions depart the inside waters and travel to breeding sites along the outer coast in May to establish territories. They may fast for 20-68 days while defending their breeding territories.
Female Steller sea lions also travel to breeding sites along the outer coast and will give birth to a pup in early June and then fast for 5-13 days before going to sea to feed. Lactation is energetically expensive for female sea lions. Dependent pups may rely on their mothers' milk for nutrition for an extended period of time ranging from 330 days to up to 3 years. In all cases, fueling up on energy-rich eulachon during spring at sites like Berners Bay may be critical for Steller sea lions.
Once eulachon enter the rivers to spawn in Berners Bay, they are exploited by numerous bird species. Hundreds of bald eagles sit atop trees along the shorelines of the Berners/Lace and the Antler Rivers, while thousands of gulls litter the sky and make repetitive dives into the milky glacial water to capture the small silvery fish. There are also numerous shorebirds, waterfowl, and seabird species present on the river flats and in the bay during the eulachon run. It is likely that spring-spawning runs of eualchon are important stopover areas for numerous bird species migrating north for the breeding season.
To the Tlingit people if Southeast, the spring spawning runs of eulachon have been an important cultural and subsistence event for many years.
Eulachon are harvested using dip nets, wooden rakes, basket traps, nets, and fishhooks. Once harvested, they can be eaten fresh, smoked, dried, canned, or processed for oil. Making eulachon oil, also known as ''grease,'' for trade and consumption is an important cultural tradition.
Historically, Natives traveled along trading routes or ''grease trails'' into the interior. The Tsimshian of the Nass River in British Columbia refer to eulachon as ''salvation'' fish because they are one of the first fish to return to spawn after winter when most food supplies have been depleted. The Gitksan people of the Skeena River in British Columbia refer to eulachon oil as ''ha la mootxw'' or ''for curing humanity.''
Ultimately, eulachon spawning runs are an important link between coastal, estuary, and riverine systems during spring, which is a critical time for numerous mammalian and avian predators. Eulachon, which return year after year to spawn in the rivers of Berners Bay, provide an energy-rich feast and wildlife spectacle for all who attend.
Jamie N. Womble is a reporter at the Juneau Empire.
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