Analyzing the ooligan

Forest Service goes to big effort to study little fish

Posted: Friday, May 07, 2004

KETCHIKAN Andy Taylor walked slowly along the edge of the Unuk River's Landing Slough, scanning the current for any sign of the small fish called ooligan.

A bright sun warmed the afternoon and bounced rays off the slough's gravel bed. A school of fish would be easy to see in the clear, almost still water.

Taylor wore chest-high waders and carried a cast net and 5-gallon bucket. If he spotted ooligan, Taylor would throw the weighted net out over the water to snare some of the oil-rich smelt.

And if some were caught, Taylor likely would keep some for his own use and take the rest back to Ketchikan to give to people who couldn't come out to fish the remote river themselves.

His careful search proved futile. The bucket remained empty and the net unused. But ooligan had been there.

A very few tiny ooligan eggs could be seen on some of the rocks exposed by the tide. The afternoon in many ways mirrored the 2004 spring season for ooligan, during which relatively few ooligan were seen or harvested in the Unuk River drainage.


Two ooligan, a male and a female that were taken from the Unuk River near Ketchikan, are shown March, 17. The oil-rich fish are vital in the ocean food chain and have long been a valued spring food for Natives in Alaska and British Columbia.

AP Photo/Ketchikan Daily News, Hall Anderson

''When I took a walk out here I didn't see a one,'' Taylor said later that March day at his slough-side cabin. ''Some years they're like salmon you could walk across their backs, there's so many. And then some years they hardly show up. And that's what these guys are trying to figure out.''

These guys are researchers with the U.S. Forest Service, who began studying Unuk River ooligan in 2000 when the agency started managing a new federal subsistence ooligan fishery there. By all accounts, there is much to learn.

''Managing this fishery in the last few years is just a continuing lesson in what we don't know,'' said Ketchikan-Misty Fiords District Ranger Jerry Ingersoll.

History and tradition are integral to the story of ooligan at the Unuk, a wildly beautiful river that winds more than 80 miles through British Columbia and Southeast Alaska before emptying into Burroughs Bay, 68 miles northeast of Ketchikan.

There also is the issue of harvest allocations. Two distinct user groups can catch ooligan at the Unuk now under two separate management regimes a federal subsistence fishery and a state subsistence fishery.

Only a handful of people fish for ooligan at the Unuk. Most, if not all, are residents of Ket-chikan and Metlakatla. But recent swings in the amount of ooligan returning to the Unuk River, coupled with the different management schemes, have resulted in some tension.

Recognizing the issues involved, the Forest Service is trying to understand the traditional, historical and social circumstances surrounding the Unuk River in addition to the fish science.

''What our folks are doing up there is mostly science, but there's some work that's just as important as the science building relationships with the users and providing an honest broker,'' Ingersoll said. ''Our role isn't to champion one user or another, but to gather that science and to gather an understanding of the social environment there.''

Reaching the Unuk River by sea involves boating around the north end of Revillagigedo Island and exiting Behm Canal at Burroughs Bay, a long, narrow and ultimately shallow bay into which empty the Unuk, Hooligan and Klahini rivers.

Unuk old-timers say ooligan have spawned in different parts of the river and its sloughs, and it's difficult to know exactly where they'll turn up. Run timing, which usually coincides with the highest tides of early March, appears to be changing.

''I used to be able to look at the tide book and go get them, but now I don't know'' when they're going to arrive, said Louie Wagner, a longtime fisher.

The scientific knowledge of ooligan is fairly slim. Ooligan, also called eulachon, hooligan, oilfish, candlefish or saak, are an anadromous smelt that grow up to 10 inches long and live in the Pacific Ocean for much of their 3- to 5-year life spans before returning to spawn in rivers from California to the Bering Sea.

Beyond that, not much is known about life cycle, such as where ooligan go in the ocean. It's also unclear how much genetic difference there is between an ooligan found in the Skeena River, for example, and one from the Unuk.

Ooligan are sought for their high oil content. This makes ooligan a valued part of food chain for larger fish, marine mammals and birds.

''They're kind of like the Power Bar for fish and eagles,'' said Rob Spangler, a fisheries program leader with the U.S. Forest Service's Chugach Ranger District.

It's this oil content that has been prized by generations of Natives coastwide. The arrival of ooligan signaled the start of spring, and oil pressed from the fish was an important foodstuff, traded by coastal Natives with inland tribes along the grease trails of Canada and Southeast Alaska.

Ooligan continue to be a popular food and trade item for Native communities, said Dolly Garza, who was born and raised in Ketchikan.

''It's always exciting when the first boat brings ooligan to town,'' she said. ''It's such a fun time for Ketchikan, even if we're not up there (at the Unuk) catching it,'' she said.

People line up on the dock with their buckets and coolers when word gets out about the ooligan boats' imminent arrival. After returning home, many people fry up their ooligan fresh, Garza said. It has a light flavor, similar to halibut but oilier.

''Fresh ooligan is so delicious. Some people smoke the fish. Others press the fish to extract the grease, although grease from ooligan harvested from the Nass River near Prince Rupert is considered the best,'' she said.

At room temperature, ooligan grease is a mostly clear, golden oil used as a sauce for dipping with foods such as dried fish, potatoes and, for dessert, berries.

Bo and Louie Wagner are two of a handful of fishers who participated in the state's commercial fishery for ooligan at the Unuk, which started in 1969 and continued through 2000. The largest number of participants in the commercial fishery during any single year between 1969 and 1994 was three permit holders, according to state statistics. There were no permits fished during 11 of those years.

Harvests during 1969-1994 ranged from no fish to a high of 39,400 pounds in 1984. A few more commercial fishers became interested during the late 1990s because it appeared the state might establish limited entry permits for the fishery.

While a few more fishers applied for commercial permits to establish a track record if a limited entry system began, the actual fishing effort at the Unuk remained relatively constant until the commercial fishery ended in 2000.

That was the year the federal government became involved with Unuk River ooligan as it assumed management of the subsistence harvest of fish and wildlife on federal lands and water in Alaska.

The federal subsistence fishery for ooligan on the Unuk is open to all rural residents of Southeast Alaska. However, because Ketchikan doesn't qualify as a rural community under federal subsistence rules, most residents of Ketchikan can't participate in the fishery.

As residents of the rural-designated community of Metlakatla, the Wagner brothers can participate in the federal subsistence fishery, which doesn't have harvest limits and allows the sale of subsistence-caught fish to rural and non-rural Alaska residents through customary trade rules.

The other harvesters of Unuk River ooligan these days are mostly residents of non-rural Ketchikan who own property along the river.

In 2003, the Alaska Board of Fisheries approved the creation of a state subsistence fishery for Unuk River ooligan.

Available to any Southeast Alaskan, the state subsistence fishery permits allow for harvests of up to 500 pounds of ooligan per permit holder. And, permit holders can give away the fish but not sell them.

The apparent fluctuation of ooligan stocks in recent years is becoming an issue of some concern. Hard data about stocks in Alaska are lacking, but there's consensus among Unuk River users that there have been some lean seasons in the past eight years or so.

The apparently poor season this year was a prime example of a scarcity of information about ooligan.

There's speculation that lots of fish might have shown up. Perhaps they came in with a night tide, spawned, and left on the outgoing tide before anybody saw them. Maybe they spawned in an unusual place. It's possible that the ooligan seen on the Unuk's main stem were all that returned this year.

Neither the fishers nor the Forest Service, which maintained a research presence at the Unuk for about a month this season, can say what might have happened or whether the stock is in some sort of danger.

This makes some people uncomfortable about the level of fishing that's currently permitted.

''Until the Forest Service really gets a handle on how many are here, I really think they've got to be careful of how many they take out of here,'' Taylor said, noting the absence of harvest limits for federal subsistence permit holders.

Louie Wagner said his method of waiting until the first ooligan pass through before fishing on a solid school shouldn't harm the stock.

''The last thing we want to do is kill the run off. It's too important for all of us,'' he said. ''I've given my life to it, and there's nothing I enjoy more along with my son.''

The Forest Service doesn't have enough information yet to understand whether changes are necessary, said Ingersoll.

''We don't really have enough of a baseline to really know,'' he said. ''At least it's a potential concern. If we had two or three years like this, I'd start to get worried.''

Ingersoll said recorded harvests have varied from year to year, and recent harvests have remained within that range.

''That's an indicator that what's been going on is sustainable,'' he said.

But factors such as any sudden increase in fishing could change the situation, and the Forest Service is trying to learn more.

The Forest Service has been studying the Unuk River ooligan for the last four years, trying to better understand the life cycle of the fish, what influences their return and how many fish can be caught and still sustain the population.

''That's the question you always deal with in managing the fish and wildlife resource,'' Ingersoll said.

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