Spring is a hungry time in Southeast Alaska. In the late 1980s my dad and I were in Haines, working on a project to help minimize and mitigate impacts of the airport expansion on Sawmill Creek, a salmon creek which runs through the Haines airport wetlands. Sawmill Creek is a tributary of the Chilkat River, a large braided glacial river which winds through the Chilkat Valley. I was studying the rearing salmonids in the area by trapping them in Sawmill Creek and the bank of the Chilkat River bordering the airport. Besides salmonids, the Chilkat River boasts a substantial eulachon (Thaleichthys pacificus) population as well and it was also my job to describe its timing. To do this, I interviewed locals who gave me a general idea of its timing (run begins about mid-April) and indicated that more precise timing could be determined by observing the behavior and abundance of gulls, sea lions, and seals on the Chilkat River delta. A Juneau resident, I hired a local Haines resident to make observations for me, and when the abundance appeared to be peaking, travelled to Haines to sample eulachon. Eulachon are caught with dip nets in areas where rock outcroppings create deep back eddy’s just downstream. Their run timing varies each year and depends on when the river warms up. Eulachon enter the river at high tide and the bird and mammal activity at the peak of the run is intense. It was great to share in their joy at this important first spring wealth of feed.
Eulachon return to large glacial rivers to spawn mostly as 3 or 4 year-olds. Like salmon, most eulachon spawn only once and then die. The baby eulachon (larvae) drift back out to salt water to grow up after an in-river incubation period of about a month.
Eulachon (saak) also have an important cultural significance to Tlingit people in Southeast Alaska. Besides being a vital food source, they were historically rendered for oil (saak eexi) in canoes filled with hot rocks. This oil (Eulachon have a fat content of 18 to 20% of wet mass, higher than sand lance, capelin or herring. Their fat is unusual in that it is more similar to sharks than to other bony fishes.) became a stable source of nutrition and an important trade item with interior native peoples and the well-known Chilkoot trail used by miners in the 1800s to access interior gold deposits was first developed as a ‘grease trail’ by Tlingit peoples.
Because the Haines area eulachon fishery has always been for subsistence use only, many of the traditional Tlingit taboos (ligaas) designed to assure eulachon sustainability have survived to modern times. These taboos are still followed by some but not all harvesters and include: harvesting only after the run has made it a certain distance upriver, not throwing rocks into or swimming in the river, not wearing bright colors, making loud noises, or allowing garbage, dishwater, pots and pans, dogs, and even hands or feet in the water. Taboo also requires clean fishing areas and prohibits menstruating women from harvesting.
We are fortunate in Alaska to have eulachon runs in Southeast, Yakutat forelands, South Central, and Western Alaska areas. In Southeast Alaska we have eulachon runs in 27 rivers (in the Adams Inlet (Glacier Bay), Excursion R., Endicott R., Chilkat R., Chilkoot R., Ferebee R. (Lutak Inlet), Taiya R., Skagway R., Katzehin R., Berners R., Lace R., Antler R. (Berners Bay), Eagle R., Mendenhall R., Taku R., Speel R., Whiting R. (Port Snettisham), Bradfield R., Hulakon R., Grant Cr. (Bradfield Canal), Stikine R., Unuk R., Klahini R., Eulachon R. (Burroughs Bay), Chickamin R., Wilson R., Blossom R. (Smeaton Bay)). Eulachon runs have declined in British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and California rivers. The declines are probably a result of combined effects of overharvest, habitat degradation, and changes in oceanic conditions resulting from global climate change.
Besides Eulachon, there are also several other species of smelt (Family Osmeridae) which spawn in Alaskan rivers and beaches. In the 1980s, when I was working counting out-migrating sockeye salmon smolts on a tributary of the Speel River in Snettisham Inlet, I found the carcass of a longfin smelt (Spirinchus thaleichthys) on the bank of the Speel River. There were wolves working the river mouth about the same time and I speculated that these smelt might be providing an important spring feed for them. Capelin (Mallotus villosus) are known to spawn on the beaches of the Yakutat forelands.
Since I last investigated eulachon, the declines in Lower 48 populations have resulted in a surge of interest in the populations and biology of Alaskan eulachon. Studies in the Haines/Skagway area have been ongoing since 2010. In the Haines area studies are spearheaded by the Takshanuk Watershed Council in cooperation with the Chilkoot Indian Association, and Oregon State University, while in the Skagway area the Gold Rush National Historic Park is taking the lead. The objective of these studies is to index or estimate adult spawning population size. Three different methods are being used: marking and recapturing adult eulachon, sampling environmental DNA, and sampling larval (baby eulachon) outmigration. In the Berners Bay area, eulachon have been studied from the standpoint of their importance as a forage fish, and interesting cooperative feeding behavior of Steller Sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus) targeting eulachon has been described.
I did not render my eulachon for oil but, after sampling a sufficient quantity, brined and smoked some. I also pan fried a few after dipping them in seasoned flour. The pan-fried eulachon were a little oily even for me but brined and smoked they were delicious! It’s been years since I dip-netted eulachon, but every spring I think about them and one of these years I’m going to go over and try my luck in Berners Bay where the Lace River has a nice spring eulachon run. I’ve tried to recreate my recipe here. Give it a try if you’re fortunate enough to get your hands on some eulachon!
5-gal stock pot
Little chief smoker
24 eulachon, heads and tails on, cleaned
4 c warm water
1 c soy sauce
¾ c brown sugar
¼ c sea salt
¾ T garlic
Combine brine ingredients, stir to dissolve and then leave until cool. Immerse whole eulachon in brine and refrigerate for 6 to 10 hours. Remove fish from brine, pat dry, and let air dry on racks of smoker at room temperature until glaze forms on fish surface. Smoke for approximately 4 hours until fish skin feels leathery but not crispy. Eat whole, crunching down bones and all—a great source of calcium as well as Omega 3 fatty acid.