Every spring, a few commercial fishermen jump out of their boats and net for eulachon by hand in the lower Susitna River.
Eulachon, a type of smelt commonly known as hooligan, range from the Pacific Northwest throughout British Columbia and north to Nome. Like salmon, eulachon are anadromous and return to the general area of where they were spawned and lay eggs in the freshwater. They live for three to six years at sea before returning to freshwater, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. In May, residents of Southcentral Alaska can head to the Kenai River or to Turnagain Arm to participate in a personal-use fishery for the little smelt.
The commercial eulachon fishery is a fairly low-participation one, authorized for individual fishermen through their limited entry commercial fishing permits augmented by permits from the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. In 2016, six fishermen got permits and four permit holders reported harvests, according to the 2016 Upper Cook Inlet commercial fishing annual management report.
However, after more than a decade of fishing for a relatively small quota — 100 tons annually — the fishermen asked the Board of Fisheries to double the harvest quota from 100 to 200 tons.
“I would say that it’s time to take this one out of the experimental stage and give us a fishery we can count on,” said Jeff Berger, one of the eulachon fishermen, during his testimony to the Board of Fisheries on Feb. 24.
It’s also a logistically challenging fishery. Getting the fish processed, boxed and frozen can also be a challenge, according to the annual management report. Most of the fish are brought to the Kenai River, where they can be processed and sold as bait or for food. Finding a market can be tough, too.
“The final value of the smelt fishery is unknown, but probably exceeds $1.00 (per pound),” the management report states.
Using that estimate and the total harvest of 191,536 pounds, the total exvessel value is something like $192,000, according to the management report.
In an interview, Berger wouldn’t say where he marketed the eulachon, but said he was confident enough in the market that he’d keep fishing for them.
At the Upper Cook Inlet Board of Fisheries meeting, the board approved the proposal to double the total quota for the commercial smelt fishery. The request depended on data produced by Fish and Game about the total biomass available in Upper Cook Inlet, which was submitted to the board for the meeting. According to a Feb. 9 memo from Fish and Game, estimates show approximately 48,000 tonnes of eulachon in Upper Cook Inlet, or more than 105.8 million pounds.
It’s a preliminary estimate and Fish and Game will continue the study if the department can secure the funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation in 2017 and from the National Marine Fisheries Service in 2018, according to the memo.
“Although the department believes this harvest level is a very small fraction of the total eulachon population, estimates of the actual harvest rate are not available,” the memo states. “Due to their high densities and lipid content, eulachon are also an important food source for endangered Cook Inlet beluga whales … during spring when their energy reserves are low.”
Berger said in his testimony that the data backed up what the fishermen had seen.
“The data and the history is there … the resource is there and at present, we are only harvesting two-tenths of one percent,” he said.
The only point of concern the board brought up was the involvement of the Cook Inlet beluga whales, a population of whales that has been designated as endangered since 2008. In December 2016, the National Marine Fisheries Service published a final recovery plan for the whales that included a stipulation that sufficient prey has to be available to belugas for them to recover. Belugas in Cook Inlet appear to feed extensively on spawning eulachon in the spring. The report notes that one of the threats to recovery is competition for prey, which includes competing with humans for eulachon and salmon.
However, the amount of eulachon belugas need is unknown, so an Endangered Species Act consultation wasn’t necessary, said commercial fisheries area management biologist Pat Shields at the Board of Fisheries meeting. The fishermen can usually collect their quota in a few days’ fishing, he said.
“They go up and fill those boats up in basically a day,” he said. “…We’re talking a few days to get this quota.”
Some populations in the Pacific Northwest, including the Columbia River and the Fraser River, are listed as threatened, though not endangered, because of long-term declines in population. The National Marine Fisheries Service separates the stocks into northern and southern population segments, with the Skeena River in British Columbia as the dividing line. Northern stocks differ from southern stocks and don’t have the same threatened status, migrating through different parts of the ocean and returning to inland different environments.
It’s hard to say exactly what has caused the decline in eulachon populations. Ocean conditions likely play a strong role, though hydropower development on rivers like the Columbia have also changed river conditions, said Robert Anderson with the National Marine Fisheries Service. Some of the northern stocks are also starting to fluctuate toward a downturn, he said.
“We’re starting to hear some of that is happening, but we don’t know if it’s just an expansion of oceans conditions changing, like the California current and whether it’s getting into the Alaska current,” he said. “There’s really different parts of the ocean that the two population segments use, and oceanographic factors that affect those runs.”
Eulachon aren’t a hugely important commercial fish in the Pacific Northwest, and sportfisheries are only opened for them once the commercial fishermen catch a certain amount, Anderson said. However, Native American populations in the area still harvest them as part of their culture, and thousand of people have turned out for dipnetting opportunities, even when there weren’t enough fish to make it a very active fishery, he said.
In the long term, the managers want more reliable information about how eulachon fit into the ecosystem. They are subject to ocean conditions as much as other species like salmon, and may have been affected by a patch of warm ocean water in the North Pacific nicknamed The Blob.
“Both populations are heavily ocean-dependent, particularly in the last two or three years with The Blob,” he said.
Reach Elizabeth Earl at email@example.com.