Traditional Skagway Council at the “ tip ” with Eulachon counting
By Melinda Munson
At eight to 10 inches long, the silvery-colored eulachon may look less impressive than the more famous Alaskan salmon, but with a greater fat content and an earlier stroke, the small fish provide much needed food for humans. and to nature as spring begins to creep in. in Southeast Alaska.
Eulachon, pronounced you-la-con, is often referred to as a hooligan, as Western settlers are unable or unwilling to mimic the pronunciation of Alaskan natives more closely. Creatures are also called candles – when dried, they can be lit. Eulachon has supported life for thousands of years, an important food, oil source, and trade item.
The Eulachins of Southeast Alaska are the first signs of spring. Locals fish for them by dipping nets into the boiling water, usually filling several coolers, then freezing, drying and storing the fish for future use. But this year, there were no flashes of silver bodies and no abundance of eulachon. This is bad news for those who fish, and even worse for the ecosystem.
“They (eulachon) feed the whole organic community,” said Reuben Cash, environmental coordinator for the Skagway Traditional Council (STC). Normally, Eulachon runs provide much needed nutrients for plants and animals. The race is “followed by a wave of animals” such as seals, birds and sea lions, which depend on nutrition after a long winter.
Not much is known about eulachon, which is why Cash, a former red-haired bartender turned professional scientist, is studying the species. He theorizes that Eulachon has a cycle of five to six years. According to Cash, 2016 was a bad race. Perhaps Skagway is now seeing the offspring of this disappointing comeback.
There could be other explanations. This spring has been exceptionally cold, the snow is slowly melting. The Eulachins are opportunists. Unlike salmon, they don’t need to return to familiar waters. They are sensitive to noise and will choose another path if the conditions are too noisy. According to Cash, the Chilkoot River was the only waterway nearby that had a significant stroke.
Cash joined a local study in 2017 to count eulachon. He described it as “labor intensive”, with 4 to 6 crew members working eight hours a day as they channeled the fish into a trap that led to a holding container. Today, Cash uses environmental DNA (eDNA), collecting water samples before, during and after the race to estimate the eulachon population. Cash said the new technology is less labor-intensive and puts less strain on the fish.
STC is working in cooperation with the 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 don’t know that anyone who studies eulachon the same way.
Along with updated technology, Cash also caters to those who know Eulachon intimately – the Alaskan natives whose inhabitants have relied on and studied fish for generations, passing on their traditional knowledge.
“I think we need to ask more alumni for their stories,” Cash said. He noted a recent resurgence of scientific interest in the environmental wisdom of Indigenous people.
“Western science has finally figured this out. It’s a treasure, ”Cash said.