Citing anticipated low returns, Ketchikan-Misty Fiords District Ranger Jeff DeFreest has closed District 1-area federal waters to eulachon fishing through the end of April.
The federal closure coincides with an Alaska Department of Fish and Game emergency order closing all state waters to subsistence and personal-use eulachon fishing.
DeFreest said that shutting down the fishery yet again is an attempt to help the stocks rebound.
“There was a big dive in the population of eulachon a few years ago, and for the last five years, we’ve had temporary closures on eulachon to allow the runs to re-establish themselves,” he said.
Any eulachon caught in District 1 during the closure must be returned unharmed to the water. The timing of the closure order is strategic; DeFreest says the fish run generally starts in March and lasts through April.
The decline in numbers has been dramatic. The eulachon run used to be significant, but then in 2004, only 1,500 pounds of eulachon were harvested. And it kept getting worse.
“In 2010, we actually had fish counts and I think we were only in the double-digits of fish coming back,” he said. “I think we had something like 21 or 50 fish, or something very small.”
DeFreest said they didn’t have an official fish count after 2010, but observers did see
somewhat more than double-digits returning. He said there are various theories about why the area stocks declined so rapidly.
“There’s discussions of overfishing, there’s discussions about changes in the environment, there’s discussions about changes in water quality, but nothing to my knowledge or to subsistence biologists I’ve talked to has been quantified as the reason for the crash,” he said. “I understand it could be a compilation of the reasons.”
Eulachon have a five-year life cycle. The closure is based on the observed runs for the last two years, which show it is unlikely a harvestable surplus will return this year.
DeFreest said the fish is particularly important to the Native community.
“It’s smoked and eaten as fish, and it’s also rendered down for oil, and the eulachon oil is very important to the local Native culture, as well,” he said.
The oil content of eulachon is very high, and the herring-size fish is also called a candlefish. DeFreest said that, while he’s not observed it himself, he’s been told that a dried eulachon can be lit on fire, much like a candle.
For more information about the Federal Subsistence Management Program, go to http://alaska.fws.gov/asm/home.html.