Little fish Big impact

Posted: Sunday, May 11, 2008

It's time for the spring pig-out in Berners Bay: The hooligan are here.

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Courtesy Of U.s. Forest Service
Courtesy Of U.s. Forest Service

Yet despite their conspicuous annual presence and importance in the food chain, scientists have a lot to learn about these fish.

The birds swarming overhead in the bay tell U.S. Forest Service biologists, as they've told Tlingit people for centuries, when and where the run is coming.

"We don't know what to expect yet, but we're pretty confident there's plenty out there because the animal life is going bonkers," said Pete Schneider, a fisheries biologist for the Juneau ranger district.

For the fifth year, a team of Forest Service biologists is spending several weeks knee-deep in the cold waters of the Antler and Gilkey rivers in Berners Bay. Perhaps 20,000 to 30,000 fish will pass through their traps.

"We're trying to get a better handle on what makes them tick," he said.

Hooligan, up to 10 inches long, are a major prey species for salmon, sea lions, seals, whales, gulls, eagles and bears, among other creatures.

This species of smelt, also called eulachon, isn't sold commercially here. And not many subsistence-fish for them in the Juneau area; more people do that near Haines and Klukwan. Because of staff and funding limitations, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game hasn't studied the fish much, according to Kevin Monagle, Juneau area commercial fisheries manager for the department.

But the Forest Service is interested for several reasons. The federal manager of the Tongass National Forest is charged with making informed decisions about habitat, so fish biologists need to discover hooligan life history and habitat requirements.

In particular, the Forest Service deems Berners Bay "high value for basic data," Schneider said. That is, data taken before the area is developed further. The Kensington gold mine sits just north of the bay. A hydroelectric power plant is proposed for the Lace River.

"It's hard to say with confidence whether that would or would not harm hooligan populations," Schneider said. "It's good for us to get a handle on that now."

Another driver: Hooligan in California, Washington and Oregon have been proposed under petition for listing as threatened or endangered under the Environmental Protection Act. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has to gather information on the populations down there. Biologists don't know whether those may overlap with the Alaska populations, and the basic data on life histories from here might help inform the Lower 48 update.

The biologists have been waiting since April 18. The first fish came in April 23. But the peak of the run has yet to come, Schneider said last week.

"We find we have to close off our traps at some point, because we can't handle all the fish," Schneider said. "It can get very overwhelming."

The traps were specially designed for the hooligan. They're aluminum-framed traps, floating and tied down to a steel pipe driven into the creekbed. A fish swimming upstream hits a wing panel on the side and is guided into a slit in the trap, then can't nose its way back out. Biologists count, tag and release them, then recatch fish upstream to estimate the entire run from the proportion of tagged fish that make it up.

Hooligan are like salmon in that they spawn in fresh water and spend the rest of their lives in saltwater. But biologists don't know to what extent the hooligan imprint on their birth rivers and return to them.

As juveniles they head to sea, where they eat krill for three or four years. Before spawning season, they start to gather in schools near the mouths of rivers. The warmer water temperatures of spring seem to be the trigger that sends them upstream, Schneider said. They spawn in the rivers and then, like salmon, they die.

Scientists don't yet know what makes for a large or small hooligan run. The Berners Bay biologists' annual estimates have varied from 600,000 to 2 million fish.

Tlingit lore maintained that the hooligan had personalities - they've been referred to as "the hooligan people" - and had to be treated properly.

According to a Fish and Game anthropologist's report on the Chilkat and Chilkoot hooligan harvests near Haines, people said the hooligan could sense and react to human emotions. Harvesters and other people in the area were advised to be happy and greet the fish as they arrived. If people behaved badly, the hooligan wouldn't return.

The fish have long been smoked, dried or salted, pressed for oil, traded and made into candles. The oil has been taken as medicine and used by fishermen as a barometer, aside from being a pungent dipping sauce.

One of the Forest Service biologists smoked a few of his research subjects. Schneider tried it.

"They're tasty - very fishy, very oily," Schneider said. "They taste a lot like whatever smoke seasoning you put on them."

• Contact reporterKate Golden at 523-2276 or

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