Spawning hooligan: The life of the party

Posted: Sunday, May 13, 2001

They may be small, but they attract a lot of attention. When the hooligan run in Berners Bay, hundreds of marine mammals and tens of thousands of birds follow.

Known to the Tlingits as "saak," hooligan are slim, 7- to 8-inch fish that are members of the smelt family. Ranging from Northern California to Southcentral Alaska, they are known by a dozen names by Natives of the West Coast. They are also called eulachon or candlefish.

"If you dry them you can burn them like a candle, supposedly," said ecologist Mary Willson.

Tlingits prized the fish for their oil, which they rendered, stored in wooden boxes and traded as a commodity. They used the oil or grease as a condiment, a preservative, a lubricant and a medicine for skin ailments.

Biologist Scott Gende said hooligan are high in lipids, a particularly nutritious oil. The oil content may be as much as 20 percent of the body weight.

"They're a very valuable prey resource," Gende said. "They're a high-quality food source. They spawn in the spring, which makes them extremely valuable to things that have gone for a long winter without food resources. The timing is very important also to migrating birds."

In addition to their rich oils, hooligan are attractive to predators because they are poor swimmers and school up in the millions.

Like salmon, hooligan are anadromous fish, maturing in the ocean but returning to fresh water to spawn. Spawning occurs in the lower reaches of the rivers, seldom more than a few miles upstream. Most die after spawning, but some drift back downstream to live another season. They overwinter in very deep water.

Hooligan do not necessarily return to the same waters they were born in, as salmon do. Some years hooligan simply don't show up on their established spawning grounds, but return in later years.

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