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By BILLY SINGLETON
Daily News Staff Writer
State and federal regulators have announced that the Ketchikan area will again remain closed to eulachon fishing for the 2018 season due to conservation concerns.
Eulachon, also known as “ooligan” and “candlefish,” are a small, silver-colored fish prized for their high oil content. Historically, the fish has returned to the Unuk River in the spring. But for the past two decades, its returns to the Unuk have been highly inconsistent, prompting the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to close the commercial fishery every year since 2001.
This year’s Ketchikan-area closures — recently announced by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Forest Service — apply to all commercial, personal use and subsistence fishing for eulachon in District 1. District 1 encompasses the Ketchikan area and includes the Unuk River. The closures went into effect Feb. 24.
Scott Walker, Ketchikan area management biologist for the department, said that though the Unuk had a moderate eulachon return in 2017, the department is continuing its closure due to the returns’ unpredictability. He added that the Unuk hasn’t had a strong return since 2012.
“We just don’t know really what we have,” Walker said. “We don’t really feel comfortable letting people have any fish until we have kind of a consistent return.”
The Forest Service cited “anticipated low eulachon returns” for its closure in a Feb. 26 press release.
Eulachon have long been harvested by Alaska Natives for both subsistence and oil, the latter of which was historically important to coastal communities for trade.
In years when the fishery has occurred, the Unuk River (along with adjacent areas like Burroughs Bay and the Behm Canal) had been virtually the sole harvest location for the fish in the Ketchikan area.
The department oversaw a commercial harvest of the fish from 1969 until 2001, when it closed the commercial fishery due to poor returns.
A Unuk subsistence fishery run by the U.S. Forest Service opened in 2001 but was halted in 2006 when returns had become nearly nonexistent. Fish and Game also closed its subsistence and personal use fisheries in 2005.
Very few eulachon were seen in the area until 2011, when some eulachon unexpectedly returned to the Unuk again. Since then the returns have been inconsistent.
Walker said that the department has little idea why the returns have been inconsistent or where the stocks go when they’re not in the area.
“We don’t know what to make of it all.” Walker said. “... We just don’t have that much information about what’s really happening.”
The department has also announced closures for Districts 8’s commercial eulachon fisheries and all eulachon fisheries in District 7. Districts 7 and 8’s eulachon fisheries largely take place at the Bradfield Canal and the Stikine River, respectively.