The Ketchikan area (District 1) is being closed to all harvesting of eulachon again this season because of continued low returns to the area, according to announcements by state and federal managers this week.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game closed District 1 to all commercial, personal use and subsistence harvest of eulachon beginning at 12:01 a.m. on Thursday and continuing throughout the 2020 season.

The federal closure that begins at 12:01 a.m. Sunday on federal public waters that flow into District 1 will continue through 11:59 p.m. on April 29, according to Ketchikan Misty Fjords District  Ranger Susan Howle.

“Any eulachon caught in this area must be immediately returned into the water unharmed,” states the Federal Subsistence Board announcement published on Tuesday.

Eulachon, also known as ooligan, are a small Pacific smelt long valued as a subsistence food in this region because of its high oil content.

In the Ketchikan area, eulachon are associated most with the Unuk River, which flows from the mainland into the Burroughs Bay across Behm Canal from the northeast end of Revillagigedo Island.

The Unuk River area has long been home to Native harvests of eulachon. State-managed commercial harvests occurred there during 19 seasons spanning from 1969 through 1999, with the peak harvest of 34,900 pounds occurring in 1984. The commercial fishery closed in 2001. There have been state-managed personal use and subsistence harvests, and federally managed subsistence harvesting began in 2001.

In 2001, federally qualified subsistence users harvested 18,000 pounds of eulachon, while personal-use fishermen landed about 700 pounds, according to U.S. Forest Service information.

2001 was also the year that the Forest Service and Alaska Department of Fish and Game began a significant effort to monitor the eulachon stock in the Unuk River watershed.

Forest Service records indicate that about 4,650 pounds of eulachon were harvested in 2002, followed by more than 18,000 pounds in 2003.

“Both (subsistence and personal-use) user groups agreed with the Forest Service assessment that the 2003 eulachon return was abundant,” according to a Forest Service summary.

Then came 2004. Very few schools of eulachon were observed. Subsistence harvesters landed only about 1,500 pounds, while a personal-use harvester obtained about 100 pounds.

“By all accounts, the 2004 eulachon run was well below average,” stated the Forest Service summary.

2005 was worse. Forest Service monitors observed only 60 eulachon in the Unuk River survey areas from March 18 through April 8 of that year. No eulachon were harvested.

The area closed to all harvesting in 2006.

Years passed without evidence of eulachon returning to spawn in the Unuk watershed.

“In 2005 through 2010, no fish were harvested and only a few eulachon (42) were seen in the area,” stated a 2012 Federal Subsistence Board announcement.

As the typical lifespan of eulachon is three to five years, there were fears that the fish were gone for good.

Then, in 2011, some eulachon have been showing up. Some were seen in Burroughs Bay. Others were seen in a very unusual area — the head of Carroll Inlet. Waiting to see what would happen, federal and state managers kept the Unuk River area closed, and subsequently expanded the closure area to include all of District 1.

The volumes of the returns haven’t been large and appear somewhat cyclical, according to the Forest Service, which has maintained at least an aerial survey program up until resuming an on-the-ground monitoring program in 2018.

“The one thing that all of the state and federal managers… agree on is that we doubt what we've been seeing since 2011 is probably anywhere near what it used to be like, pre-collapse,” Jeff Reeves of the Forest Service said in a telephone interview earlier this week.

The federal and state eulachon closures announced this week for the 2020 season in District 1 continue the unbroken string of closures since 2006. The announcements’ stated rationales for the current closures echo those of the past.

“Eulachon smelt spawning runs in the southern portions of Southeast Alaska have had large fluctuations in recent years and continue to show poor returns to many areas with traditional runs of eulachon smelt,” states the Fish and Game announcement. “Stock status information for each of the above areas is limited and a conservative approach is necessary for sustaining and rebuilding the health of these stocks.”

The effort to learn more about stock status is gaining momentum.

The Forest Service now has assistance from the Ketchikan Indian Community and a private landowner with the on-the-ground monitoring effort, the 2020 season of which will start in early March and is anticipated to continue through the first week in April.