Story and graphics by Leia Minch
I was recently asked what my favorite time of the year is. This was a difficult question for me to answer because Southeast Alaska offers so much in its different seasons.
Summer is the iconic vision of warm weather, salmon fishing, kayaking, hiking and backpacking. Fall is picturesque with the golden cottonwood leaves and red fireweed against a backdrop of the towering Chilkat Mountains decorated in a light dusting of snow. Winter brings a blanket of white, and ice which form dazzling displays in a variety of shapes and sizes on our foliage and in the creek beds.
But there’s one time of year that beats the rest. It’s when the hooligan return.
Every year in the middle to end of April, life comes back to Southeast Alaska in large, black, amorphous masses which fill our oceans and rivers. These amorphous masses bring with them flocks of gulls, sea lion roars, and eagle screams.
These masses are millions of smelt known colloquially as hooligan. Known more formally as eulachon (Thaleichthys pacificus), hooligan are a small fish that live out their lives in the oceans, but return to their natal rivers to spawn, then die.
The hooligan for me, and for many other creatures are the symbol of spring, and of new life in Southeast Alaska. There’s a purgatory between winter and spring where winter’s beautiful blanket has melted, leaving the community brown and drab from being held under snow and ice for four to five months. There’s mud everywhere and a dull haze lingers over the town.
But then, driving home one day I see the ocean speckled with thousands of dots. The surf scoters (Melanitta perspicillata) have returned. The next day I hear monsters roaring and growling from the ocean, and I know the Stellar sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus) are also awaiting the hooligan. Then the gulls come by the thousands, soaring and riding then thermals. The bald eagles are soon to follow, chasing the gulls, and each other.
This happens for about a week before one day, the scouts run. The scouts are what locals call the first hooligan to run into the rivers, seeking out a place to spawn and finish the rest of their lives. Because I live right next to the Chilkoot River (a hooligan natal river), I am fortunate enough to have front row seats to the Orchestra of Hooligan; a perfectly synced cacophony of birds, sea lions and waves and wind.
One day as I am sitting on my deck, listening to the Orchestra, I begin to think about the magic of the hooligan and the many creatures they provide sustenance for. While it seems like an incredible amount of fish to me, I begin to think of the concept of shifting baselines and how biologists from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have noted a severe decline in the entire hooligan population since the 1990s. While Southeast Alaska’s runs may seem strong to someone who has lived here for four years, what did the populations look like 100 years ago? Would today’s “strong” run of hooligan be called a “weak” run then? How does this baseline knowledge about our ecosystems get lost between what different generations grow up knowing and experiencing?
According to NOAA, hooligan have declined for a variety of reasons such as over harvest, habitat loss, and degradation due to dams and dredging. In fact southern populations of hooligan have declined so much that they were listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in 2010.
It’s hard to believe that an animal in seemingly such abundance here in Southeast Alaska would be threatened in the southern half of its population range. However, populations in Oregon and Washington once ran strong as well. In fact on the Columbia River Basin, NOAA estimates that between 1938-1992, the median commercial catch was 2 million pounds! The following study, conducted between 1993-2006, estimated that the median commercial catch was 43,000 pounds. This is almost a 98% reduction on population estimates.
NOAA and state wildlife agencies have drafted a federal recovery plan in which they hope to bring back habitat, and reduce by-catch and over fishing to the southern hooligan population.
While the northern hooligan population is considered stable, it’s important for us to remember what happened to the once strong southern population. As community members of the ecosystems we live in, we should work to preserve and protect habitat for every life form. This way all creatures; feathers, fur, scales, and slime who rely on each other may thrive. Then we can ensure that we continue (or maybe for the first time get) to hear the great Orchestra of Hooligan on an annual basis.