The arrival of the hooligan, at one time, meant the difference between survival and starvation at the end of a long hard winter in Southeast Alaska.
Traditionally, hooligan — also known as eulachon, candlefish or saak — provided not only food for the Chilkat and Chilkoot Tlingit people of the Upper Lynn Canal, but also medical, social and spiritual well-being. Their arrival is often forecasted by the presence of gulls, ducks, seals, sea lions and orca.
Reuben Cash is the environmental coordinator for the Skagway Traditional Council and is working on the Northern Southeast Alaska Eulachon Population Dynamics Monitoring program. The purpose of the program is to learn more about these anadromous fish, their ecology, population dynamics and distribution.
For the last three to four years, the STC has been utilizing a relatively new type of science to study the fish.
“We’ve been using a new methodology using environmental DNA. So every critter has DNA, right, that’s what makes up our, our entire makeup is based on this DNA,” Cash said. “And we’re constantly shedding ourselves. So DNA goes into the environment, so they call it environmental DNA, and you’re able to detect whether or not something is there.”
Cash said they’ll test the waters of the Skagway and Taiya rivers to harvest the Environmental DNA samples which give an accurate picture of the amount of fish that are present.
“As they come up these inlets, all the different wildlife follow them,” he said. “So they call it the ‘grease wave’ because you know, it’s the hooligan or the greasy fish and there are all these animals following them.”
Cash said it’s not necessarily land animals that he’s looking for.
“What I’m looking for, so sea lions and the mew gulls are really, really good indications. So as soon as we start seeing those increases in number, we’ll start going into the river and pulling water samples,” Cash said.
A mew gull is a variety of gull common to the Upper Lynn Canal region. Between the arrival of those mew gulls, Arctic terns, seals and surf scoters, Cash doesn’t think it’ll be long before the hooligan arrive.
“I think it’s gonna be any day. I’m assuming because there are less than 3,000 mew gulls over on the flats in Dyea that we don’t have hooligan in yet. I mean it’s really apparent when they do show up, that place is just alive with animals,” he said.
In a typical season in Skagway, the hooligan will run into the Skagway and Taiya rivers. In Haines, they will run into the Chilkoot and Chilkat rivers. But they have been known to inhabit other streams as well.
Traditionally, residents of the area would boil fermented hooligan in wooden canoes by adding water and hot rocks. They would then scoop out the oil with ladles after it rose to the top. Year-old oil could be whipped and topped with berries. The fresh oil would be used as a condiment, a dipping sauce, or as medicine to treat arthritis, tuberculosis, or cancer. These days people brine and smoke, pickle, fry, bake or boil them as well.