A school of smelt swimming

More Food for Cook Inlet Belugas

Alaska approves commercial harvest reductions for key forage fish

At the recent Alaska Board of Fisheries (BOF) meeting focusing on Upper Cook Inlet fishery management, something quite remarkable and largely unexpected happened – a proposal to reduce annual commercial harvest of eulachon (also known as smelt or hooligan) was approved by a 5-1 vote. This important decision by state fisheries managers to restore the harvest limit from a previous cap of 200 tons back to 100 tons indicates a prioritization of an ecosystem management approach that underscores the critical necessity for maintaining a healthy and functioning Cook Inlet marine food web. 

Alaska fisheries management has had an unfortunate historical track record of instituting ineffective regulatory actions that have led to the overharvesting of some fishery resources that were once perceived to be so abundant that they could not be overfished. Eulachon typically live 3-4 years and likely exhibit broad population swings based on spawning conditions, larval rearing conditions, and the overall health of the marine environment. Eulachon population estimates in nearby waters of Lower Cook Inlet and the Northern Gulf of Alaska have declined dramatically in recent years, but no updated stock abundance estimates have been determined for Upper Cook Inlet eulachon populations in over seven years. 

Susitna River eulachon play a critical ecosystem role within Cook Inlet, especially to  endangered beluga whales, a NOAA designated “Species in the Spotlight”, who calve and nurse at the river mouth. The beluga population, which solely resides in Cook Inlet year-round, has experienced a significant population decline. In 1979, there were approximately 1,300 beluga whales but the population has shrunk significantly over the past forty-five years and has been hovering at around 300 whales for the past five years. NOAA Fisheries has identified several threats impacting population recovery, including a “reduction in prey,” and identified eulachon a critical prey species, particularly during late spring/early summer when belugas are thin from reduced winter foraging.

Cook Inlet belugas begin to rebuild their energy reserves from spring eulachon feeding, followed by king and coho salmon during the summer. But recent declines in king and coho salmon populations have made beluga spring eulachon foraging availability critically important, especially for pregnant and lactating females who may not have sufficient energy reserves to wait until summer salmon arrival. Recent research has shown Cook Inlet beluga reproduction rate being slower than other beluga populations, and that if sufficient food were available, they could better withstand other threats they encounter within their federally designated critical habitat. 

By approving this proposal, the Alaska BOF is helping to address critical prey availability for endangered Cook Inlet beluga whales that will no doubt be essential towards improving overall health and reproductive success which can lead to future population recovery.