This paper was written as part of the 2006 Alaska Oceans Sciences Bowl high school competition. The conclusions in this report are solely those of the student authors.

Ecosystem management plan for the reconciliation of diverse interests concerning the eulachon (Thaleichthys pacificus) in the Berners Bay watershed


Zach Riste
Britani Page
Deirdre Ratigan
Drake Skaggs
Vince Wagner

Team Juneau Delta

Juneau–Douglas High School
10014 Crazy Horse Drive
Juneau, Alaska 99801


Berners Bay, a still pristine watershed located 45 miles northwest of Juneau and 35 miles southeast of Haines, is an environment important for many key species, including the eulachon (Thaleichthys pacificus), coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch), and a variety of endangered and threatened mammals. In addition, Berners Bay has a great cultural value to the Native Alaskans who have occupied the area for an estimated 10,000 years, and today people living nearby use it recreationally. There are several large mining and building projects currently in development for Berners Bay, which may have a lasting impact on the ecosystem. The goal of this paper is to create a set of guidelines which identifies key biological and physical indicators that will be used to annually evaluate ecosystem health in the area and to make decisions regarding resource development.

Physical location

Berners Bay is located on the mainland of southeast Alaska, some 48 miles northwest of Juneau on the eastern shore of Lynn Canal. Defined at its mouth at Point St. Mary to the north and Point Bridget to the south, the bay is approximately 8 km (five miles) long, 4.5 km (three miles) wide, and an average of 200 meters deep (NMFS Final Biological Opinion, 2005). Four named rivers and numerous creeks feed the Berners Bay watershed. The Gilkey River, which is fed by the Gilkey Glacier proceeds to join the Antler River, whose source is the Antler Glacier, which branches off from the Bucher Glacier. The Lace River is fed by the Meade Glacier. These four glaciers are all receding. The fourth main river, the Berners, is a clear-water river. At the delta where the four rivers converge, the 100-meter deep Berners Trench extends to the mouth of Berners Bay (Thomas, 2004). The river water entering Berners Bay tends to flow towards the northwest shore, depositing glacial silt, making it a turbid out-wash fjord estuary that receives little pollution from the surrounding area. The current in Lynn Canal moves to the north, so the sedimentation is further accentuated, resulting in an east shore that mostly bedrock and boulders, with small amounts of gravel and sand in the inter-tidal and sub-tidal zones (USDA Forest Service, 1992). Also, the sedimentation has led to shallow, alluvial tide-flats at the mouth of Berners Bay, making the bay accessible only by small boats (NMFS Final Biological Opinion, 2005).

Physical oceanography

Berners Bay is a steeply–walled valley carved by glaciers during the past ice age. Berners Bay, along with the Juneau area, is in a state of isostatic rebound (Thomas, 2004). The tidal range can be up to 6 m. There are two major faults that run northwest–southeast. Berners Bay is located near the north end of the Juneau Gold Belt, and there is a large quartz vein running north–south along the southern shore of the bay (USDA Forest Service, 1997a).

The density stratification in Berners Bay is primarily a result from freshwater input. Berners Bay has a mean yearly precipitation of 70 in., but has been as high as 110 in. Total runoff from the rivers and creeks is at its highest point during June, then reaches another high in August (USDA Forest Service, 1992). The density stratification observed in Berners Bay is virtually identical to that seen in other parts of Lynn Canal with freshwater runoff (NMFS Final Biological Opinion, 2005). During the winter months, from November until April, the salinity of Berners Bay remains between 30 to 32 ppt. at all depths. In April, as the glaciers begin to melt and freshwater runoff from rivers and creeks increases, the salinity at the surface begins to drop, and it reaches its lowest point during September at 11 ppt. The salinity at depths of 75 m is stable throughout the year (USDA Forest Service, 1992). Similar locations near Lynn Canal indicate that the top 15 m of a water–column in Berners Bay have salinity values almost the same as the surface, while the salinity from 15 to 75 m below the surface gradually increases with depth. The freshwater input from runoff and precipitation results in a hydraulic head that pushes the less saline surface water towards Lynn Canal. This current causes some of the seawater to also move away from the land, which causes a replacement flow of seawater at a deeper, more saline level to move landward. This estuarine circulation is greatest during the summer and fall, but is not nearly as significant during the winter months. Upwelling occurs closest to the shore, but the extent of this has not been studied. The mean pH of samples taken in different sites in Berners Bay was 7.3, but the pH of the creeks was lower, with Sweeny Creek 6.0. The water temperature was highest during late September, at 11°C on the surface and 5.5°C at 75 meters below the surface. Temperature at all depths ranged from 2°C to 5°C during the winter months (USDA Forest Service, 1997a).

Mining history

The Kensington Mine, located near the eastern shoreline of Slate Creek Cove, was operational from 1897 to 1938. Approximately 2.5 miles southeast is the Jualin Mine, which was operational from 1896 to 1928. The mines produced a total of 40,513 ounces of gold from 75,208 tons of ore (USDA Forest Service, 1992). At least 15 smaller mines have operated within a 5 mile radius of the Kensington Mine. The construction and mining of the mines essentially destroyed all cultural sites in Berners Bay (City and Borough of Juneau). The only remaining sites that have been discovered are three overgrown village sites and a large rock covered by petroglyphs located near the shoreline on the southern side of the mouth (USDA Forest Service, 1992).

Mining current proposal

The Kensington Gold Project currently includes reopening the Kensington and Jualin mines. The project is located on about 200 acres of federally owned land overseen by the US Forest Service, on Alaska State tidelands, and on privately owned property (USDA Forest Service, 1997). Two thousand tons of ore and 400 tons of development rock will be produced every day for the 10 years it will be operational, and an estimated total of 100,000 ounces of gold (Rosen, 2005). There will be 225 full–time employees and an additional 175 during the construction phase (Bluemink, June 2005).

Originally, Coeur Alaska, Inc. proposed a plan to dispose of dry tailings in a dry storage facility. However, they submitted an amendment to the previous plan which eliminated the dry storage in favor of depositing tailings in an impoundment in Lower Slate Lake. In December of 2004, the USFS issued a final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement and issued a Record of Decision. The Kensington Venture has finalized a project that would consist of an underground mine, an ore processing facility, a tailings impoundment, an office and maintenance complex, an employee camp, one heliport with two helicopter pads, marine terminal and other ancillary facilities. These areas will include an access road between the marine terminal and the mine, fuel storage area, and an explosive magazine (USDA Forest Service, 1992). All such facilities would be contained within the Sherman Creek drainage. Construction is projected to begin in 2006, and preparation is currently underway (Bluemink, June 2005a).

In addition to the mine itself, the approved plan includes the construction of two marine terminals, one at Slate creek Cove in the northern part of the bay, the other at Cascade Point in the south, which will be owned by Goldbelt Native Corporation. A ferry would travel roughly five miles each way several times each day to transport crew and equipment (NMFS Final Biological Opinion, 2005).

Before any further amendments to the Kensington Gold Project Plan of Operations are made, they must be approved by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the primary State agency involved in issuing mining permits. There are nine other agencies which must issue permits or approvals before any alterations are made to the current plan; at the federal level they are the USFS, the EPA, the Army Corps of Engineers, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the NMFS. At the state level they are Division of Governmental Coordination, the DEC, and the ADFG; lastly, the City and Borough of Juneau must issue a Large Mine Permit (USDA Forest Service, 1997).

Mining potential impacts

Several aspects of the current proposal could impact ecosystem health. The three main potential causes of damage are dock and mine construction, tailing disposal, and vessel transit.

Construction–related noise will result from helicopter use, diesel–powered generators, quarry blasting, and construction vehicles. Blasting could measure up to 84.2 dBA off of Cove Point, and would be heard across the bay. According to The Biological Assessment/Biological Evaluation (BA/BE) issued by the US Army Corps of Engineers, requires that blasting does not occur more than once per day and that blasting does not occur when humpback whales or Steller sea lions are within 1,000 feet, monitored by a NMFS–approved observer (NMFS Final Biological Opinion, 2005). Construction will destroy an overgrown village about 7 acres in size. There are no other identified historical sites that will be impacted by the mine (USDA Forest Service, 1992).

Many conservation groups, led by Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC), argue the deposition of mine tailing in Lower Slate Lake, a freshwater body, violates the Clean Water Act. However, the EPA's project coordinator Patty McGrath has stated that a policy paper issued by the EPA in 2004 reclassifies the mine tailings as fill material rather than mine waste, meaning there would be no violations. Lower Slate Lake would still be required to meet DEC water quality standards (Rosen, 2005).

One of the primary concerns with vessel traffic is the disturbance of marine life. However, there is a low likelihood of any marine species being constantly exposed to ferry barge and tug operations. Part of the employee ferry route intersects directly with an area also occupied by Steller sea lions during the eulachon run. Although the BA/BE recommended that vessel traffic be reduced during the eulachon run from April 15–June 30, it also concluded that, since endangered species such as the Steller sea lion are not being placed in danger of extinction by the ferry route, it cannot impose regulations (NMFS Final Biological Opinion, 2005). The ferry and barge routes also conflicts with part of the area used for gillnetting. However, radio communication and a perpendicular approach to Comet Beach by incoming barges would reduce the risk of intersection (USDA Forest Service, 1992).

There is a risk of a hazardous materials spill if a barge sinks, runs aground, or loses a container. Transportation of hazardous materials such as fuels, chemical reagents, and explosive components is routine along Lynn Canal; transportation related to the Kensington mine would increase the total amount of material transported along Lynn Canal and add one material offloading point along Lynn Canal, therefore increasing the risk. The shipments would have to comply with US Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations (Kensington FEIS, 1992).

Juneau access road

The proposed Juneau Access Road is another potential development that could affect the Berners Bay ecosystem. Paving 50 miles along the eastside of Lynn Canal/Taiya Inlet and costing $300 million dollars, the road would be significantly close to 31 acres of fish habitats, 93 acres of wetlands, and 629 acres of forest ("Juneau Access or Juneau Excess?", October 2005). The road would be built 325 feet from Gran Point, which is one of two notable sea lion haul outs on Lynn Canal. This haul out is occupied by hundreds of sea lions during the winter and spring, and the state plans to protect these sea lions by separating them from the road with a wall. The road construction, filling, and dredging would likely effect not only the sea lions, but would also be in close proximity of 88 bald eagle nests ("Juneau Access or Juneau Excess?", October 2005).

Recreational and commercial use

Berners Bay is a key place to travel to during all seasons. Recreational users of the bay include bird watchers, kayakers, sport hunters, subsistence hunters, trappers, fishermen (commercial, sport and subsistence), campers, private land owners and outdoor activists.

The bay is a major resource to hunters, trappers and fishermen because it is one of the most pristine areas of habitat in the Juneau area, and its convenient location makes it easily accessible to the general public. There are substantial amounts of deer, moose, and brown bear populations in the bay. Berners Bay is one of the most profitable places to trap because of the amount of mink, marten, wolverine, otter, and other mammals with valued pelts in the area. Moose hunters with lottery permits use the bay to hunt the area for moose every year. Deer are also regularly harvested from this area by local hunters. There are also those who go into the bay and hunt wolves and coyotes (Rosen, 2005). Fishermen also utilize this bay for the high populations of pink, coho, king, and sockeye salmon that run into Berners Bay. Commercial fisheries target coho and pink salmon for processing. There is also a moderate Dungeness and King crab fishery near the mouth of the bay, and another in the Berners Trench (northern side of the Berners Bay) for solely king crab.

Many local residents want to keep from industrializing the bay for aesthetic reasons. Most of these people who believe in keeping Berners Bay belong to local or national organizations such as SEACC, National Audubon Society, and other national conservation groups. Others are locals who value being outdoors and not having to look at heavy machinery as they paddle along in their kayak. Opposing this opinion are the residents of the surrounding area who want to build a road to Skagway. Some of these people believe that the economy will benefit from the building of the road, and that improved access is more valuable to humans than the preservation of the ecosystem.


The Berners Bay watershed is inhabited year round by a wide variety of southeast Alaskan species. Terrestrial predators include black bear (Ursus americanus), gray wolf (Canis lupus), river otter (Lutra canadensis), and mink (Mustela vison); raptors include bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) and red tailed hawks (Butw jamaicensis); herbivores include moose (Alces alces), Sitka black-tailed deer (Odocoileus hemionus sitkensis), beaver (Castor canadensis), red squirrel (Tamiascirus hudsonicus), and snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus). Substantial saltwater fish populations include halibut (Hippoglossus stenolepsis), Pacific cod (Gadus macrocephalus), northern lampfish (Stenobrachius leucopsarus), walleye pollock (Theragra chalcogramma), and Pacific sandfish (Trichodon trichodon). Benthic invertebrates include large populations of king crab (Paralithodes camtschaticus), Dungeness crab (Cancer magister) and smaller populations of tanner crab (Chionoecetes bairdi). Anadromous fish that spawn in the bay's tributaries include eulachon (Thaleichthys pacificus), king salmon (Oncorhynchu tschawytscha), red salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka), chum salmon (Oncorhynchus keta), pink salmon (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha), and capelin (Mallotus villosus) (Vollenweider pers.comm.).

From late April to early May, one witnesses in Berners Bay of the most significant biological events in Southeast Alaska. For roughly one calendar week, 10 to 20 million eulachon move down the northwest side of the bay to toward the Lace River delta. At a depth of roughly 100m they are prey for Steller sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus), harbor seals (Phoca vitulina), and humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae). Eulachon have 20% body fat and are a vital food source for both sea lions and harbor seals, which breed during this time of year (Vollenweider pers.comm.). Nearly 1000 sea lions were observed moving into the bay during the three peak days of the run in 2002, but just over 200 were counted in 2003. (Figure 2). In addition to local populations, 97 harbor seals have been observed entering the bay during the three peak days of the run. Between 3 and 5 humpback whales have observed in the bay during the peak of the run, and no other congregation of humpback whales have been noted at any other time of the year in this area (Womble et al., 2005).

When the eulachon reach the upper bay they are forced into shallower waters where they are eaten by Mew gulls (Larus canus), Herring gulls (Larus argentatus), Thayer's gulls (Larus thayeri), and Glaucous wing gulls (Larus glaucescens). Forty thousand gulls have been observed feeding on the running eulachon. The spring run is also the second largest bald eagle congregation in Alaska. Coming from as far away as the Kenai peninsula, up to 600 eagles congregate in Berners Bay during the peak of the run.

Once in freshwater, the eulachon are eaten by mink (Mustela lutreola) and pine marten (Mates americana). After spawning, the eulachon return to the bay and outside waters, or begin to die in freshwater as salmon do in accordance with an alternating life cycle that biologists have yet to fully understand.

Pacific herring move up the opposite side of the bay in small tight knit groups. Like the eulachon they are a food source for Steller sea lions, humpback whales, and harbor seals. After spawning, their milt and eggs also provide a rich source of protein for these organisms. The southeastern side of the bay is also used by king, red, pink, and chum salmon; all of which spawn in the Antler River. Salmon sharks (Lamna ditropis) have been observed feeding on all four species at the mouth, and upper river. Farther up river the salmon attract bears. By late May the spring runs are over. Sea lions and seals have moved to their pupping grounds. The remains of the eulachon will provide nutrition for their young and act as a nutrition source for invertebrate living in the upper bay (Vollenweider pers.comm.).

During the winter months, the bay acts as a nursery for larval eulachon, Pacific herring, capelin, and juvenile salmon. The eulachon and capelin are found evenly distributed along the northwestern edge of the bay while the herring and salmon are found in the southeastern edge. All of these species reside on both a 60m and an 80m layer and are feed upon by northern lampfish, and walleye pollock.

Cultural aspect

Eulachon are 7–8 inches long, and of the smelt family. Known commonly as candlefish because they can be burned and used as candles when dried, they are also known as saak by the Tlingit people. Besides providing for the continued existence of the Berners Bay ecosystem, eulachon have served as subsistence for the natives that have lived there. While the oil of the fish is valued for its wealth of nutrition, it has been used not only for subsistence but also for trading (Stewart, 1977, p. 149). The eulachon have contributed to the healthy diets and welfare of the Indian people, and thus are highly valued and protected.

The eulachon have been called the salvation fish because the food resources of the Berners Bay inhabitants depend on the arrival of the eulachon at the end of the harsh winter (Stewart, 95). The Gitskan people of British Columbia refer to eulachon oil as ha la mootxw, or for curing humanity. Specific fishing methods have been developed and used over time. Taking advantage of the tides where the eulachon would spawn would capture the eulachon traveling in schools. The eulachon that drifted with the tide flowed into the dip or bag net and were hauled up, lifted into the canoe above, and brought to shore for drying or rendering (Stewart, 95–96). Wire fences were also used, angled towards a canoe and made with spruce or hemlock boughs woven between stakes to guide the fish to a dip net (107).

After the winter, the female eulachon make up the first wave of the eulachon run. They are caught and eaten fresh as an appreciate alternative to a diet of smoked fish. As the eulachon run increases and more fish arrive, eulachon are caught, preserved, or rendered for their oil. Eulachon oil was highly sought after by tribes in the interior as well as the Haida, Tlingit, and Nootka from Vancouver Island (Stewart, 1977, p. 149). Several ancient tribe routes through Alaska were used to carry eulachon oil to trading spots, and earned the name grease trails, as the oil was sometimes referred to as grease. The Chilkats filled seal bladders with eulachon oil to trade with the Athabaskan Indians for caribou hides and other goods (Ongtooguk, 2004). The process of rendering the oil was a cultural affair in itself, with methods deviating between tribes. A lengthy process of rotting, boiling, and stirring was used to release all of the oils from the fish. A canoe filed with eulachon could usually yield five to six gallons of oil, and each fisherman usually caught eight to twelve canoe loads (Stewart, 1977, p. 150).

The successful fishing in the spring is not only beneficial to the native population, but also to the rest of the ecosystem. Berners Bay and Lynn Canal become a popular area for sea lions, porpoises, whales, seagulls, bald eagles, crows and ravens, which all feed on the sudden but expected multitude of valuable eulachon. The eulachon run from April–May brings 30–139 tons of the oily fish into Berners Bay, where thousands of gulls, bald eagles, and other animals come every year to feed (Bluemink, 2005a). The bald eagle gathering at Berners Bay is the 3rd or 4th largest in the world, creating a spectacle of more than 600 bald eagles lining up on the tidal flats and shallow river beds in preparation for a feast of eulachon (Bluemink, 2005b). Thirty–nine different species have been recorded foraging on eulachon during the run, including 40,000 gulls and 250 sea lions. Grebes, scoters, mergansers, and marbled murrelets have also been surveyed as species feasting on the smelt. Sea lions utilize the eulachon run significantly, as the production of milk for pups every year requires the nutrition and energy from the spawning eulachon (Womble, 2003).

The native peoples cherished the eulachon oil collected from the yearly run. It was held in such high regard, that it was considered that the more grease given to a guest, the more honor. Eulachon oil, although apparently hard to acquire a taste for, contains iodine and vitamins and was considered an essential part of a diet. Eulachon are high in lipids and low in moisture, with a wealth of Vitamin A and iron in their oil (Woodford, 2001). The oil could be added to most meals, and was mixed with dried berries to save for the winter. Eating fresh berries without the oil was taken as a sign of poverty (Stewart, 1977, p. 150).

Eulachon oil has not ceased to be enjoyed and relied on. Families with permission and rights to fish eulachon continue to market the oil, which is sold by the gallon. In 1968 a gallon on eulachon was priced $25.00, and has increased since then (Stewart, 1977, p. 153). But the benefits of the eulachon oil are judged worth the price, and the traditional uses of the oil continue to be honored.

Management plan

There are several key reasons for the existence our management plan. Firstly, the Mangnuson–Stevens Fisheries Act, the Pew Oceans Commission (POC) report, and the United States Oceans Commissions Report (US OCR) all require a management plan to be in place. Secondly, the Berners Bay watershed is being threatened by human impacts and a plan should exsist to ensure the continued health of our resourses. What happens to Berners Bay will affect Juneau culturally and economically.

The Mangnuson–Stevens Fisheries Act and the POC report call for funding on the federal level of government and states to develop a plan for ecosystem management. Other relevant policies include the Clean Water Act, which prohibited the pollution of any navigable waters from any source without a permit, and required water quality standards to be set and enforced by the EPA, as well as the National Offshore Aquaculture Act of 2005, which states that the policy of the United States is to support offshore industries.

Major land owners in Berners Bay include Goldbelt Native Corporation, United States Forest Service (USFS) and private owners. The rest of the land belongs to the Tongass National Forest. It was created by the 1906 Antiquities Act and protected by the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation act (ANILCA), the 1997 Tongass Land Management Plan (TLMP) and the 2003 Alaska Rainforest Conservation Act.

In response to this, we have recommendations for protecting the Berners Bay ecosystem in two main areas: further investigation and political/community involvement.

In regards to further investigation, we recommend the following:

In regards to political and community involvement, we recommend the following:


Figure 1. Currently not available.

Figure 2. Currently not available.

land use designations

Figure 3. Shows land use designations in Berners Bay.
Dave Albert, 2005.