Lummi Natural Resources and Northwest Indian College (NWIC) have partnered to learn more about the longfin smelt, known as hooligans, that have been harvested by tribal members for generations.

NWIC native environmental science faculty member Dr. Rachel Arnold and Lummi fisheries technician Jeffrey Solomon have spent two seasons gathering DNA samples, scales and otoliths (mineral structures often referred to as “ear bones”) from hooligans harvested along the Nooksack River each fall.

“We’ve also had conversations with tribal elders, as well as non-native elder fishers, who have been harvesting hooligans since they were children,” Solomon said.

Longfin smelt migrate to salt water and back again to spawn, like salmon. In 2015, Lummi Natural Resources’ stock assessment division reported that longfin smelt have been caught in shrimp trawls during the winter down to about 75 fathoms.

“The science and the traditional knowledge, it’s all relative to each other,” Solomon said. “It has even been suggested by one of our tribal elders that protection might be warranted for this particular population because of a suspected decline in the run this past season.”

While the tribe is most interested in better understanding life cycles and migration patterns, NWIC received a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to study the population genomics of the hooligans. The grant funded a state-of-the-art genomics laboratory housed in the Salish Sea Research Center on the Lummi Reservation campus.

Fast Facts:

  • The “hooligan” that returns to the lower Nooksack to spawn is the longfin smelt, Spirinchus thaleichthys.
  • According to local fishers, the run starts around Veterans Day and ends about Thanksgiving weekend. Most fishers catch these smelt with a pole net as the fish move upstream to spawn.
  • Hooligans live 2 to 5 years in salt water before returning to fresh water to spawn, spending 95 to 98 percent of their lives at sea.

Photo courtesy of Tsilixw James.