Fisheries techs record highest salmon count at McLees Lake weir in nearly a decade
Fisheries technicians wrapped up the 2023 season at Unalaska's McLees Lake weir last week, reporting a total escapement of 26,945 sockeye salmon — the weir's highest count since 2016.
Rachel Lekanoff has been the fisheries manager for the Qawalangin Tribe of Unalaska for about a year. She’s happy to see so many salmon return this summer.
“In 2020, folks probably remember it was pretty low — there were only 5,000 [fish],” said Lekanoff. “We're about double from what we have seen in the past couple of years, which is really good to see.”
McLees is the largest lake on Unalaska Island, and home to its biggest subsistence fishery. The lake empties into Reese Bay, or Wislow, as locals call the popular fishing spot. They’re referring to the island that sits within the bay's limits.
Field technicians have documented the lake’s sockeye run to monitor local salmon populations for roughly two decades. Over the years, they have used a picket weir, airplane and drone surveys to count the fish.
State funding cuts shut down the weir between 2017 and 2019, and no data was collected those years. In 2020, the Alaska Department of Fish & Game partnered with the Qawalangin Tribe through the federal Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program to help keep the study going. That year, it had the lowest escapement on record, with a season total of just 5,035 salmon.
Lekanoff said the count plays an important role in the community, especially for subsistence harvesters.
“It allows the fishermen to have quick access to the fish as soon as we get escapement,” she said. “Having technicians that are at least from the community or are familiar to the community, makes it easier for those local fishers to go and approach and speak with those people.”
The weir reached this year’s escapement goal of 10,000 fish on July 2, about three weeks earlier than it had last year.
Lekanoff said it’s crucial that the Qawalangin Tribe is involved in the count because it gives the Unangax̂ community sovereignty.
“This is our traditional water,” Lekanoff said. “We have always been familiar with when and how and why the salmon come back. At the end of the day, I feel like we as traditional knowledge holders do have the best interest in mind for the fish to keep that run healthy.”
The Qawalangin Tribe has been growing efforts to use traditional knowledge as baseline data, focusing on observations related to environmental changes and subsistence foods.
They were awarded another two years of funding through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and will be returning for the 2024 season.