Tundra streams yield priceless treasure

by Greg Lincoln

Moses Mute of Bethel kept a blackfish trap on the tundra near Bethel, successfully catching fish this past fall and through the beginning of winter. He would walk to check his trap almost every day. This was his last day of trapping, December 5th, 2020. photo by Greg Lincoln

Moses Mute of Bethel was busy this fall keeping a blackfish trap in a tundra stream near a lake on the outskirts of Bethel. He would walk close to a mile almost every day to check his trap in wind or shine.

“I started before freeze up,” he said. “It was pretty good.”

His trap was successful, catching almost every day and sometimes there would be several baby pike. When freeze up came around, he pulled his trap. The fish had moved away. The day this photo was taken, December 5th, Moses had taken his trap out of the stream for the winter. It was cold, -20˚F.

Blackfish are a most beloved subsistence food. They are only found in Alaska and eastern Siberia and we are very lucky to have them. Their natural habitat is densely vegetated areas of lowland swamps, ponds, rivers, and lakes.

These fish are small, growing up to 8 inches although some folks have caught big ones that were up to 13 inches or so. Blackfish spawn from May to August. A female may release a total of 40 to 300 eggs at different intervals throughout the spawning period. The tiny eggs stick to vegetation and hatch in about nine days at 54°F. The baby blackfish are approximately 6 mm in size, and depending on water temperature, live off their yolk sacs for about ten days.

Alaska blackfish are amazing. They have the ability to breathe air with their modified esophagus. This allows them to be able to continue living in low oxygen environments. Only one other species of fish in the world is known to have modified its esophagus for respiratory purposes – the tropical swamp eel found in Asia.

Humans aren’t the only ones that like to eat blackfish. They are an important food source for lush, shee, river otters, mink, loons, and pike. Blackfish can also be found in Barrow, Hughes, the Bristol Bay region, and even in Anchorage. We are thankful to live in a place where we can enjoy this priceless treasure.