All The Fish

Made in Alaska: Bering Cisco

How Alaska’s only endemic fish found its way to New York City markets

U.S.Fish&Wildlife Alaska
Sep 17 · 6 min read

Bering cisco are the type of fish you see and say “Yup, that’s a fish” and continue with your day. They have that classic, but common fish look: silvery and fusiform. They’re not impressively huge either, fitting easily into two hands like a breakfast burrito. At one pound, they weigh about the same, too.

silvery fish in someone’s hands
silvery fish in someone’s hands
A Bering cisco.

While they don’t share the iconic status of their Pacific salmon cousins, they’re truly “Alaska’s fish” in that they’re not found anywhere else on Earth. That is, except in the busy kosher markets in New York City. And this is what makes their story incredible.

Worldwide, there are only three known spawning populations of Bering cisco. All occur in Alaska, making the Bering cisco Alaska’s only endemic fish. When they’re not spawning in the Yukon, Kuskokwim, and Susitna rivers, they’re moving between coastal marine estuaries and lagoons from the Colville Delta in the Beaufort Sea, south to the Alaska Peninsula and Cook Inlet. Their journeys can take them hundreds and even thousands of miles.

Bering cisco spawning habitat, Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge.

Alaska Native peoples and rural residents look to Bering cisco and other related whitefishes as local sources of protein and a nexus for coming together to harvest and preserve wild foods, share meals, and pass on traditions. In coastal areas, gillnets are used to catch Bering cisco. However, when they’re migrating upstream to spawn, they are most often captured with fishwheels.

a man standing next to a large fish wheel in a river
Fish biologist Randy Brown adjusts a fish wheel trap on the Yukon River. 📷 USGS/Vanessa von Biela

These large floating contraptions are held offshore in a river with two large baskets that rotate around in the current and scoop up fish. Where Bering cisco live, regional subsistence harvests of wild foods average nearly 400 pounds per person annually, with the majority being fish.

So how did this unassuming Alaskan find itself in the Big Apple?

Their high fat content has something to do with it. With the decline of deep-water cisco populations in the Laurentian Great Lakes, demand for a similar product from the New York kosher market triggered the first commercial fishery for Alaska’s Yukon River Bering cisco in the mid-2000s.

Yu’pik fishermen catch Bering cisco with gillnets in the lower Yukon River where it meets the Bering Sea. They take their catch to the community of Emmonak to be frozen and then shipped to Brooklyn to be smoked.

Emmonak, Alaska. 📷 USFWS/Katrina Liebich

Initially, Alaska Department of Fish and Game fisheries managers were conservative setting the annual commercial harvest quota at 10,000 fish — a nod to needing more robust information about the Yukon River population. As the commercial fishery matured and market demand intensified, harvesters annually requested increased harvest quotas. Recognizing the economic opportunity for the region, managers cautiously increased the quota through the early 2010s to 25,000 fish.

fish processing center on a big river
Kwik’Pak Fisheries in Emmonak, established by the Yukon Delta Fisheries Development Association in 2001, ensures a fair commercial market to the Lower Yukon River regional fishermen it supports. The Yukon is Alaska’s largest river. 📷 USFWS/Katrina Liebich

As harvest pressure increased, managers became increasingly mindful of the need to understand the three stocks and their abundance. This piqued the interest of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fish biologist Randy Brown, stationed at the Fairbanks Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office, who came to Alaska at the age of 17 and for the past couple decades, has dedicated himself to filling information gaps about anadromous fish populations that are important to subsistence users in northern and western Alaska.

Randy was among the first to recognize that Bering cisco were endemic to Alaska. Also that whitefish species were extremely important to subsistence users along the western and northern coasts of Alaska and the Yukon River, and that an expanding commercial fishery in the lower Yukon River could potentially affect both the species and subsistence users. Additionally, he recognized there was little known about the species and its three uniquely Alaska stocks.

a small tube-shaped tag with a wire coming out of it
two men working on a fish
A radio tag (left), small by necessity but with enough battery power to transmit through the summer and fall. At the same time Randy was working to find the Yukon River spawning area, Mike Thalhauser, a fish biologist with the Kuskokwim Native Association, got funding to do similar work with Kuskokwim River Bering cisco. Mike (left) and Randy (right) radio tag a Bering cisco on the Yukon River.

So he implanted individually coded radio tags (above) into fish to locate the Yukon population’s spawning destination. The results indicated the population spawned within Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge.

Randy has been focusing his work around Alaska’s northern fishes for the past couple decades. 📷 USFWS/Katrina Liebich

With the spawning area identified, the next step was confirming the origin of fish captured in the commercial fishery. This would allow managers to regulate harvest more accurately as a single stock fishery or a mixed stock fishery made up of fish from more than one population. DNA and the chemistry of the inner ear bones (otoliths) of harvested fish helped answer this question.

microscopic view of ringed structure
Cross section of 13-year-old Bering cisco’s otolith.

A collaborative effort between Ora Russ, a geneticist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Andy Padilla, a biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, concluded that more than 95% of the fish sampled from the commercial fishery were of Yukon River origin with few or no Kuskokwim or Susitna fish.

a woman holding a fish
a man holding a fish
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service geneticist Ora Russ and Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Andy Padilla.

Nearly identical results from the genetics and otolith chemistry projects provided overwhelming evidence that the Yukon stock dominated harvest in the commercial fishery and that it was likely considerably larger than the others. This greatly lessened the chance that other stocks would be intercepted. Both projects presented further support for the existence of only three populations and provided insights about ancestral relationships and geographic distribution among them.

man with a beard holding an award
Randy was recipient of the Rachel Carson Award for Exemplary Scientific Accomplishment for his work on Bering cisco.

Although management of the fishery could now proceed with the assurance of targeting only a single stock, an estimate of abundance could further improve conservation of the fishery. This led Brown to collaborate again with state fisheries biologists on a rigorous mark-recapture experiment estimating the number of spawners on the spawning grounds. The estimates found that previous and current levels of commercial harvests have not, and likely will not negatively affect the population. With the addition of the abundance estimate, managers now have a statistically sound, efficient, and repeatable method to periodically gain insights about the direct effects of the commercial fishery and, over time, develop optimum exploitation levels.

golden smoked fish
golden smoked fish
Smoked Bering cisco in New York City. 📷 Shelsky’s

So if you ever find yourself in New York and find a smoked gold cisco with rich, white flesh within, be sure to pause and think of the shimmery silver long-distance swimmers in Alaska and the science behind the fillet.

Katrina Liebich is the Alaska Digital Media Manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. With Randy Brown, Fish Biologist, Fairbanks Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office. This story is adapted from a chapter in America’s Bountiful Waters: 150 Years of Fisheries Conservation and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

As the Service reflects on 150 years of fisheries conservation, we honor, thank, and celebrate the whole community — individuals, Tribes, the State of Alaska, sister agencies, fish enthusiasts, scientists, and others — who have elevated our understanding and love, as people and professionals, of all the fish.

In Alaska we are shared stewards of world renowned natural resources and our nation’s last true wild places. Our hope is that each generation has the opportunity to live with, live from, discover and enjoy the wildness of this awe-inspiring land and the people who love and depend on it.

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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people.

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Stories from Alaska by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Updates from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people.