Burnett Inlet, Etolin Island

Burnett Inlet, Etolin Island

by | Feb 9, 2022

Burnett Inlet is a narrow estuarine fjord extending about 9 miles (15 km) north from Clarence Strait into the southwest coast of Etolin Island, about 63 miles (101 km) northwest of Ketchikan and 25 miles (40 km) south-southwest of Wrangell, Alaska. The inlet was named in 1886 by Lieutenant Commander Albert S. Snow of the U.S. Navy on the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey Carlile P. Patterson for Lieutenant J.C. Burnett. Clarence Strait is a water passage about 126 miles (203 km) long between Dixon Entrance to the south and Sumner Strait to the north in the Alexander Archipelago of Southeast Alaska. Etolin Island is southwest of Wrangell Island between Prince of Wales Island to the west and the Alaska mainland to the east. The island is about 30 miles (48 km) long and between 10 to 22 miles (16–35 km) wide, with a land area of 216,979 acres (87,808 ha). It was originally named Duke of York Island but was renamed after the Alaska Purchase in 1867 for Adolf Etolin, governor of the Russian-America colonies from 1840 to 1845. Burnett Lake is situated on Etolin Island at an elevation of 212 feet (65 m) and the outlet stream is about 0.5 miles (0.8 km) long and drains into the eastern shore about 4 miles (6.4 km) south of the head of Burnett Inlet. The geology of southeastern Alaska from the middle Jurassic through the Eocene was marked by the accretion of successive tectonic terranes to the western edge of North America. The Coast Mountains Batholith was intruded from Late Cretaceous to Eocene, and during the Late Eocene, about 43 million years ago, the convergence and subduction of the Pacific Plate under the North American Plate changed to the present strike-slip motion. Following a lull in igneous activity about 35 million years ago, magma intruded and created a belt of igneous rock that cuts across the terrane boundaries and is exposed in Burnett Inlet as a belt of granite bracketed to the north and south by gabbro-diorite.

The mouth of the Stikine River and the area surrounding present-day Wrangell was located in the heart of the territory claimed by the Shtax’héen Kwáan Tlingits, a powerful and warlike tribe with a reputation for ferocity. The lands and waters claimed by the Shtax’héen Kwáan were more extensive than that of any Tlingit tribe, and included many rich salmon streams and lakes. They claimed portions of Etolin Island along with several other Tlingit clans including the Xook’eidí, the Kaach.ádi, and the Teeyhittaan. Fishing rights to particular salmon streams were traditionally controlled by the most prominent Tlingit clan. Productive sockeye salmon streams were prized commodities with summer camps and smokehouses established near the mouths of spawning streams. The Shtax’héen Kwáan probably had the longest and most continuous contact with Euro-Americans with the exception of the Sitka tribe. In 1792, Spanish explorer Lieutenant Jacinto Caamaño commanding the frigate Aránzazu, explored the region. In 1793, Lieutenant James Johnstone, one of George Vancouver‘s officers during his 1791-95 expedition on the HMS Discovery, charted the southwest and east coasts of Etolin Island, not realizing it was an island. In 1833, the Russian-American Company established a garrison at Wrangell, which they called Redoubt St. Dionysius, to protect the fur trade with the Stikine Tlingits. In 1840, the Russian garrison was transferred to the Hudson’s Bay Company as part of the terms of a treaty between Russia and Britain. The garrison became known as Fort Wrangell, and then Wrangell. The community attracted settlers as well as Euro-American gold seekers, fur trappers, and traders. The establishment of salmon processors at Wrangell and the proliferation of canneries in Southeast Alaska quickly altered the traditional Tlingit stream ownership patterns and the networks that controlled harvest practices, and ever since contact with Euro-Americans, Tlingits have lost ownership and control of salmon streams. In 1889, the U.S. Congress responded to the rapidly depleting salmon stocks in Alaska by adopting the Alaska Salmon Fisheries Act which prohibited the construction of dams, barricades, and other obstructions on salmon streams including the use of traditional Tlingit traps and weirs. In 1924, the White Act prohibited stationary fish weirs and traps in tidal river mouths. Salmon fishing for personal or traditional consumption gradually became subordinate to participation in the commercial salmon fisheries.

Alaska’s salmon hatchery program was developed in response to historically low salmon abundances in the early 1970s. In 1972, Alaska voters amended Alaska’s Constitution to provide tools for restoring and maintaining the fishing economy. The amendment provided an exemption to the ‘no exclusive right of fishery’ clause in the state constitution, enabling limited entry to Alaska’s state fisheries and allowing broodstock and cost-recovery harvest for salmon hatcheries. In 1973 and 1974, the total harvest from Alaska’s salmon fishery was just 22 million fish. In 1974, the Alaska Legislature expanded the hatchery program, authorizing private nonprofit corporations to operate salmon hatcheries. The State of Alaska funded the construction of 18 hatcheries between 1969 and 1983. These state-built hatcheries were initially operated by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Private non-profit corporations began building hatcheries in the mid-1970s. In 1988, the legislature passed an act that allowed the state hatcheries to be operated by hatchery corporations, and since then, all state-owned commercial production hatcheries still in operation have been contracted to private hatchery operators. A combination of favorable environmental conditions, limited fishing effort, abundance-based harvest management, habitat improvement and protection, and hatchery production gradually boosted salmon catches, with commercial salmon harvests between 2008–2018 annually averaging 177 million fish, an increase of 800% from 1973 and 1974 harvests. The Burnett Inlet Hatchery was first constructed by Alaska Aquaculture Company to produce chum salmon but had financial difficulties that led to bankruptcy in the mid-1990s. The Southern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association took over the facility in 1995. Southeast Alaska commercial fishermen were the initial funding source for the operation. Today the primary funding comes from a cost-recovery fishery. The hatchery has recently been retrofitted to produce sockeye, coho, as well as chum salmon. The total run of hatchery chum salmon in Southeast Alaska has grown from 800 fish in 1977 to over 13 million in 2006 which represented 71 percent of the Southeast Alaska commercial common property harvests. There is a concern that the effect of hatchery fish mixing in a wild stock system may result in loss of fitness of the wild stock over time. Hatcheries in Southeast Alaska started coded wire tagging chum salmon in 1975. The cost and labor involved with coded wire tagging generally allow only about 1 percent of hatchery-released fish to be tagged. The data from coded wire tags suggests that returning hatchery adult salmon will stray over five miles from the release site and mix with wild salmon stocks but these events are rare. Thermal marking has now replaced coded wire tags for marking chum salmon in Alaska. One of the advantages of thermal marking is that an entire hatchery’s production can be marked for substantially less cost than tagging. Thermal mark recoveries suggest that straying may be more prevalent than indicated by coded wire tags, with 28 percent of recovered thermal marks being from fish that returned to streams over five miles from the release site. Read more here and here. Explore more of Burnett Inlet and Etolin Island here:

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About the background graphic

This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2021 (bottom). Each stripe represents the average global temperature for one year. The average temperature from 1971-2000 is set as the boundary between blue and red. The color scale goes from -0.7°C to +0.7°C. The data are from the UK Met Office HadCRUT4.6 dataset. 

Credit: Professor Ed Hawkins (University of Reading). Click here for more information about the #warmingstripes.

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