Wild Border Watersheds

Watershed: Unuk

Photo Credit: Mike Fay

Photo Credit: Wild Salmon Center

Photo Credit: The River League/Explorer's League

About the Unuk

The remote, little known and spectacular Unuk River watershed is an internationally significant wilderness ecosystem. Though relatively small, at 80 miles/130 km long and draining some 2,500 square kilometres, it packs a wallop: the Unuk River has the largest runs of King (Chinook) salmon in southern Southeast Alaska, along with significant runs of pink, chum, sockeye and coho salmon. The upper watershed is within the traditional territory of the Tahltan First Nation, as well as the territory of Skii Km Lax Ha, while the lower watershed is in Tlingit traditional territory on the U.S. side of the border. The Unuk River flows into Burroughs Bay, in close proximity to Ketchikan, Alaska, and is extremely important for subsistence and commercial fisheries.

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The Unuk watershed bristles with diversity ranging from alpine tundra to the intact coastal temperate rainforest that covers much of the Alaskan portion of the watershed. Wolf, lynx, grizzly and black bears, fisher, mountain goat, moose, and black-tail deer call it home, and the historically rich eulachon runs in the Unuk make it a preferred location for that fishery by both people and seals in the spring.

The entire lower portion of the watershed is protected within Misty Fjords National Monument, and the smaller Border Lake Provincial Park is protected on the Canadian side. However, the entire upper portion of the watershed remains unprotected.

Threats to Conservation

Within the U.S., the Unuk watershed is entirely within Misty Fjords National Monument, and the Unuk River has the largest Chinook salmon runs in southern southeast Alaska.  Acid mine drainage from upstream development such as the proposed Brucejack and KSM mines could pose a threat to downstream salmon spawning and rearing habitat in the Unuk River. Upstream pollution could also pose a threat to the eulachon fishery at the mouth of the river. Research shows that eulachon can take up and store pollutants from their spawning rivers, despite the fact they do not feed in fresh water and remain there only a few weeks. This is of great concern for the subsistence fishery on the Unuk River, where eulachon runs have been critically depressed since 2000.

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