If someone asked you to name an iconic British Columbian fish, what would you answer? You might respond with one of the five species of Pacific salmon, or possibly herring, but one species that likely wouldn’t come to mind is eulachon. Eulachon was a mainstay in the diet of many people living along the Pacific coast for thousands of years, and provided the currency for a booming trade route, but the species largely remains out of the minds of many people in Western Canada. Many of us may not rely on eulachon the way coastal people have in the past, so why do these fish deserve our attention today?
Like other smelt species of fish, eulachon are slender, covered in silvery scales, and grow to a length of about 20 cm (8 inches) and provide a valuable food source for countless species. Those similarities noted, there are few species that connect communities the way eulachon do, and just a few moments spent on the banks of the Skeena River in the early months of the year would make that obvious. In late winter and early spring the fish enter glacially-fed coastal rivers, like the Skeena, to spawn after spending the majority of their lives at sea, where they serve as a prey species for countless marine animals.
The freshwater feeding frenzy that follows the eulachon run is truly one of nature’s spectacles. Hoards of seabirds swirl above the water’s surface, herds of sea lions feast on eulachon they’ve corralled into tight groups, and First Nations harvesters are present too, often using the same dip net technique that has been employed for thousands of years to harvest the species. This immense gathering of marine, freshwater, and terrestrial species that rely on eulachon as a food source is a stark reminder of how important these fish are to our large and complex coastal ecosystem.
Eulachon have been an important part of First Nations culture for thousands of years. The fish go by many names, including oolichan, hooligan, and candlefish, in addition to being referred to as the “savior fish.” This fitting title reflects the species’ significance as the first fresh harvest of the year, providing protein, vitamins, iron and fat at a time when fresh food was not always readily available. In some regions, eulachon are rendered for their grease and traded as a highly valuable commodity between coastal communities and those based in the interior. In fact, eulachon have such a high fat content that when dried, one can be lit with a flame and will burn like a candle.
Unfortunately, eulachon populations have been declining throughout the province’s waterways since the mid-1990s. Runs that used to occur along the central coast have significantly dwindled, and the once sizable Fraser River run is essentially non-existent today. The Skeena river is faring better in comparison, but has still seen years of poor eulachon returns, especially in the 1990s. Little is known about why this decline is occurring, but many coastal First Nations are trying to bring the fish back to historic levels.
Enter Jessica Hawryshyn, a fisheries biologist with the North Coast-Skeena First Nations Stewardship Society (NCSFNSS). Hawryshyn is working alongside the five member First Nations to monitor eulachon populations and harvest in the Skeena River on B.C.’s North Coast, promote sustainable harvest, and raise awareness.
The Society’s research is important, as many mysteries remain regarding Skeena eulachon abundance, run trends, and spawning areas. The group is taking the initiative to collect consistent year-to-year catch and run data, which can be used to inform protection policies, develop management plans and assist in ensuring the sustainability of the food fishery.
Hawryshyn emphasizes there is a lack of definitive information about eulachon and the threats they face, but says many environmental issues such as global climate change, bycatch of certain commercial fisheries (the unintentional catch of non-targeted species when fishing), and shifting predator-prey relationships may play a role in the decline of the species. Overall, she emphasizes, more research needs to be done on eulachon before we can definitively determine what is affecting some populations so negatively, and how to ensure the long-term sustainability of the species.
There is one action that the NCSFNSS and Hawryshyn know can help protect eulachon in B.C. however, and that involves spreading the word about the cultural and ecological significance of the species. By sharing the story of the “savior fish” and raising awareness about the species, the NCSFNSS is hoping to reinvest British Columbians in the iconic fish. Like salmon and herring, eulachon are a vital part of our coastal ecosystem, and protecting the species is a shared responsibility. So next time someone asks you about iconic British Columbian wildlife, share the story of the savior fish, and you too can help with the conservation of this important species.
Scientific data like that the NCSFNSS is collecting on smelt is the type of information that can help researchers determine if a fishery is sustainable. You can help conserve marine species like smelt by choosing sustainable seafood.
The Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise program educates and empowers consumers about the issues surrounding sustainable seafood. Look for the Ocean Wise symbol next to seafood items for Vancouver Aquarium’s assurance of an ocean-friendly seafood choice.