🕔May 22, 2008

When the tide, currents, and wind come to an early evening understanding, a limpid stillness smoothes the water into a mirror to reflect the steep blue mountains. The sea lions must be a couple of miles away, but their groans travel across the wide mouth of the Nass River to the government docks at Gingolx. They’re here for the same reason we are: the eulachon are running the river to spawn.
Just upstream, the seagulls gather and a dozen eagles stand motionless in the shallow water of a small creek. Another dozen white heads dot the nearby trees. Last winter’s snow is knee-deep down to the high-water mark and there’s fresh snow in the trees above us, but spring has come to the Nass; the eulachon are running the river to spawn.
Back in the village, phones ring to make arrangements to carry a plate of sea lion liver over to Auntie’s, to bake rhubarb upside-down cake for Steve at Doolan’s camp, to take a couple of jerry-cans of gas up to Fishery Bay in exchange for a bucket of eulachon to take into Terrace tomorrow. It’s Friday night in Gingolx, and the eulachon are running the river to spawn.
Eulachon is the Chinook word for the small, smelt-like fish that used to flood the spring rivers of the Pacific coast from northern California to the Bering Sea. They’re sometimes called candlefish because when dried they can be lit like a candle; salvation fish for the way they fed winter-starved tidewater people and thousands more inland along the “grease trails” named for their most valuable product—the oil extracted from their bodies through a process carried out by coastal First Nations over millennia.
“It’s liquid gold,” says Karen Nyce, a Haisla woman from Kitamaat Village.
The fridge door opens and a jar half-filled with a white solid is brought out and held under my nose.
“Smell that. Nothing nasty about that,” says John Kelson, Nyce’s husband. His love of the fish comes from direct experience of First Nations culture and research he’s carried out over 15 years. Together with fisheries biologist Adam Lewis he co-founded the Eulachon Conservation Society to raise awareness about the importance of the little forage fish.

High value
“Eulachon play a crucial ecological role,” Kelson explains. “Offshore, they are a key link in transferring energy up to the higher predators we humans like to eat, such as salmon and halibut. They are the first fish to run in the spring at a time when food supplies have been low and many animals are gearing up for reproduction. They are like the gas in the engine of the estuary and forest ecosystem. A few meals of eulachon can increase the number of offspring in seals and sea lions, otters, eagles, gulls and other seabirds.”
Nisga’a chief Steve Doolan has been fishing for eulachon since he first began to help his grandfather forty years ago in Fishery Bay, just downriver from Laxgalts’ap (Greenville). A big bear of a man with a shock of white hair, he is the steady hand at the helm of Doolan’s camp where every year a crew of eight to twelve men gather for the month of March to fish and process the eulachon. A boardwalk leads through a cedar and hemlock forest down to the sheds, dock, and cabin where the age-old tradition is continued.
The cabin is teeming with people dropping by to visit or lend a hand. The bunks in the back are piled deep in sleeping bags and warm jackets; overalls and rain gear hang from the ceiling. The VHF radio crackles. Cathy Alexander, the camp cook, passes messages to the men out fishing and keeps coffee and a pot of soup warming on the woodstove. When the crew comes in for food and a rest, they sit around the big table and look out the one window to keep an eye on the weather.
Eulachon spawn when the river levels are at their lowest and the tides are highest. It’s when the tide changes that the nets are set. Doolan spreads out his arms as he describes the process: “We use a frame and weight it down into the river, three or four fathoms deep. The net is about 14 feet wide, three feet high and 60 feet long.”
Shaped like a wind sock, the net fills as the ebbing tide carries the fish back downstream. It is then grappled with big hooks and the fish are emptied into the bottom of the boat.
At this time of year, the weather can do anything. “This year we had to fish in among the ice. A huge chunk came down and blocked the whole river; it stayed and we were trapped out by the sand bar,” Doolan says. It was seven or eight hours before the ice moved off again.

Fish refinery
When the boat comes in with as much as a couple of tons of the slippery little fish, anyone who’s at camp helps haul them up to the large bin, lined with hemlock boughs, on a platform just in front of the cabin. The fish, about 18 tons’ worth, sit for eight to ten days decomposing; the process breaks down the tissue and releases the oil. By this time the smell is famous. “Wear old clothes,” we were told. “Everything will smell of rotting fish.”
But we’re early. Steve’s bin is only a third full, and a sign hangs on it saying they won’t have any to give away until it is full. Catching enough fish to make the grease is the first priority.
The ripened fish, about 3600 pounds for each cooking session, are shoveled into one of two pots in an adjacent shed. Fires are built underneath. “We add fresh water from the creek and heat it just hot enough to boil the water,” Doolan explains. “After about 14 hours we let it cool, and then we skim the grease off.”
Kelson explains that the eulachon’s essential fatty acids, protein, and minerals, together with their excellent texture, make it the highest quality food fish. “A diet study done in Kitamaat showed that eulachon were nutritionally more important to the Haisla than any single salmon species.”

And even after the grease is removed, they continue to provide nutrients to the ecosystem. “We run the fish meal out into the creek,” Doolan says. “The gulls eat it. And the bears come around later too.”
As well as feeding a significant chunk of the forest/marine ecosystem, the fish play an integral economic and cultural role in coastal First Nations communities.
“The eulachon fishery is, in my estimation, the best remaining example of traditional Native culture and economics on the coast,” Kelson says. “Families go to great effort and expense to travel to their camps to fish, to make grease, and to smoke eulachons. They are supported by family and friends with money, gas, food, and other, less tangible investments, and in turn provide fish and grease to a vast extended community.”
In decline
But the eulachon are in trouble. “The Bella Coola people came up and gave us two big cooking pots and we give them eulachons and grease—2,000 pounds. They told us they haven’t had eulachons for eight years,” Steve says.
Nyce laments that what used to be very predicable for her people has become hit and miss. The only fish her family got this spring came from the Nass.
Kelson lists the losses: “In the Columbia, runs have been very low since 1993. The Fraser, which supported a large commercial and subsistence fishery, is down to a fraction of its former abundance since 1994. Runs on the central coast have disappeared for six years or more. The Kitimat River catch, formerly the most valuable aboriginal fishery on the coast, is inedible because of pollution. The Kemano run has not appeared for two years.”
The Nass is no exception from this general decline. “A couple of years back there was nothing,” Steve said. “Then we heard there was a place in Alaska where most of the eulachons were. Something’s wrong.”
He remembers better times. “My grandmother used to sun-dry a thousand strings six feet long.”
So what’s happening? Kelson points to three main factors: “They are likely suffering because of poor at-sea conditions caused by global warming, shrimp trawl by-catch, and in-stream modifications such as rip rap and changes in hydrology due to dams or logging.”
It is, he says, beyond the ability of fisheries biologists to predict exactly how global warming will affect eulachon, especially since most of their life cycle is poorly understood.
“The biggest by-catch in the shrimp trawl fishery in BC is known to be eulachon,” he says. “There was a 450 percent increase in shrimp trawling from 1982 to 1996 in BC, a period that closely coincided with the decline of eulachon.”
Naturally enough, First Nations communities are reluctant to call for formal protection of the species even though it is in decline. Chris Wilson, a fisheries manager for the Haisla, says, “Even if we had consensus on what needed to be done, we don’t want eulachon listed as endangered because it would make criminals out of fishermen if they decide to fish.”
The cultural and nutritional wealth eulachons have generated creates almost overwhelming pressure on the remaining fish. And everyone loves them so much—the birds, the sea lions, the people—that when they do show up, even in limited numbers, they are very hard to resist.
This spring, the people of the Nass have done well. In Doolan’s camp, one of five on Fishery Bay, about 1000 gallons of good eulachon grease was distributed to the crew. “The last run was really big,” Doolan says. “We’re happy with what we got.”

The life of an eulachon:

🕔May 22, 2008

During most of their lives, eulachon (Thaleicthys pacificus) spend their days at a depth of about 100 metres, just off the sandy bottom of the continental shelf, eating krill and larval shrimp and trying not to get eaten themselves, or caught in a shrimp-trawl net. In late fall, the mature four-year-olds start to school up, ready to move toward the spawning grounds.
Unlike salmon that home accurately to their natal rivers, eulachon home to a region—the one they imprinted on in their early days as they drifted in the sea near the mouth of the river where they hatched. By New Year’s Eve our school of eulachon, containing maybe five tons of fish—just one school of many—is dodging halibut 50 kilometres from the mouth of the river. These days the Nass River has the largest eulachon run of the 14 rivers in BC that have (or had) regular runs.
Now it’s March, and the eulachon are massing in the salt water that lies under the fresh water where the river meets the sea. While travelling, they’ve absorbed the minerals out of their long sharp teeth, which are now gone completely. Together with stored fat, the minerals are used to mature their gonads so eggs are ripe and free-flowing, and milt (sperm) is ready to blow.
Everyone is here for this party. Halibut and salmon are gorging on the oily fish. Seals, sea lions, otters, gulls, eagles, mergansers—even wolves and bears—are trying to get some, craving the nutrition after a long hungry winter. The Nass could have close to 2000 tons in a big run. In addition to what is eaten by other fish, the wildlife around the river might take several tons themselves. And those pesky humans will take another few hundred tons, leaving, in a good year, enough to replenish the stock.
Some males run upriver ahead of the others, and are said to be checking the conditions. Several runs will follow, using the tide—sometimes under the ice in February, sometimes later into April or May. But now, on a big rising night tide during the lowest river flows of the year, our school of eulachon surf up the river, using the reversed flow to help them up as far as possible. Eulachon, like other anadromous fish, try to prevent marine predators from preying on their eggs, but aren’t strong enough to venture very far above the tidal influence.
A frenzy of sexual activity begins. By the millions the eulachon locate glides—areas of faster moving current—to spawn. The females wriggle close to the bottom, accompanied by one or many males. The surface of the females is slippery and very smooth, while the males are bumpy and less slippery. This may help them identify who they are spawning with in the darkness. The males have a distinctive ridge down their midline and extraordinary ventral fins that may help hold the female to his side for the few seconds of their act.
Within a few hours, hundreds of tons of eulachon will have spawned, turning the entire river white, like watery cow’s milk. The females
disappear downstream immediately, but males stay around, likely hoping to spawn with any less punctual females and exhaust the last bits of their milt and energy before washing out to die.
The fertilized eggs become sticky and sink out downstream in clean sandy areas, forming a mat of eggs that resists being moved. The three-week incubation period may be the only peaceful time in an eulachon’s existence—that is if the egg is anchored well enough to survive the blast of spring runoff.
A few weeks later a tiny, half-centimetre-long larva hatches out at night to begin its perilous existence as a delicious food item. Fueled by a yolk sac that will last a few days, the little larva drifts downstream and begins to float around, together with millions of other larval fish and the rest of the microscopic life in the estuarine circulation. Over a period of days to weeks the larvae gradually grow and drift with the current away from the river; this is where they imprint to the region, rather than the site where they were born. Over the next months they gradually swim out to the rearing grounds on the continental shelf, where they will spend most of the four years of their life growing—and trying to avoid being eaten themselves—before returning to the river to start the process over again.