As the snow melts from the mountains and maple flowers bloom, a small, silvery fish appears in the lower reaches of the Fraser River.
Since people first paddled these waters, this has been eulachon harvest time. For hunter gatherers, the early part of the year could be bleak, as winter stores were used up and fresh food was unavailable. Salad leaves were just sprouting, and the bounty of the salmon runs lay far ahead.
So the silvery eulachon were a welcome sight as they gathered by the millions, spawning on pea gravel in the shallows. Their slim bodies were rich in oil, and they could be raked in by the bucketful. Dried or rendered for grease, they provided vital spring time sustenance to the coastal people.
The eulachon, oolie, or candlefish, lives in the Pacific ocean, and spawns in cold, glacier-fed rivers. They are prey for species all the way up the food chain, including seals, sea lions, loons, cormorants and sturgeon. Orcas pursued animals attracted to the fish up the river.
This little smelt is so rich in fat, that its carcass can be lit and burned like a candle. Basket loads were rendered down. Drained, and packed into boxes, the buttery fat was an important trade item for First Nations living near spawning runs. Long “grease trails” thread through the province where the ancient footpaths ran.
Thirty years ago, Fraser eulachon were so abundant that the Sto:lo could scoop them from the river and sturgeon fishers used them as bait. Suddenly, they were gone
In the 1990s, alarm bells for the species rang, as their numbers declined dramatically through the Pacific Northwest. By 2011, Kwantlen First Nation counted only 12 fish on their stretch of river. The population is now classified as endangered by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. The Nass-Skeena populations, designated “special concern,” are still holding on.
The cause of the decline is difficult to pinpoint, with many potential culprits. River temperatures have warmed. Spawning habitats have been polluted, dredged and developed. By-catch in the West Coast shrimp trawl fishery could be a major factor. Spending 95 per cent of their lives in the ocean, eulachon are exposed to all the changing impacts on that ecosystem, factors too complex to easily unscramble.
Disappearing wildlife demands our action. Small steps can make a difference when many people participate, so every water-quality, carbon-neutral, habitat conservation effort can make a positive difference.
Anne Murray is a writer, naturalist and author of two books on the natural history of Boundary Bay: A Nature Guide to Boundary Bay and Tracing Our Past ~ A Heritage Guide to Boundary Bay, www.natureguidesbc.com. She blogs at www.natureguidesbc.wordpress.com