Eulogy for Eulachon? Part 1

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The First Nations' staple that helped coastal peoples survive over the centuries has been hit by rapidly decreasing populations. A biologist says research funds are urgently needed to enable further study of the eulachon.

by Adam Lewis,1 special toThe Vancouver [B.C.] Sun
Reprinted by permission.


photo of a eulachon

Courtesy American Fisheries Society and Phillips Petroleum Foundation

The eulachon is an ecological treasure and a cultural icon for First Nations. Unlike the story of the Pacific salmon, which is known by every schoolchild in British Columbia, few know the story of its distant relative, the eulachon. This anonymity may soon fade however, as eulachon populations are now in a crisis as deep and dangerous as any faced by salmon.

The eulachon (or oolichan) is a small, silver fishvthe size of a herring that spawns in B.C. coastal rivers. The life story of this small fish is similar to the salmon's. A eulachon spends most of its life in the ocean off the coast of B.C.

Each spring they migrate in the millions to coastal rivers, migrate upstream, and spawn in gravel beds. Gulls, eagles, wolves, seals, porpoises, sea lions and even killer whales feast on them. After spawning, when many and perhaps all eulachon die, their carcasses decay, enriching the stream and estuary.

Their role in supporting the ecosystem is obvious, but has gone virtually unstudied by fisheries researchers. This is unfortunate for, like the salmon, eulachon are at risk, and we may not know enough about them to save them from extinction.

Though both salmon and eulachon are food and commercial fish, the obscurity of eulachon can be explained by comparing distribution and abundance. Salmon spawn in over 1,000 rivers coast wide, whereas eulachon spawn in fewer than 40. The largest runs of salmon can number over 10 million fish each weighing two kilograms, (a total of 20 million kilos) whereas the largest runs of eulachon, though numbering 25 million, are comprised of fish weighing only 40 grams, for a total run of just one million kilos.

These differences in size and abundance have driven the commercial fishing effort. Moreover, these fisheries have catered to markets and few peoples other than First Nations prefer the rich oily taste of eulachon to that of salmon.

Eulachon have always played a critical role in the survival and commerce of First Nations, who give them important cultural status. By returning to spawn in the early spring, when food supplies were exhausted, the eulachon literally saved lives, earning them the name "salvation fish."

Further, because eulachon are almost 20-per-cent oil by weight, they allowed a fine grease to be easily rendered, creating a high energy food source that could readily be transported and traded with nations further inland.

The grease trails that linked the coastal and inland tribes are an intriguing chapter of our history, part of which today lie protected in Provincial Parks. The grease itself is as fundamental to the cultures of many First Nations as butter is to those cultures of European origin.

A jar of grease on the table is more than a condiment or a staple; it is an integral part of the meal. When you consider that eulachon grease is rendered by a method centuries old every year by entire extended families in rustic camps centuries old, you realize why the eulachon fishery is the event of the year that defines a large part of native culture.

1. Adam Lewis is a Registered Professional Biologist (B.C.) who has studied eulachon for over a decade.