In 1994, eulachon runs were surprisingly poor up and down the coast. First Nations put pressure on government to do more research. In response, the department of fisheries and oceans formed the Eulachon Research Council, an informal group of eulachon researchers, including both First Nations and industry, that has been supported by the B.C. ministry of forests.
The council has met every year or two, allowing eulachon researchers and managers coast-wide to share their research. Forest Renewal B.C. funded several research programs in 1996 and 1997, but the funding for eulachon studies dried up in 1998.
DFO has done some basic research since that time, on an admittedly shoestring budget that provides just a fraction of the knowledge needed to adequately understand eulachons and manage those activities than can affect them.
Our ignorance is profound, even dangerous. We don't even know if eulachon return to spawn each year in the same river, spread out coast-wide, or do a bit of both. Imagine having similar uncertainty when managing salmon populations —even basic management decisions such as whether to allow a fishery opening would be impossible. In the absence of such knowledge, decisions must still made.
Some of those decisions, such as the canceling the commercial fishery on the Fraser River, and stricter self-management of food fisheries by First Nations, were of benefit to eulachon. Other decisions, such as allowing continued forest harvesting in eulachon watersheds, may not have been wise, though we do not have the data to test this. Regardless, it is apparent now that the management of eulachon, their habitat and the fisheries that affect them has been inadequate.
Returns of eulachon during 1999 and 2000 have been dismal—they have disappeared from many rivers that formerly supported robust fisheries. This decline was documented on May 4 at the Eulachon Research Council met in Terrace, B.C., where researchers concluded that eulachon are indeed in decline.
Eulachon numbers have dropped off coast-wide: from the Columbia River in Washington State, to the Fraser, Skeena, and Nass rivers in B.C., and to the Copper River in Alaska. Poor ocean conditions are driving this trend, made worse by habitat degradation and by-catch in offshore fisheries.
First Nations are concerned that their aboriginal right to harvest eulachon has been infringed by effects to eulachon stocks from bycatch in offshore fisheries and habitat loss in spawning rivers. That a First Nations cultural icon is at risk should be of great concern to those with a fiduciary responsibility to First Nations.
British Columbia has already acted by classifying eulachon as blue-listed, recognizing that eulachon are at risk and vulnerable. Now is the time for federal government to act. Basic research should be funded immediately, provided it is non-destructive. Habitat regulations should be tightened to ensure that impacts to eulachon do not worsen.