Epitaph or Chronicle?
Interceptions of eulachon as by-catch, a long-standing problem that both DFO and the shrimp fishery made some progress on, must be eliminated. Such actions are entirely feasible and practical—DFO enacted similar measures up and down the coast during the coho crisis with tremendous results.
The responsibility to act goes beyond the first two orders of government. For the time being, First Nations must give up their catches.
First Nations and industry already study eulachon, but they can increase these efforts and further extend the benefit by coordinating research. Success will in part depend on how well each stakeholder puts aside other issues to focus on the eulachon crisis.
Even if we do everything within our power and we do it well, there is no guarantee that eulachon will recover. Like the salmon, eulachon abundance is governed by marine conditions and they do poorly in the warm waters brought by global warming. It is important that researchers and managers not be daunted by this grim forecast.
The difference between recovery and extinction may lie in our efforts, and we owe these both to eulachon and to the First Nations. One thing we can be certain of, a decade from now, eulachon will be better known by school children, either by epitaph or by chronicle.
The eulachon (or oolichan) is herring-sized, grey-and-silver-coloured and known by a variety of common names including candlefish, oilfish, small fish, salvation fish and fathom fish, whose scientific name derives meaning from Thaleichthys ("oily fish"), and pacificus ("of the Pacific").
The largest member of the smelt family, eulachon are anadromous, spawning in freshwater and living as adults in the sea.
Eulachon spawn in the lower reaches of rivers, often within tidal influence, and migrate and spawn within just two weeks each spring, from early March in the Skeena River, to April in the Fraser River and May in Alaskan rivers. Eulachon migrate in dense schools, waiting in the estuary until the high tide slackens river currents and night cloaks them from predators, then streaming upriver to spawn in shallow gravel riffles.
Females release an average of 27,000 eggs that, once fertilized, rupture to expose an adhesive membrane, an anchor that holds them securely to gravel, sand, or wood debris on the river bottom. The eggs incubate for one to two months, then hatch in May and June as wispy, translucent larvae just 5 mm long and barely able to swim. The larvae leave the river quickly, using the cover of darkness to ride river currents to the estuary. During the first summer of life, eulachon are transported by tidal currents along coastal inlets, feeding at night on plankton near the surface and hiding by day in the depths. As eulachon grow, they migrate further out to sea, living most of their adult lives offshore on the banks where shrimp and flatfish also live.
Eulachon can spend up to six years in the ocean but most are three or four years old when they return to spawn.
Whether they return to the river of their birth is unknown: they may but probably not with the fidelity of salmon. Although many eulachon die after spawning, it is doubtful that this holds for all, given the capture of spent but apparently healthy eulachon in the Strait of Georgia.