The hunt for the eulachon

The history of the little fish

Haisla members and fisheries staff hopped aboard a Rio Tinto BC Works boat for a joint fishing expedition to harvest the highly prized eulachon.

The eulachon arrived in the Kemano River on March 23, which gave BC Works the opportunity to invite some Haisla members to join Haisla Fisheries and Ecofish in Kemano to see and tour the traditional eulachon camps.

BC Works spokesperson Kevin Dobbin said Rio Tinto has worked closely with both the power operations team and the Haisla to ensure there is stable water flow during the eulachon spawning period to provide minimal influence from operations during the spawn and assist with monitoring eulachon spawning success.

“Monitoring of the fishery on the Kemano river has taken place since the early 1990s. A crew of two biologists spend upwards of two to three weeks each year collecting information, monitoring the detection of fish, wildlife tracking, habitat base mapping and assessment of visible egg deposition,” said Dobbin.

In an article by John Kelson shared with the Northern Sentinel by Comox-based publication Watershed Sentinel, Kelson adds further insight on the eulachon – Kelson is a conservation biologist and canopy walkway builder for projects around the world.

* Eulachon live in the ocean and spawn in fresh water like salmon

* Being fairly small (40-70 grams) they are not strong enough to swim far upstream

* Eulachon spawn in spring during low flow and big tides, using the rising tide that reverses the flow of the river to boost them upstream to where they spawn at night in moderate flows over sandy substrates

* Eggs become sticky once fertilized, and ideally stick to clean coarse sand that anchors them for the month or so of incubation

* Saltwater erodes the little attachment that anchors the eggs, so eggs have to stay upstream of saltwater intrusion into the river to avoid being washed out to sea and dying

* Once hatched, larvae drift out to sea quickly and live in nearshore waters, meaning they don’t travel around the Pacific like salmon but remain off the coast in waters up to 300 metres deep. There, for three to five years, they live over sandy bottoms eating krill

* Once mature they lose their large canine teeth and travel in large schools to snowmelt-fed rivers like the Columbia, Fraser, Skeena and Nass. There are approximately 15 rivers in B.C. used by eulachon, all on the mainland

* Spawning occurs in the spring, at the end of a long and potentially hungry winter.

“Eulachon are so abundant they cannot be consumed fresh and various methods have been developed to preserve them. Easiest is sun-dried, and many are still preserved this way especially in the Nass. Many are smoked until they are dried, an effective way of preserving them for up to a year,” writes Kelson.

”However, the preferred method is to render them into grease, essentially ageing them until their tissues become soft enough, that when cooked in hot water, the oil floats to the surface,” said Kelson.

Throughout Pacific coast history, eulachon were prized for their oil, a valuable item that was traded along “grease trails” between coastal and inland communities, the largest trading centre being on the Nass River. Eulachon grease is a super-food, an essential ingredient in First Nations cuisine, and therefore a very valuable trade commodity.

“Modern grease trails are the paved roads of our highway system, but no less important for transport of indigenous foods,” said

In the publication, First Nations Traditional Food Fact Sheet, the First Nations Health Authority (FNHA) talks about the importance of the eulachon as a traditional food source for many communities along the Pacific coast, from California up to Alaska.

“Many of the old wooden bowls and spoons collected for museums in the early 19th century still have a shiny patina from eulachon grease. Also known as candlefish, eulachon were harvested in spring, caught with wooden rakes or dip nets or conical traps made of cedar wood, branches, spruce roots or conical nets made of nettle twine.

“It often took all day for the fisherman to empty the overnight catch, from these huge nets, into their dugout spoon canoes and bring the fish to shore. Today, dip nets and conical nets are still used but seine nets are more common.

Eulachon have always been enjoyed fresh, smoke/dried, and as grease. The taste of the grease varies depending on where the fish is from and how it is made.

 

A traditional Henaksiala/Haisla Jaxwen (Oolichan fish) grease-making camp. (Photos Lisa Grant)

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