A spectacular event takes place on the Skeena and Nass Rivers during the first three weeks or so of March – the Eulachon run. Also known as oolichan, ooligan, hooligan, these small, smelt-like fish are so full of oil that they can be dried and burned like candles, earning them the nickname of “candle-fish.”
To the coastal Indigenous people, they are also the “saviour” fish because they are the first fresh food source available just as winter supplies are dwindling.
Eulachon are anadromous meaning that they spend part of their life in freshwater (as eggs, larvae, and spawning adults) and most of it (3-5 years) in the salty ocean.
Most spawning fish are three years old when they return to the coastal rivers. They are weak swimmers, so they rely on the tide to help them get to the higher reaches of their spawning grounds above the reach of saltwater. Once the adults have spawned, they die.
The fertilized eggs are sticky and adhere to the sandy river bottom for a month of incubation. Once hatched, the larvae are swept out to coastal ocean waters by the spring river freshets.
Eulachon are a very rich fish as almost 20 per cent of their weight is oil with a chemical makeup more like olive oil than typical fish oil. The fish provide a very nutrient-rich food source that attracts the attention many animals. At the peak of the run, the air resembles a major snowstorm as thousands, if not millions, of seagulls are swirling around, diving and screaming. Bald Eagle counts yield numbers in the hundreds and it seems like every tree has at least one, if not 20, eagles.
Especially exciting to see as they pursue the fish are groups of seals and sea lions. It seems so odd to see sealions so far upriver, but clearly, they think it is worth travelling so far away from their natural salty habitat. Listen carefully and you can hear the explosive release of air and grunts as they surface to take another breath.
The best time for viewing is after the tide turns and starts to recede as it leaves the spawning adult fish in shallower reaches. Then the eagles come down and line the beaches or sit on the exposed rocks or floating icebergs. All the activity on the Skeena occurs between Terrace and Prince Rupert.
Indigenous people traditionally harvested the fish using nets and still do on the Skeena on a smaller scale. Fish may be eaten fresh, baked, or fried, or dried to use later as candles.
Most of the fish were (and still are) fermented and rendered to release the oil by boiling with water in large containers. In the past large cedar boxes were used and contents boiled by adding hot rocks. The oil is skimmed off the top and cooled. When cold, the oil becomes solid with the consistency of butter and is known as “grease.”
Eulachon grease keeps especially well in this form and is eaten with everything. In the past, it was also traded with Interior people along the numerous grease trails (often in exchange for soapberries, crab apples, saskatoons, and other fruits).