Eulachon - BC's Giant Panda?

by John Kelson

Eulachon. The name brings a wide range of responses from people. Even in coastal BC, many people will ask, “what are they?” Some who know a little about eulachon will say, “oh my, they’re slimy little fish,” or, “they taste gross.” Those who know more sometimes say, “when I was a kid we used to eat them from the Fraser,” and can identify them as members of the smelt family. Coastal First Nations who’ve eaten them all their lives, and others lucky enough to have had a chance, know they are the best fish one can eat, and as a

result are either sought after annually where possible, or terribly missed.

Smelt
Eulachon are anadramous smelt, that is, fish that live in the ocean and spawn in fresh water like salmon. However, 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. Salt water 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. These are very specific habitat requirements that determine where eulachon can spawn successfully.

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 euphausiids, tiny planktonic animals we often call 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 BC 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 can not 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.

Grease
However, the preferred method is to render them into grease, essentially aging them until their tissues become soft enough, that when cooked in hot water, the oil floats to the surface. Eulachon grease is a super-food, an essential ingredient in First Nations cuisine, and therefore a very valuable trade commodity. In past times grease was traded over great distances, including far inland, over trade routes commonly called grease trails. These trails were really just the trade routes, but since grease was a main commodity, we have come to know them as grease trails. Modern grease trails are the paved roads of our highway system, but no less important for transport of indigenous foods.

Eulachon are only found in the eastern Pacific Ocean, from northern California to southwestern Alaska and into the Bering Sea. In general, their numbers are seriously reduced from historic abundance.
Eulachon are forage fish, a numerous prey species that is an important food source supporting many other species. At various stages of their life they are critically important to: Stellar sea lions, halibut, white sturgeon, gulls and other birds of many species, otters, trout and salmon. Even coastal wolves eat them.

Conditions for Decline
A variety of factors have contributed to declines. The specific combination of clean sand and moderate flows at the right time of year required for spawning and incubation has been destroyed in many rivers by modifications like rip rap to protect banks (that causes the river to scour sand away from the bottom (thus removing habitat), dams (that can change the flow regime of the river and starve the river of sediment contribution from upstream), dredging, and logging (that can also change flow regime of a watershed and increase fine sediments – silt is not good for anchoring eggs).

Eulachon are basically extirpated (locally extinct) in California, where the Redwood forests have been almost completely logged. Dams, dredging, and habitat destruction have basically destroyed the Columbia River where 80% of all eulachons used to spawn. The Fraser River is a tiny remnant of past abundance although the few spawners can still find some reasonable habitat in the Pitt River. Runs on the central coast of BC are greatly diminished, and some runs have had no returns for many years.

Only once you reach the Skeena, Nass, and rivers to the north are runs still healthy. This could suggest better marine survival, since warming ocean conditions can affect distribution of predators and possibly availability of food. However, I am a simple thinker and always prefer to believe the most obvious thing. It is only once you reach the Skeena and Nass that habitat destruction has not destroyed the very specific habitats required by eggs for successful incubation. Changing ocean conditions and habitat destruction make the future of eulachon in the southern parts of their distribution doubtful. The Skeena and rivers to the north are therefore critically important.

Consider the Kitimat River
Formerly the most valuable and easily fished run in BC, it had a large run and as a result, the Haisla were rich beyond description. It was well managed with a strict set of rules that incorporated ecological principles. For example, the net used, called the takath, only caught fish being pulled downstream with the falling tide, most of which had already spawned. Eulachon were (and are when possible) processed to remove the oil and turned into eulachon grease, a super-food and essential ingredient in First Nations traditional food.

Prior to 1972 and the construction of a pulpmill, now closed, on the Kitimat River, the Haisla were the Arabs of the eulachon grease-based oil business. However, there is now a city in the Kitimat estuary. The river is entrained, controlled, and flooding prevented by rip rap. Every bank in the Kitimat estuary is armoured and as a result the river scours down removing fine sediment. Pollution from various industries has been blamed for killing off the eulachon run, but bank stabilization has probably been a bigger factor, together with an impassable weir the Department of Fisheries and Oceans fish hatchery built across the river to keep it’s intake in the water  – that resulted in loss of more than half of available spawning habitat.

Consider the Kemano River
Alcan discharges the waste water from its power plant (water taken from the Nechako and the Fraser River system) into the Kemano, causing the triple whammy of attracting eulachon, that are attracted to flow, washing away the fine sediments needed for incubation, and increasing flows during incubation. This turned a small river with an intermittent run into an eulachon killing zone and de-populated Gardner Canal including the pristine Kowesas and Kitlope rivers.

Cultural Icon
I admit I am an eulachon-hugger. Yet I don’t think it is unreasonable to suggest they should be recognized as the poster child for coastal ecology in the entire temperate rainforest. Much like Giant Pandas that symbolize the wildlife of China, eulachon could be considered the keystone species in the coastal ecosystem. They are a foundation of Native culture and the spark plug in the engine of spring reproduction for many species.

The lack of research effort and management they receive might be the best example of the philosophical bias of salmo-centric DFO and the failure to achieve any kind of ecosystem-based management. My intention is not just to criticize DFO, but it can’t be denied that the eulachon story also illustrates DFO’s cultural bias. DFO mainly cares about commercial species, and has always considered eulachon non-commercial. However to the coastal First Nations that still have them, the eulachon fishery is the best remaining example of traditional subsistence harvesting – culturally and economically vital. We know the largest by-catch of the shrimp-trawl fishery in BC is eulachon, and the shrimp-trawl fishery is allowed to exist, with some slight and unmeasured tweaking in methods out of consideration for eulachon. If the shrimp-trawl fishery was killing steelhead or coho, would it be allowed to exist?

Significantly, this year there was a fairly strong run in the Kemano after nine years without anything. Given the lifespan of eulachon, this proves they can stray in large numbers. Purely conjecture, but logically, this year’s run was composed of eulachon straying from the Skeena. The Skeena is a very important run, although almost completely unfished. In 2001 researchers, including myself, did a study that estimated the Skeena run to be about 500 tonnes. That is a lot of fish.

Since eulachon stray and  some rivers still have strong enough runs, then if we can fix ruined habitat they might come back. To maintain the potential for straying and stock restoration, we have to protect healthier rivers like the Skeena, rivers currently threatened by proposed pipelines and the potential for fugitive oil, and other industrial developments.

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John Kelson is a conservation biologist and canopy walkway builder for projects around the world.

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