There is an undercurrent of careful optimism, a feeling of news that’s too good to be true, filling the atmosphere in the Nuxalk Fisheries and Wildlife laboratory. For the first time in almost 20 years, there are multiple small schools of eulachon returning to their spawning grounds in the Bella Coola river.
The last healthy run of Bella Coola eulachon happened in 1998, and at the time there was nothing to indicate the little fish was on the brink of collapse. Eulachon had occasionally failed to return in the past, and at first people thought it was simply an off year.
As time went on, however, it was clear that the fish were simply not coming back.
Shortly after that spectacular crash of 1999 the Nuxalk Fisheries department began working on the Nuxalk Eulachon Study. Based on sampling methodology created by fisheries scientist Dr. Doug Hay for the Fraser River eulachon, the study was refined and started in Bella Coola in 2001 with help from an organization known as the Eulachon Conservation Society. It continued in 2002 by Nuxalk scientist, Megan Moody, who also completed her UBC master’s thesis on eulachon.
Current Chief Councilor Wally Webber ran the study until 2009, during which Jason Moody worked with the project as the Nuxalk Fisheries Manager. He’s now working as the Nuxalk Fisheries and Wildlife Coordinator and is running the project with several technicians.
“We couldn’t find them in 2001, but since 2012 the run has slowly been coming up,” said Moody. “Our historical runs were approximately 150 tons and after the collapse we saw maybe 50 – 100 kilograms a year. Right now, this year seems like a lot, but it’s only about one percent of those original runs.”
Dubbed the “saviour fish” because their arrival signaled the end of a long period of hunger, eulachon need cold, clear water to spawn and survive. Historical runs were often welcomed after a long winter, and once the little fish began to appear the predators followed, filling the river with seals, birds, and other mammals indulging their voracious appetites.
“We have definitely noticed an increase in predators this year, which is another sign the run is much healthier,” Moody said. “We’ve seen birds, river otters, seals and even beavers with eulachon in their mouths this year.”
The team’s season begins around the third week of February and continues into May. They work around the clock collecting data and tracking the movements of the fish. There are several stations throughout the river where they monitor river height, flows, and temperature, as well as collecting samples of eggs, larvae, and live adult fish.
“Every eulachon run on the coast is different,” said Moody. “Our Bella Coola eulachon are unique to us; we believe their DNA is specific to our territory. It’s not north or south eulachon, they belong here.”
When you consider the obstacles the eulachon have to face, their survival becomes even more wondrous. They are a tiny fish, on average only 30 – 50 grams per fish, and Moody describes them as “little stress balls.”
“They’re skittish and easy to disturb,” he explained. “And they’re sensitive. Things need to be just right for them to be able to spawn.”
Eulachon are extremely sensitive to water temperature, silt levels, and river flow. The technicians employ meticulous methods of data collection, using plankton nets to capture and isolate tiny eggs the size of a pin head and barely visible larvae.
One of eulachon egg’s most unique features is their tiny “foot,” which protrudes from their eggs to grasp at the river bottom and ensures they don’t get ripped away by strong currents.
“We conducted rearing of eulachon at the Snootli Hatchery for several years, which has enabled us to understand their egg cycle and differentiate them from other smelt species,” Moody explained. “There are lot of other species in the river, so we need to be sure we’re collecting eulachon eggs and larvae to ensure our data is accurate.”
Moody believes that this year’s colder spring, which is more in line with traditional weather, has played a role in the healthier run. In the past, eulachon would spawn in April or May, but more recently that has changed to February and March.
“Eulachon are smart,” he said. “Climate change has certainly affected them, but they have also learned to adapt. They have been spawning earlier than they used to historically, but this year they have the advantage of the colder temperatures and I’m sure that’s been a factor in the activity we’re seeing now.”
Moody also firmly believes the runs were hit hard by the bottom trawling industry, something his sister Megan explored in her master’s thesis. Eulachon spend the majority of their life in the depths of Queen Charlotte Sound and there they were subject to the ruthlessness of the shrimp trawling industry for many years.
Tons of eulachons, known to fisherman as “e-fish,” were caught as bycatch for many years before areas like Queen Charlotte Sound were closed to trawling and alterations to trawling equipment allowed for an easier escape route from their nets. However, the effects of that time period are still reverberating today.
“Trawlers were probably catching into hundreds of tons from 1996 -1998 prior to the closure,” said Moody. “They caught juveniles and adults, wiping out multi-age classes very quickly.”
For the Nuxalk, eulachon are much more than a food source; they are a cultural treasure. For thousands of years they were the hub of trade activity on the Central Coast and a symbol of the richness of nature. Grease was essential to survival, health, and a source of traditional wealth. Their loss has been devastating.
“The eulachon are such a special and precious species to all Nuxalkmc and a lot of coastal first people. In our family it was used in almost all of our meals growing up and I’m very thankful to be raised with grease,” said Eulachon Study Technician, Ron Schooner. “It’s been quite some time now since we’ve been able to harvest them, but I look forward to one day when it will be so.”
Moody echoes Schooner’s sentiments. This return may be exciting, but he remains cautious. It’s still a fragile resource that will require careful nurturing for years to come.
“It’s hard, people are hungry, and they are going to want to fish,” said Moody. “But we know we have to take care of the eulachon, and we’re lucky that we now have that knowledge captured in the Sputc (Eulachon) Book, so that we can continue those traditions.”
There are many traditional Nuxalk laws that were designed to protect the eulachon. Throwing rocks in the river, for example, was prohibited. Nowadays, there are even more disturbances to worry about.
“I wouldn’t recommend running quads or chainsaws down by the river, and it’s always a good idea to keep the river as clean as possible,” Moody said. “As Nuxalkmc, we want to bring back the sputc, so we want to do everything we can to help that happen.”