It has been decades since the waters of the Bella Coola have been black with eulachon and the riverbanks buzzing with preparations, fishing and people. But that loss hasn’t dampened the appetites people still have for the small fish and its coveted grease.
Megan Moody, a young Nuxalk scientist specializing in eulachon research, still remembers what it was like when she was a child. “We used to take ice cream buckets down to the river and catch them with our bare hands,” she recalls.
The eulachon was more than a food source for Nuxalk people; it was a species key to their survival. The return of the eulachon meant an end to the long months of winter hunger, and signaled that spring was about to begin.
“People just don’t know what to do anymore when spring comes now,” said Moody. “All that activity, the camps, the woodcutting, the fishing, it’s all gone.”
A key organizer of the March 29 Sputc Ceremony, Moody said she was inspired to hold the event because she felt the community needed to come together and celebrate. “There are eulachon in the river now, they are coming back,” said Moody. “There is still hope.”
Horace Walkus certainly hopes so. As one of the few community members left that still knows the art of making grease, Walkus’ house stands kitty corner to the newly erected pole. Walkus still consumes grease regularly but guards his precious reserves like gold, some of it dating back decades.
“We called it the saviour fish and I truly believe it is,” said Walkus. “It was more than a food for us, it was a medicine, a lifestyle. Grease was on the table all the time, just like salt and pepper. It was a major part of our diet.”
Walkus said that he never learned how to make grease; as a child he was made do it. “When I grew up I said I would never do it again,” he admits. “But then you get a craving for grease, and you’re out there on the river.”
Walkus said he started noticing a steady decline in the number of eulachon returning with a coinciding warming of the climate. “I remember the runs coming earlier and earlier,” he said. “It used to be the end of April and there would still be ice on the river then, it was Easter weekend. But by the time the last run came in it was March.”
This observation corresponds with the findings of Moody’s master’s thesis. Moody believes that climate change was already contributing to a slow decline in eulachon populations, something that had been happening since the 1970s. However, it was the arrival of shrimp trawlers in Queen Charlotte Sound in the mid-90s that appears to have been a major contributer to the spectacular disappearance of 1999.
“Eulachon bycatch was a huge problem for the shrimp trawlers in Queen Charlotte Sound,” explains Moody. “There are estimates that between 90 and 150 tonnes of eulachon was being caught as bycatch by the trawling industry.”
The trawlers knew the eulachon bycatch was a serious issue and tried to avoid them, often warning fellow fishers on the radio if they were running into a lot of ‘e-fish.’ Alterations were eventually made to nets and fishing gear to allow eulachons to escape, but Moody wonders how effective they really are.
“Even in trying to avoid them the trawlers are still stressing the fish and possibly causing mortality through injury,” she said. “It’s impossible to prove what, if any, damage they are still causing to the stocks.”
While the Bella Coola run collapsed in 1999, other communities on the central coast lost their eulachon earlier, such as Wuikinuxv. Further north, the Nass and the Skeena, are still enjoying relatively healthy runs. “I believe this difference is due to the size of the river system,” she says. “The Bella Coola and Wuikinuxv Rivers can only support smaller runs, unlike the huge runs found on the Fraser, the Skeena, or the Nass.”
Moody believes this also why it’s taking so long for the Bella Coola stocks to recover. Already more vulnerable due to size, a smaller stock is naturally going to take longer to replenish once its numbers have gone below a certain threshold. Moody, however, remains positive, “The potential for recovery is there.”
The eulachon is an indiscriminate little fish: oily, modest, and unassuming. It’s comparable to the herring in size and stature, but much of its lifestyle is still a mystery. Although Moody’s research has highlighted many of the challenges faced in preserving the eulachon, there are few concrete solutions, as the eulachon remains vulnerable to factors outside of local control.
Moody, however, firmly believes local action is essential, and her future initiatives include an eulachon guardianship plan. She is counting on community support.
“Community effort is going to be key to this plan’s success,” she said. “The community needs to be involved in understanding and protecting our environment, eulachon habitat, our estuary. It’s important that we have our plan that incorporates traditional ecological knowledge and community input.”
Lyle Mack, the lead carver of the pole that now stands on the riverbank, agrees. “As a people we believe that animals return to their birthplace,” explains Mack. “The pole represents Raven with open hands, holding two eulachon and facing the river, welcoming them back.”
The ceremony, which Moody admits was difficult to recreate because it hadn’t been practiced in the community for so long, was a necessary component to foster optimism and awareness among the youth who haven’t directly experienced eulachon as part of their lives.
The pole, carried by all members of the Bella Coola community, now stands as a representation of past and present, young and old. His father and mentor, Alvin Mack, taught lead carver Lyle Mack his skills while other young carvers, Chazz Mack and Peter Snow, assisted him. Several young weavers now learning the art dressed the pole in handmade cedar clothing.
“The longer it goes on, the bigger the gap is between the youth and the elders,” said Moody. “We needed this ceremony to bring the community together.”