It’s a little fish making big headlines. The loss of the eulachon, felt so deeply here in Bella Coola, has also been dearly missed in First Nations communities up and down the West Coast.
In a recent article in National Geographic, writer J.B. MacKinnon canvasses the coast from Alaska to California in an attempt to understand the eulachon’s demise. What comes out on top however, is the most respected theory related to the decline, that of the Nuxalk Nation’s own Megan Moody.
The word eulachon literally means “savior fish” in many indigenous languages. Many years the arrival of the eulachon was the bridge between life and death for many coastal people; the Nisga’a word is saak, but the fish are also known as halimotkw, often translated as “savior fish” or “salvation fish.” The Nuxalk word is ‘sputc.’
The Nass River, located 100 kilometres north of Terrace, is home to the last major run of eulachon. Rivers to the south and north have suffered severe declines or the complete extinction of the species. Bella Coola’s run failed to return after 1998, but this shouldn’t be reason for a complete loss of hope.
As MacKinnon points out, the eulachon is a mysterious little fish, in some years spawning in incredible numbers and in others—1984, 1964, 1907, 1890—hardly showing up at all.
It’s the mystery of the eulachon, coupled with the fact that it’s not a “commercially viable” fish, that has resulted in so little attention paid to its remarkable decline. As its importance is becoming more recognized, however, so are efforts to understand and preserve the runs.
Europeans first documented eulachons in 1806 when Meriwether Lewis was on his epic crossing of North America. It was a grease trail that led Alexander Mackenzie down to the sea near Bella Coola in 1793, when he became the first European to reach the Pacific Ocean by land along a northern route, more than a decade ahead of Lewis and Clark. Many of the pathways went on to become pioneer roads and modern highways.
In those days, immense eulachon spawning runs took place as far south as the Mad River in northern California and all the way up the coast to southern Alaska. The lower Columbia, which marks the border between Washington and Oregon, was one of the greatest eulachon rivers of all. Some scholars argue that the word “Oregon” is derived from a pronunciation of the word “eulachon” used by aboriginal traders as they told European explorers of the riches to be found in the West.
Moody began investigating eulachon as a graduate student in fisheries science. Her first discovery was how little information exists on a fish that rivals salmon in its importance to indigenous people.
“It all comes down to economics,” says Moody, who’s now the stewardship director for the Nuxalk Nation. “In the mainstream world, if it’s not a commercial commodity—a highly valued species in the fishery management world—nobody pays attention to it.”
But the benefits of eulachon are finally beginning get noticed outside of traditional cultures. For such a small morsel, eulachon should very well be considered a “superfish.” Its nutrients pack a punch: A single tablespoon provides more than 125 calories, and just five ounces (150 milliliters)—an amount still commonly eaten by Nisga’a elders today—supply half an adult’s recommended daily energy intake.
It’s food as medicine, something Nuxalk elders commonly speak of when lamenting the loss.
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 1998.
This could account for why the coast’s biggest rivers, such as the Columbia, Fraser, and Nass, still have eulachon runs—albeit smaller ones than in the past—while lesser rivers have witnessed near total local extinctions. The large eulachon runs in big rivers, the theory goes, could withstand heavy losses to bycatch and still endure; smaller runs could not.
In some locations, the fish could be returning as mysteriously as they disappeared. In 2013, schools of eulachon arrived in the Bella Coola, setting off waves of excitement. Moody believes there is good reason to think they may return. “The potential for recovery is there,” she says.
In 2007, the Cowlitz Indian Tribe petitioned the U.S. government to protect eulachon in Washington, Oregon, and California under the Endangered Species Act. A resulting scientific review that led, in 2010, to eulachon being listed as a threatened species in the U.S. south of Alaska.
In Canada, eulachon are now classified as endangered in every river system except the Nass and nearby Skeena River.
However, the eulachon are better protected than ever before. Ocean shrimp boats on the Pacific coast have been equipped with mandatory bycatch-reduction devices since 2003, and last fall an experiment with LED lights strung on trawl fishing lines reduced eulachon bycatch by 90 percent, prompting officials to recommend that fishers start using the new technique immediately.
Meanwhile, 335 miles (540 kilometers) of creeks, rivers, and estuaries in the U.S. have been identified as critical eulachon habitat by the National Marine Fisheries Service, and a complete recovery plan is expected in 2016.
With files from National Geographic