Eulachon, or “sputc” as they are known locally, have been a staple of First Nations diets up and down the pacific coast for thousands of years.
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.
Dubbed the “saviour fish” because their arrival signaled the end of a long period of hunger. Once the little fish began to appear the predators followed, filling the river with seals, birds, and other mammals indulging their voracious appetites.
As time went on, however, it was clear that the fish were simply not coming back. Since then, work done by Nuxalk scientist Megan Moody has indicated that shrimp trawlers in Queen Charlotte Sound, where eulachon spend much of their lives in the murky depths, were responsible for wiping out millions of the little fish through a process known as “bycatch.”
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.”
Now the DFO is considering more actions to protect the little fish.
They are looking into using LED lights on the side of trawl nets to detract eulachon from going toward them. It’s a method that scientists with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife have been testing for the past few years. The lights brighten a path of escape under the net.
Results from 2014 demonstrated a 90.4 per cent reduction in eulachon bycatch.
“There’s been direct discussion with the industry to test the efficiency of these lights here in the Pacific region, and regulation amendments are under development,” said Colin Masson, North Coast area director for DFO. But he admits, the process for making regulation changes is somewhat onerous.
Near Prince Rupert, posts from the Metlakatla First Nation indicated that “1000s of pounds of eulachon are being dumped or have been dumped near Prince Rupert very recently.” The post asked people to report any incidents to the DFO.
As of late February, DFO had not received any formal reports on specific incidents of eulachon bycatch. Masson said conservation protection officers boarded a number of trawl vessels during the recent opening.
“They observed very little eulachon bycatch,” Masson said. “They’re not saying it isn’t an issue.”
The LED lights aren’t the silver bullet to help the eulachon. Penny White, senior aquatic resources biologist with the Metlakatla First Nation Stewardship Society, said the shrimp trawl nets still break up the schools within the estuary and the eulachon are more exposed to predators.
The fish is a cultural keystone, and White wants the fisheries minister to take action now.
“I called on the minister to act now. This is more than a manager-level decision,” she said. “The minister has control, these protections for the Skeena River eulachon have to be in place.”
Locally, the community cautiously celebrated the healthiest run in over 20 years in 2018, with the return of multiple small schools of eulachon to their spawning grounds in the Bella Coola river.
This year’s Sputc Ceremony, now an annual event in its fifth year, is slated for later this spring.