Fraser River oolichan stocks continue to plummet

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      A seal poked its head above the Fraser River’s water, and several years back, according to Terry Slack, there were hundreds of them at this time of the year.

      It was mid-April, a season for Slack to cast his net on the Fraser, as his father and grandfather did before him. And just like the seals, sturgeons, seagulls, and eagles, the 69-year-old fisherman was supposed to be catching oolichan. Also known as eulachon or candlefish, it’s a type of smelt that was once regarded as the “saviour” or “salvation” fish because they were the first harvest from the river when people were at the end of their winter food supply.

      But the oolichan has largely disappeared, and on the day Slack took the Georgia Straight on a walking tour of the banks of the north arm of the Fraser River at the bottom of Boundary Road, neither fishermen nor the abundant wildlife that previously depended on this fish could be seen.

      “This river is dead,” Slack declared.

      Like the salmon, the fish was of tremendous importance to First Nations. Rich in fat, it was rendered into grease and formed an important part of the Native diet. Before the arrival of Europeans, oolichan oil was a valuable commodity and was traded to Interior First Nations along what used to be known as the grease trails of the West Coast.

      The fish return from the ocean to the Fraser and their other natal rivers to spawn, and die, during the early spring.

      “There’s supposed to be a run of the oolichan as we speak,” Slack said, adding that when the fish were still plentiful, a second wave, mostly of females, was typically expected in May. After that, it was the turn of the salmon to come.

      Stocks have fallen so steeply that there has been no commercial or recreational fishery since 2004. As in the past six years, Fisheries and Oceans Canada has allowed only a limited First Nations fishery for food and ceremonial purposes.

      As of April 30, aboriginal catches from the Fraser River were estimated to be only 200 pounds, according to Barbara Mueller, a resource manager at the federal agency’s Annacis Island–based Lower Fraser area office. According to various accounts, oolichan runs in the past were so great that the river turned black from the mass of fish.

      “At this point, no, we haven’t isolated what is the cause of the decline,” Mueller told the Straight in a phone interview. “It’s not clear to science.”

      The integrated fisheries-management plan drawn up by FOC’s Pacific region office covering the period April 1, 2010, to March 31, 2011, provides indicators on the status of the oolichan.

      One is spawning-stock biomass, an estimate of how many tonnes of the fish successfully spawned in the Fraser the previous year. Between 2004 and 2009, the annual number ranged from 10 tonnes to 33 tonnes. Last year, it was 14 tonnes. According to standards cited in the management plan, a “low spawning stock” is less than 150 tonnes. Such a low volume for a year is “cause for caution, and a low spawning stock biomass for two consecutive years indicates conservation concern”.

      Another indicator is the agency’s Fraser River test fishery. A test-fishery catch of fewer than 5,000 oolichan is “considered a conservation concern”, according to the plan. In 2005, the catch was 886 fish, a far cry from the 12,433 caught in 2004. There has been no test fishery from 2006 on, and there is none scheduled for this year.

      In November this year, the oolichan will be among the species to be assessed by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. COSEWIC is an advisory group established by the Species at Risk Act to review the status of wildlife species that may be at risk of extinction in Canada.

      “We knew that some of the runs have declined quite severely, and that’s why COSEWIC considered it a candidate for status evaluation,” marine biologist Howard Powles, a Quebec-based member of the committee’s marine-fish subcommittee, told the Straight in a phone interview. (In the U.S., oolichan in Oregon, Washington, and California will be listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act as of May 17.)

      Jeff Hutchings is a professor of biology at Dalhousie University in Halifax. He is also the chair of COSEWIC. In a phone interview from Victoria, where the panel recently met, Hutchings told the Straight that the committee commissioned a report on the oolichan two years ago, and the document is under review.

      On the banks of the Fraser River, Slack wielded a rake instead of a net. He was clearing away mud and debris that have covered the gravel beds where the oolichan used to spawn. He’s hoping that when the fish return, they’ll have more places to lay their eggs.



      Ernie Crey

      May 15, 2010 at 9:53am

      We have repeatedly told DFO that they are allowing Fraser oolichan to be killed on a massive scale in the shrimp trawl fisheries. DFO doesn't care about oolichan and cares even less about the importance of these fish to the Lower Fraser River's eco-system and the First Nations. As one manager said to Grand Chief Ken Malloway and me during a meeting about salmon back in the day, "Well guys, now I gotta go to a stupid ooolichan meeting".

      Ramona C. de Graaf, BSc., MSc.

      May 15, 2010 at 12:27pm

      At the same time that we are seeing the loss of the eulachon as a major forage fish for 100s of marine predators, the south coast is also experiencing the plummetting decline of another critical smelt species, the surf smelt. The surf smelt spawn on marine beaches. They used to spawn from White Rock to Howe Sound along your city shores. but this spawning habitat has been almost completely destroyed due to railways, seawalls, piers, marinas. There has been almost no attention paid to protecting this critical fish habitat by DFO.

      Wreck Beach, Dundarave, a bit of Stanley Park, a small stretch of beach nr Tsawwasseen and Crescent Beach still provide some spawning habitat for the "burrard inlet" smelt.

      The battle to protect the Wreck Beach spawning habitat must be won!

      Ramona C. de Graaf, BSc., MSc.
      Forage Fish Specialist
      BC Shore Spawners Alliance

      ramona c. de Graaf, BSc., MSc.

      May 15, 2010 at 12:30pm

      Yes, I support what Terry and Ernie are saying.
      Hey, Ernie, from the DFO manager for "non-salmonid fishes" in the Lower Mainland, "oh, you mean the "shit fish" file" in reference to my enquiry for some help on surf smelt spawning habitat conservation in the south coast.
      Just goes to show that some DFO staff know very little about ecosystems, ecosystem management when they show such blantant disregard for the very food source of 100s of marine predators from Chinook salmon to Killer whales
      Ramona C. de Graaf, BSc., MSc.
      BC Shore Spawners Alliance

      Ron Kinch, Victoria, BC

      May 16, 2010 at 10:58pm

      I think these comments and warnings are cause for alarm. The urgency should be cause for alarm and action by every Fraser River and BC Coast M.P. Multi million dollar Commissions may teach us more than we need to know. It seems to me what we scientifically do know should be sufficient for Government action and proposals to be taken seriously.

      Norman Dale

      May 31, 2010 at 6:00am

      Very helpful article, Pablo. A few points in response. First that is important that Straight readers know that eulachon stocks have collapsed or gone into unusually dramatic oscillations in many other locations than the Fraser. I have worked with the Nuxalk and Wuikinuxv on the Central Coast for over a decade on the precipitous decline that suspiciously followed DFO's sanctioning of rapid shrimp trawl increases in the mid to late 90s. For the isolated First nations the collapse of eulachon is especially harmful because there are no options to replace the food or the substantial trading/economic value of the grease.
      The other thing that comes to mind is the vacuous and misleading nature of the statement by the DFO person - “At this point, no, we haven’t isolated what is the cause of the decline...It’s not clear to science.” It is not clear to DFO science because they have invested such minute effort in understanding the nature and causes of eulachon collapse. When you don't bother to look into a mystery, you sure as heck won't see it. Of course, it may be that the answer to the kind of inquiry that should have been done, are not ones the Minister and his minions would especially want to hear. For more see