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.