After years of almost disappearing from rivers like the Fraser, the oolichan, a small fish in the smelt family with a big role in the history of many First Nations in B.C., will be assessed next month by an advisory group established under Canada’s Species at Risk Act.
The review of the status of the oolichan comes a year after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s fisheries service in the U.S. listed this smelt variety in the Pacific Northwest as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in that country.
The oolichan, or eulachon, is about as iconic as the salmon to aboriginal peoples. It was an important seasonal food source, being the first to arrive in rivers after the end of winter. That’s the reason it was once known as the saviour or salvation fish.
It is also called the candlefish because it’s so rich in fat that when dried, it can be lit. It was rendered into oil that formed part of the indigenous diet, and it was traded as a precious commodity along the so-called grease trails of the West Coast before the arrival of Europeans.
The assessment will be conducted by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. Panel members will meet from May 1 to 6 in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. Thirty-eight other species of animals and plants will be looked into by the body, which includes Parksville, B.C.–based Alan Sinclair.
“The concerns for the oolichan are fairly widespread,” Sinclair, a former research scientist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview from his home. “There was a serious concern about the species in the sort of mid-1990s, and that’s when its profile began to come out.”
Sinclair is the cochair of COSEWIC’s marine-fish specialist subcommittee, which appraised a status report commissioned by the advisory body.
“There is a procedure within COSEWIC to identify species and put them on this candidate list for assessment,” said Sinclair, who declined to provide details of the report. “Each of the species-specialist committees goes through a process of identifying species within their jurisdiction where preliminary information may meet criteria for conservation risk. We call that initial screening, if you will. It goes forward from there.”
Since 2004, neither commercial nor recreational fisheries have been allowed for the oolichan because of conservation concerns.
This year will be no different. According to FOC’s integrated fisheries management plan covering the period from April 1, 2011, to March 31, 2012, limited harvests will only be allowed for food, social, and ceremonial purposes by First Nations.
The document notes that preseason indicators suggest “a low state of abundance implying a continued conservation concern”.
One of these measures is the spawning-stock biomass, an estimate of how many tonnes of spawning-age oolichan there are. According to FOC’s latest management plan, since 2004 this mass has dropped way below the 150-tonne reference point—below which there is “cause for caution”, according to FOC’s 2010-11 management plan.
Growing to a length of about seven inches, an oolichan spends three years of its life at sea before returning to its birth river to spawn in the spring.
The fish come back starting in April, but stocks have fallen so low that, according to Ernie Crey, a fisheries adviser to the Stó:lo Tribal Council, the runs are so small as to be almost unnoticeable, unless one is out there trying very hard to find and catch the smelts.
Crey spoke to the Straight by phone on April 15, about a week after he had talked with members of the Kwantlen First Nation who had tried to catch oolichan. They managed to get only a dozen.
“That’s a profound change from what the runs of the Fraser used to be 25, 30, 50 years ago,” Crey said. “They’ve been caught in the shrimp-trawl fishery and destroyed. There are other reasons why they’re not as plentiful as they used to be, and those are related to habitat loss. There’s a lot of industrial activity along the lower Fraser River, from sewage discharges from municipalities”¦to the phenomena of the so-called midnight dumper or dumping of chemicals into streams and into the river itself.”
Ken Malloway, a fisher since the age of 12 who carries the title of grand chief of the Stó:lo Tribal Council, has witnessed the decline of the oolichan.
“Thirty years ago, you’d be able to go down the river with a little dip net and scoop up enough to fill up your boat in half an hour or an hour,” Malloway, 56, told the Straight by phone.
He recalled going out to catch oolichan for band elders six or seven years ago. “We only caught about 150 pounds, which was not very much,” he said. “We could have caught tons if we wanted 30 years ago, but the amount of fish left these days, we’re lucky if we can catch any at all.”