Falling oolichan stocks in B.C. a cause for concern

According to some fisheries observers, runs of the iconic smelt in recent years have been so small as to be almost unnoticeable

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      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.”



      Norman Dale

      Apr 21, 2011 at 4:43pm

      While I am very pleased to see eulachon get any media attention in the Lower Mainland it is disappointing that, as usual, this story is entirely focused on the Fraser. The collapse of eulachon stocks in so many more remote areas of the province is, if anything, more ecologically and socially catastrophic for First nations there because other alternative nutritional, medicinal, and economic sources are so much more limited in places like Bella Coola, Rivers Inlet or Kitimaat. I would encourage the Strait do research and write about the eulachon crisis in a more inclusive manner henceforth. Mark Hume over at the Globe and Mail has done this and, with the Strait's reputation for progressive concern for the least privileged, it's time to get on board too.

      Norman Dale

      Apr 21, 2011 at 5:06pm

      I wanted to say additionally a bit about the prospective consideration of eulachon by COWESIC in regard to SARA designation. Again, while it may always seem a positive when the tragically ignored eulachon gets ANY attention, there are dangers in reliance on this very limited protective mechanism. Decades of federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans management and research neglect of the eulachon mean that, unlike its fellow anadromous species, the sockeye, consideration of what, if anything to do to protect the fish, is like a hot in the dark, the darkness of ignorance of species ecology and of the causes of its demise. So one worry is that fanfare over designation under SARA, virtual 15 minutes of fame, may actually mislead conservation-minded citizens into thinking that something concrete can and will readily be accomplished. There are also concerns by many First Nations that relying on the federal government designation to pseudo-protect what ought to have been really protected through sound management, will erode those Nations rightful lead-steward role for the saviour fish. There is much that can and should be done about eulachon with or without COWESIC's nod of concern.

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      Apr 21, 2011 at 11:30pm

      It seems tremendously sad to see this happen. Why dies it happen to species that first nations tend to rely upon heavily for especially health responsibilities.

      Cat Thunder

      Apr 24, 2011 at 1:23pm

      I know this sounds a little silly and I hope you don't think like a farmed fish on this one.
      Is there a way we can grow this like they do farmed fish?Not to feed them the way they feed them.I think we should study these Candle-fishes more and learn their habitats and what they live on..That way we can also grow them in some kind of a massive aquarium-like swimming pool.I think it's worth studying and how the ooilchans(candlefish) produce so much oils. Like I say it's worth the study...