It is hard to overstate the importance of eulachon to Central Coast First Nations. For millennia our people have worked together each spring to harvest this critical resource, whose grease has sustained us nutritionally and has been a valuable trade commodity and medicine.
The Nuxalk Nation’s Megan Moody knows a lot about this special fish. As a child she fished for eulachon with her family and watched families make eulachon grease. Later on, she earned a Master of Science degree from the University of British Columbia for her research on eulachon. Today, she works as the Stewardship Director for the Nuxalk Nation.
Part of Megan’s Masters research included interviewing people in her community. “There were some years,” Anfinn Siwallace told her, “they [eulachon] were so plentiful that you could just go down and handfish them off the side of the river bank. Just walk down and grab them and put them in your bucket.”
“Our elders say it’s like we’re lost in the springtime. People were usually happy in the spring and looked forward to the harvest. Now we watch and wait for the fish to return and nothing happens. Many of our youth don’t even know what an eulachon looks like anymore.”
Now, eulachon have become so scarce that none of the 25 rivers traditionally fished in the Central Coast have supported a harvest in 15 years – even longer in Wuikinuxv territory. “Our elders say it’s like we’re lost in the springtime,” says Megan. “People were usually happy in the spring and looked forward to the harvest. Now we watch and wait for the fish to return and nothing happens. Many of our youth don’t even know what an eulachon looks like anymore.” Not only are we at risk of losing a very nutritious food, but we also risk losing part of our culture and the history that ties us to our ancestors.
Using science and traditional knowledge to study eulachon decline
Rather than standby and watch this valuable resource vanish, we have been doing our own eulachon research, and monitoring the abundance of our stocks. These studies are centered in the Nuxalk and Wuikinuxv territories where the rivers once supported the largest runs. Megan advises both Nations on their research efforts, which combine traditional knowledge with science. Slowly, this work is providing critical information on the size of the stocks and giving us clues into things like the location and timing of spawning events.
“It is the Nations coast-wide that are leading the research to find out what is happening to eulachon.”
With technical support from CCIRA, the Kitasoo/ Xai’Xais and Heiltsuk Nations will also conduct monitoring activities in their territories next year to determine if eulachon are returning to their rivers. This collaborative research may help uncover why the eulachon are not returning to Central Coast rivers in significant numbers.
Through our research and traditional knowledge our Nations are the local experts on Central Coast eulachon stocks. “It is the Nations coast-wide that are leading the research to find out what is happening to eulachon,” says Megan, noting that the research is being conducted entirely by community members. “If it wasn’t for our research,” she says, “we wouldn’t know if eulachon still exist in our rivers.”
The plight of the eulachon prompted the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) to assess eulachon in the area from Haisla territory down to Kingcome Inlet as endangered. However, this large area contains many different eulachon stocks. Some, such as in the Bella Coola River, are depleted but others, like the Kingcome River stocks, are still healthy enough to support a harvest.
Despite COSEWIC’s assessment, the federal government has not yet officially listed eulachon as an endangered species. But if that happens, harvest restrictions will be imposed on all rivers in our area regardless of the health of the local eulachon stocks.
More concerning, these restrictions will continue even if the stocks recover, since the process to de-list a species is very slow. These assessments were done with little consultation with our Nations despite our vast knowledge of eulachon and the potential impacts on our culture. Imposing harvest restrictions on our Nations would also fail to recognize our long history of sustainable eulachon management.
Managing eulachon our way
To ensure that we have a voice in this discussion, CCIRA is gathering Traditional Knowledge (TK) and creating conservation plans for eulachon that incorporate our interests and TK, while asserting our right to manage fish as we have for generations. “We need a plan in place for how we will continue to protect eulachon and then manage them when the populations rebound,” says Megan.
In the past, ‘eulachon time’ was an occasion when grandparents, parents and children all gathered together, strengthening important social ties and affirming our cultural identity.
As with the Marine Use Plans already created (See page 4-5 in Newsletter 1), each community will work towards creating an eulachon conservation plan specific to the community. Once completed, the eulachon sub-committee will help to combine this work into a harmonized conservation plan that will guide management of eulachon across the Central Coast.
In the past, ‘eulachon time’ was an occasion when grandparents, parents and children all gathered together, strengthening important social ties and affirming our cultural identity. This was the time when the younger generations would learn through hands-on experience how to make eulachon grease. With CCIRA’s help, our Nations are working together in hope that ‘eulachon time’ will return to the Central Coast once again.