Vanishing Eulachon

Eulachon. Source:

I often use eulachon (Thaleichthys pacificus, a small, anadramous smelt) as an example of “archaeologically-invisible” food. They are also known as “candlefish”, on account of being so oily that a wick jammed down their throat will burn like a candle.

These small fish run by the millions up rivers to spawn, where they could be intercepted.   Traditionally, many or most eulachon would be processed into eulachon oil, or grease: a highly nutritious, calorie-dense substance that preserved very well and could also be used to preserve other foods such as berries.  The means of processing was to put them into a large container, perhaps an old canoe, known colloquially as a “stink box”, let them “rest” there for a week, and then heat them up, enabling the oil to rise and then be skimmed off, or pressed out.  The residue (bones, guts, brains, etc.) would then be returned to the river and few or no bones would make it away from the processing site.  In this way, eulachon provided a staple food, a nutritional supplement, a means of preservation, and an extremely valuable trade item – when Alexander Mackenzie arrived near Bella Coola in 1793, “Over Land, From Canada”, he did so on one of the well-worn grease trails that linked coast to interior. Since the fish arrive in the early Spring, they were hailed as starvation busters in lean years.  Nonetheless, archaeologically they are almost invisible, relative to their importance.

Haisla eulachon catch from the Kemano River. Source: living landscapes.

It is therefore sobering to read that U.S. President Obama has listed the Columbia River eulachon as an endangered species: eulachon are becoming almost invisible relative to the real world now, it seems.

Nass River eulachon storage bin - fish kept outdoors here for seven days to ripen. Source:

I don’t know much about their status in Canada: this page suggests that the Bella Coola eulachon run has collapsed, prompting the Nuxalk to hold a Feast of Shame to encourage their return (see also this page by UVIC Anthro’s own Jacinda Mack, ).  It is so depressing to read of another species once so numerous it could be raked from the water, reaching a state of population crisis.  In the Oregon article, the commercial fishermen are quoted as opposing the measure.  Is this just another tragedy of the commons?  I am no biologist, but it seems to me that the professional fisheries managers have managed almost every species to the brink of extinction.  No doubt they are under intense political pressure, but we should probably also consider that the task they are set is un-doable: nature is not readily manageable, we understand it too little, our appetites are too great, and our selfish interests too intractable.  We’re burning the candlefish at both ends, you might say.

Columbia River eulachon catch. Source: Megan Moody M.A. thesis.

So, today the Columbia, tomorrow the Nass?  Check out this gorgeous photo essay on a Nass eulachon camp, before its too late, while this photo set on Kemano River eulachon is also worth a look.  For a sound historical overview and modern catch figures on the Bella Coola River, see  this M.A. thesis by Nuxalk student Megan Moody.  This video (.wmv) is worth watching too: in the middle there is an excellent interview with Nuxalk Chief Councillor Spencer “I know more Latin than Nuxalk” Siwallace, who is either unusually young, or I am getting unusually old.

Anyway, not a very archaeological post, but then, what is the point of studying eulachon in the past while they are going extinct in the present?  Virginia Butler has one answer — historical benchmarking — but I am not sure we really need that, compared to what we can see with our own eyes.

When the stick stands upright on its own, there are enough eulachon in the rendering vat. Source:

Eulachon as recorded in the journals of Lewis and Clark, February 24th, 1806. Source:

17 responses to “Vanishing Eulachon

  1. I was reading this article the other day – it is a depressing state of affairs. It states in part:

    “Around 2004, eulachon stocks began to crash, river by river, pretty much coast wide, from the Fraser River near Vancouver to the Skeena near Prince Rupert.
    For reasons that aren’t clear, the eulachon still return to the Nass River, just south of the Alaska Panhandle. But everywhere else on the British Columbia coast, eulachon are so scarce that all food, sport and commercial fisheries are closed again this year.”


  2. Thanks APM – looks like eulachon is in the air. I also see Kitamaat Village is blockading the shrimp trawlers who they blame for the decline:


  3. And now you have closed the archaeology circle, I think. The David W. Ellis (Fish for Life Foundation) referenced at the end of the article could well be the same David W. Ellis that has done ethnobotany and similar studies on the west coast of Vancouver Island and Haida Gwaii and who in the 1970’s, while kayaking, recorded archaeological sites.


    • Honourable Archeologists: Yes that is me! I am a bookseller now, but also on a volunteer basis, the Executive Director of the Fish For Life Foundation. We are working hard on the eulachon issue right now. The decline can be turned around (it is a case of low priority and undermanagement) but it will require a mighty uproar, to get in order. Can you help me distribute some email information to the academic community? We are talking to many of the “eulachon tribes” right now, but your support will sure be needed, especially for the non-treaty folks in the Chinookian area.




      • Hi David — thanks for stopping by. Well, if the honourable archaeologists can do anything, then let us know. It is an alarming thing to see the eulachon fade away, especially as the causes seem to be poorly known.

        Love your intertidal books! We want more!


  4. That would also be the Ellis of this hard-to-find-for-a-reasonable-price volume:

    Interesting — thanks!


  5. and this one :

    (I wonder if it really is the same person)


  6. One thing to note is that this year the Skeena River run was very strong and lasted long enough for people to have more than the usual good feed. Skeena Oolichan haven’t been used (recently anyway) for grease as far as I know. Most of the grease produced in the 20th and 21st century on the north coast comes from either the Nass or Kemano.


  7. Hi Charles, thanks for that, good to know there are some left. Do you know to what factors people are attributing the overall decline and the good Skeena run? I’ve read shrimp trawlers (First Nations say…) and unusual water conditions (whatever that means (Fisheries says….)).


  8. Pingback: Vanishing eulachon

  9. 2007 DFO Assessment of Fraser River eulachon. Not a happy story:

    Click to access SAR-AS2007_048_E.pdf


  10. Thanks APM. Might as well paste the conclusions of that report in here:

    [SSB = spawning stock biomass. The egg and larvae estimate they claim is the best makes grim viewing: ]


    The Fraser River eulachon stock has collapsed and remains at a precariously low level.
    Entertaining directed eulachon removals in 2008 by First Nation, commercial or recreational harvesters would increase the probability of further stock decline, potentially limiting stock rebuilding and recovery. Furthermore, incidental mortality should be minimized in other fisheries where Fraser River eulachon are caught as bycatch. The two key indicators continue to signal conservation concerns, especially an estimated SSB of less than 150 tonnes in each of the previous four years based on annual egg and larval surveys. Continued depressed SSB suggests the status of the stock in the near future also is of concern. Given the short life cycle of this species, consecutive years of poor returns suggest that long term strategies are required
    to minimize fishing mortality and allow stock rebuilding. Stock rebuilding is further complicated by larger scale processes that could be impacting Fraser River eulachon including decreased marine survival, possibly related to climate change and loss or degradation of river spawning habitat. Spawning habitat should be protected from deleterious effects of foreshore

    The egg and larval survey on the Fraser River currently provides the best estimate of SSB.
    This survey should be continued in future years to track the changes in this stock.


  11. [David Ellis left this comment, which is a quick summary and links to the eulachon issue coast-wide — qmackie]

    Terry/Judy and fellow fish workers far and wide: Yes I agree Point Grey smelt not doing well. Howard Safrick, the fish buyer, noted to me once that they were hit one year by a large commercial fishing effort, which he said knocked them way back. I gave up sport fishing for smelt, some years ago, I think they spawn in front of Brock House. Hard to get a frying pan full. Seals, which very much now need to be harvested to some degree (I have eaten them in Haida Gwaii, and they are great) to also help restore balance, tore my net up. Resource management is about balance, but urban people are often not aware of this. I was just up at Port Hardy, to which the sea otter have just extended their range around Vancouver Island, crab fishermen and local Native people, told me (more about seals, sea otters, later). I was also told, that eulachon once used to run to rivers in the Quatsino area.

    They use both the term smelt and eulachon, for eulachon, in the US. The NMFS (see below) is clearly way out of line, for listing eulachon only as “threatened”. It is clear to me, and I always try to keep an eye on the “big picture”, that the biomass is now so low, that the local populations are bring tipped to extirpation, or you could say extinction. Unless the biomass is now put on the management road to expansion and rebuilding, re-colonization by straying to Squamish, Bella Coola, Rivers, Kitmaat, may take centuries, or may never occur. The NMFS, is forgetting about Canada. They are also forgetting about the special cultural importance of each local population of eulachon, a real no no. Killer whale are also part of a metastock which can interbreed (but doesn’t), but we list each local populations of killer whale under COSEWIC, because they are a part of our modern culture. Local fish populations, can each be listed by COSEWIC, despite the existence of a “metastock”. The NMFS, is selectively failing to mention, the many rivers, to which eulachon no longer return. Also the effects of global warming, are being overblown, what we do really know, is that the past bycatch numbers did basically coincide, with the declines. NMFS is afraid of the politic of having to curtail shrimp trawlers. Looks like very little observer effort down there yet, they are way way behind in the resource management process, and have a long, painful, way to go. If listed as “endangered,” in US, or here, the shrimp fishery would most probably be affected. In fact the other trawl fisheries, on both sides of the border, may have to be, too. As pointed out by Megan Moody in her thesis, the fish that pass through a trawl, do not necessarily survive. Pots or traps for shrimp, hake, Pacific cod, etc., are the way of the future. We may not be able to catch everything we do now, just like their are many forests, we can no longer harvest, when on very steep slopes.

    In Canada, even if they are not listed as endangered, First Nations or First Nation families, can also look to the courts to seek injunctive relief, if they are not getting family and traditional feast supplies of eulachon, salmon, etc. This will mean that the shrimp trawl, and other activities detrimental to eulachon, will have to be closed, or altered. In the end, this legal avenue may be the only real salvation for the Fraser sockeye, Fraser (and Squamish) chinook, etc., as well. Fireworks are coming!

    You guys should make your smelt concerns known to SARA. A COSEWIC status report on smelt, will then have to be written. The species needs to go on the SARA candidate list. After that, the status report, would be put up for bid. Alternatively, a status report can just written by a concerned (and very expert) scientist, and submitted, in fact this happened with abalone. Remember that COSEWIC is a group of dedicated professionals, who will continue with or without gov support.

    I did recommend that they put eulachon near the top of the first COSEWIC Marine Fish Pacific candidate list, 10 years ago. It was obvious to me then, that they were in steep decline. My opinion then was based on the archival and ethnographic data, and on talking to a lot of people, over a lot of coast and river.
    My brother was in fact a shrimp trawler, for a short time.

    Yes you are right right right, assessment and active management of all of the forage species, is long overdue. That is how we got into this eulachon bind; the science was not there, and the shrimp bycatch damage to the eulachon biomass, was done, before managers could put it all together. Now we will loose eulachon in the Fraser, unless huge steps are taken, in a system that does not change quickly or easily. Things are going to go from push to shove.

    I will be following your example, I wish to bring the issue of the need to assess “homestead” or resident herring, to COSEWIC. DFO assesses and manages only the “migratory” herring population in the Strait, or Salish Sea, at present.


    David Ellis

    Terry & Sharon Slack wrote:
    > Hi David Is the official name of what we all call Eulachon in B. C. , Pacific Smelt also in Canada ? ? ? ? Now we have Surf Smelt that spawned on the beach “Jerico Beach” near your house and now the Burrard Inlet , Kits, Spanish Banks , Wreck Beach spawning populations are also in serious survival trouble ! Judy Williams should have some up to date info on the 2009 spawn , they should be in my mind at least listed as threatened by S. A. R. A.! Terry
    > —– Original Message —– From: “David Ellis”
    > To: “Terry & Sharon Slack” ; “wayne donnelly”
    > Sent: Wednesday, April 07, 2010 1:50 AM
    > March, the National Marine Fisheries Service
    > (NMFS) said it is listing Pacific smelt as threatened under the
    > Endangered Species Act . Under
    > the ESA, a “threatened” species is at risk of becoming endangered in the
    > foreseeable future. An “endangered” species is one at risk of extinction
    > in all or part of its range. Pacific smelt, known officially as eulachon
    > and scientifically as /Thaleichthys pacificus/, are small ocean-going
    > fish that historically ranged from northern California to the Bering Sea
    > in Alaska. They return to rivers to spawn in late winter and early
    > spring. This little fish is so high in body fat during spawning that it
    > can be dried, strung on a wick and burned, lending another name to its
    > list of aliases—candlefish. There is a small but widely dispersed
    > commercial and recreational fishery for Pacific smelt.
    > A team of biologists from NMFS and two other federal agencies concluded
    > last year that there are at least two distinct Pacific smelt population
    > segments on the West Coast. The one listed today extends from the Mad
    > River in northern California north into British Columbia, and includes
    > the Klamath River. These population segments are different from the
    > endangered Delta smelt, a freshwater species found in California’s
    > Sacramento River Delta.
    > The Cowlitz Indian Tribe in Washington State petitioned NMFS in 2007 to
    > list the fish populations in Washington, Oregon, and California. The
    > Tribe’s petition described severe declines in smelt runs along the
    > entire Pacific Coast, with possible local extinctions in California and
    > Oregon. NMFS’s own scientific review found that this smelt stock is
    > indeed declining throughout its range, and further declines are expected
    > as climate change affects the availability of its prey. Climate change
    > is also expected to change the timing and volume of spring flows in
    > northwest rivers. Those flows are critical to successful Pacific smelt
    > spawning and these changes could have a negative effect on spawning
    > success. The agency’s review also concluded that Pacific smelt are
    > vulnerable to being caught in shrimp fisheries in the United States and
    > Canada, because the areas occupied by shrimp and smelt often overlap.
    > The agency said other threats to the fish include poor water flows in
    > the Klamath and Columbia River basins and bird, seal and sea lion
    > predation, especially in Canadian streams and rivers.
    > Now that Pacific smelt have been listed as threatened, the agency said
    > it would turn its attention to determining what, if any, protective
    > measures—known as 4(d) Rules—are needed for smelt. It would also
    > determine the extent of the fish’s critical habitat. In addition to
    > these protections, the ESA requires federal agencies to ensure that
    > activities they authorize, fund or conduct are not likely to jeopardize
    > the continued existence of a listed species. *To see the full 16 March
    > article go to:
    > *For more
    > information on the eulachon ESA listing, see the Web at:
    > To read more
    > about the Pacific smelt status go to the NMFS website at:
    > For the
    > /Federal Register/ listing from 18 March 2010 formalizing that listing
    > see 75 /Fed. Reg/. 13012-13024, which can be found at
    > .
    > By Scott Learn, The Oregonian
    > March 16, 2010, 8:46PM
    > smelt.jpgRoger Jensen, The OregonianThese smelt were caught in the Sandy
    > River in 2003. The fish used to have huge runs in the Sandy and Columbia
    > rivers, but their numbers have declined in recent years.Into the mid
    > 1900s, Pacific smelt arrived in such abundance this time of year in
    > Washington’s Cowlitz River that tribal fishermen could rake them out of
    > the water.
    > This year, the smelt, or “eulachon,” appeared on one Friday afternoon,
    > said Nathan Reynolds, Cowlitz Indian Tribe
    > ecologist. For the tribe’s annual eulachon ceremony on March 6, there
    > were no smelt to catch.
    > That alarming trend is the backdrop for the Obama administration’s
    > decision, announced Tuesday, to list the Pacific smelt population that
    > frequents the Columbia River as threatened, adding another fish to the
    > Columbia’s 13 listings of salmon and steelhead under the U.S. Endangered
    > Species Act.
    > The smelt decision
    > doesn’t pack
    > the drama or economic wallop of the salmon listings. But it will affect
    > river habitat plans, fishing seasons, water flow from dams and permits
    > for dredging and other work in and around Northwest rivers.
    > It also will force the government to take the small forage fish into
    > account when regulating smelt bycatch in the ocean shrimp fleet.
    > Pacific smelt once swarmed from the ocean up the Columbia, Cowlitz,
    > Lewis and Sandy rivers in massive spring migrations, attracting legions
    > of dip-net-toting anglers.
    > But their numbers are at or near historical lows, and the fish is at at
    > “moderate risk of extinction,” the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
    > Administration said.
    > In 2007, the Cowlitz Indian Tribe in Washington asked NOAA to list smelt
    > populations in Oregon, Washington and California for protection.
    > They’re important to Native American tribes, to ocean and river food
    > chains and — when they’re abundant — to recreational and commercial
    > fishermen, who sell them as food and fish bait.
    > The government hasn’t kept close tabs on smelt, a fact that commercial
    > fishing groups cited in opposing the listing.
    > Smelt populations are unpredictable, said Garth Griffin, a NOAA fishery
    > biologist. Historical evidence indicates they dropped precipitously from
    > 1830 to 1860, for example, then rebounded.
    > “They are a mysterious fish — they’re a species that can have booms and
    > busts,” Griffin said. “But what’s happened in modern history is that the
    > booms are much less abundant than the busts. That’s very worrisome.”
    > Pacific smelt typically spend three to five years in saltwater from
    > Northern California to Alaska before returning to freshwater to spawn
    > from late winter through midspring. They acted as a “salvation fish” for
    > tribes, bringing badly needed fat after long winters.
    > In the portion of the species’ range that lies south of the
    > U.S.–Canadian border — the population addressed by Tuesday’s listing — most smelt originate in the Columbia River basin.
    > The Columbia River Fishermen’s Protective Union
    > opposed the listing, saying the fish have shown resilience.
    > Gary Soderstrom, the group’s former president and a commercial
    > fisherman, said reports he got from fishermen indicated the fish were
    > abundant in Grays River and other spots this year.
    > “I can see some reason to be conservative,” Soderstrom said. “But this
    > (downturn) is nothing new. Even when nobody fished them, this happened.”
    > This year, the two states stopped smelt fishing, once year-round, on
    > March 11. It’s still allowed on the Sandy River. But smelt haven’t shown
    > up in numbers there since 2003.
    > NOAA’s announcement didn’t list fishing among the threats to Pacific
    > smelt. It did include climate change, which Griffin said seems to be
    > diminishing the plankton the smelt feed on in their traditional range.
    > Threats also include reduced water flows, bycatch in the shrimp fishery,
    > water management and habitat changes in the Klamath and Columbia river
    > basins, and predation by seals, sea lions and birds.
    > ——————————————————————————–
    > No virus found in this incoming message.
    > Checked by AVG –
    > Version: 8.5.437 / Virus Database: 271.1.1/2794 – Release Date: 04/06/10 06:32:00


  12. The once large run of eulachon (candlefish) have nearly disappeared in Alaska due to the lack of management by Fish and Game. Large king salmon have also disappeared from the Kenai River due to the inability of Fish and Game and Alaska State Parks not managing the river for its recreational value.


  13. It seems to be a coast-wide phenomena. There is a recent article from the Globe and Mail which summarizes some of the issues:


  14. The Tyee has a nice profile today of Megan Moody and her work on Eulachon:


  15. Here’s an interesting-looking recent UBC dissertation on contexts of eulachon use on the NW Coast by Teresa Ryan:

    Territorial jurisdiction : the cultural and economic significance of eulachon Thaleichthys pacificus in the north-central coast region of British Columbia


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