Listen to the Renew: Stories of Indigenous Innovation special on CBC Radio Monday, May 20 at noon local time, across the country.
It’s been decades since Les Antone has seen an abundance of eulachon line the banks of B.C.’s Fraser River as far as Chilliwack and into the tributaries past Agassiz.
“A lot of our people call it swíw̓ə [swee-wah],” said Antone, the long-time Kwantlen First Nation fisheries manager and council member.
“It means the silver lining. Because when the eulachon came up by the millions … they would spawn and die on the beaches creating a silver lining.”
But that was about 30 years ago, he said.
Commercial developments, log booming, river dredging and disturbances, shrimp trawling, and changes in climate are some factors that may have made this staple species for many B.C. Indigenous communities a rarity in the lower Fraser River area.
In 2011, the Fraser River eulachon population was assessed as endangered by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC).
“Our legacy we’re leaving – we hope is going to be a rosier one than it is now. But reality is the stocks of concern have grown and grown and we’re fishing less and less every year.”
Kwantlen community members are now doing their part to ensure the species isn’t left behind, and future generations along the Fraser see that silver lining again.
Swíw̓ə: a culturally significant species
Eulachon are a small silver-coloured fish from the smelt family. The oily fish grows to around 20 centimetres, and is also known as candlefish, ooligan, or oolichan. They spawn in freshwater streams and rivers like the Fraser River for a few weeks between April and early May each year.
Among the Stó:lō people, the fish and its oil was used traditionally for food, social, and ceremonial purposes such as burnings held in the winter where they honour loved ones who have died.
“We do cultural burnings, ceremonial memorials in the longhouse, and we give away the smoked eulachon,” Antone said.
Fern Gabriel (Sesmelot), a Kwantlen storyteller, language and cultural teacher, recalls a time when spring marked the presence of swíw̓ə.
“You could smell them in the air,” she said.
She said she was fortunate to live with her mother, an elder, at a time when they could enjoy dinners with about 30 eulachon on the table, and that she gets hungry at the thought of how her mother used to coat them in flour and fry them up.
Since 2014, Gabriel has hosted summer Kwantlen walking tours at her home on McMillan Island, near Fort Langley B.C., which include a traditional lesson about swíw̓ə.
“We are caring for the land. All of us need to be a part of that,” she said.
‘We’re in a crisis situation’
Antone said the low numbers each year make it difficult for them to do any yearly planning for fish harvesting.
He said this will be a low brood year. On April 2, the first day they were allowed to fish for eulachon on the Fraser, the two fishermen came back with only a couple dozen.
In the past, fisheries would harvest about 500 kg of eulachon in a day with a single net. The catch now varies between 18 and 70 kg per year – which is then distributed equally between 23 bands located above Port Mann.
Now elders get about five or six of the small-sized fish each year, more of a treat than a staple.
“Our food security is endangered. We’re in a crisis situation,” he said.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) has closed commercial and recreational eulachon fisheries, suspended river dredging during spawning season, and is working toward reducing eulachon bycatch by the commercial shrimp trawls, which Antone said are a big problem.
Because of fishing restrictions, Indigenous communities harvesting the fish for food or ceremonial purposes must apply for communal licences.
Even though there are a few exemptions for ceremonies, Antone said the restrictions take them further away from their traditional lifestyle, where they were freer to fish.
Seyem Qwantlen Business Group’s land and resource manager Ashley Doyle said more awareness of the species is needed.
The group ran a larger eulachon recovery project in 2014 to 2015, funded by the Aboriginal Fund for Species at Risk (AFSAR). The project focused on habitat restoration and testing, and gathering traditional knowledge from community fishers.
“[We’re] just trying to bring attention to these [fish] because they are such a critical species,” Doyle said.
“No one knows what they are, so I was just trying to give these little guys a voice.”
They also produced a “Meet the Fraser River Eulachon” poster urging people to plant native shrubs and trees next to streams to encourage spawning, contain garbage and avoid using fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.
Combining traditional knowledge with science and data
Kwantlen and several other communities in the Lower Fraser region now work together in the Lower Fraser Fisheries Alliance (LFFA, to advocate and strategize plans for different fish species, prioritizing those at risk, such as eulachon and salish sucker.
The LFFA has three staff biologists who work on monitoring, site testing, compliance, and counting the fish. Antone said Kwantlen fishers share their traditional ecological knowledge about spawning grounds to help conservation efforts. They are supporting an eulachon egg counting study at the soon-to-be-replaced Pattullo Bridge in Surrey.
“We try to get studies [done]. Whatever we can [do] to add to our science,” he said. “We need the science to back up what we’re saying.”
The species is under consideration for designation as endangered under the Species at Risk Act (SARA). DFO staff said the decision will be made in the next two years, and could lead to more protections and possibly more conservation funding. This may also lead to more fishing restrictions.
Antone said he hopes to see the species numbers improve so that the future generations don’t have to learn about eulachon only from books.
“Books are great, but if you’re out there in a boat with your dad and your uncle or cousin and handling a net and seeing stuff out there, that’s just amazing.”
The Renew series about Indigenous Innovation is produced in partnership with the Reporting in Indigenous Communities course at UBC’s Graduate School of Journalism. You can see all the stories at www.indigenousreporting.com.