Spring is a season of renewal that comes with tulips, birdsong, and cherry blossoms for many people. For my family it is the season when – before Covid-19 – we gathered with friends to make maple syrup. For many coastal First Nations people in the Great Bear Rainforest, spring renewal traditionally comes in the form of a little fish called an eulachon and the rich grease that can be rendered from it.
Eulachon, or ooligan are a small oily species of smelt. Fat makes up 18-25% of their body mass. They are so oily that when dried they can be lit with a match, earning them another name – candlefish. Like salmon, eulachon spend much of their lives in the ocean, but they return to freshwater rivers to spawn. Unlike salmon, eulachon spawn in the late winter or early spring, when historically people’s food reserves were running low. Many times, eulachon staved off hunger and even starvation after tough winters; so they are also called the salvation fish. There is a reason that some Coastal First Nations value this little fish at least as much as salmon.
Before European contact a series of trading routes connected coastal and inland village sites enabling trade in many things including herring eggs, halibut, clams, moose meat, soap berries, and tanned hides. These routes were often referred to as grease trails because one of the most prized trade goods was the grease produced from eulachon.
The trouble is, today, many eulachon populations have crashed.
Megan Moody from the Nuxalk First Nation knows a lot about eulachon, or sputc as they are known in the Nuxalk language. “As a child, I fished for eulachon with my family and witnessed the production of eulachon grease,” she writes in her Master’s thesis about the beloved fish. Later she worked as the Nuxalk Fisheries Manager to study the status of the eulachon in her home territory.
Eulachon time for the Nuxalk people, Moody writes, “was an occasion when the family; grandparents, parents, children etc. all gathered together and worked on a common activity. This was the time when the younger generations would be witness and learn through ‘hands on’ experience, the grease making process.”
Eulachon are eaten fresh, dried, salted or smoked, but their most valued gift is fat.
It starts with the ‘stink’ box
Extracting that fat is a complex process refined over many generations. To begin, several tons of fresh eulachon are fermented in a large open outdoor wooden container known as a ‘stink’ box to help release the oil. Approximately 14 feet wide, 20 feet long and 3 feet deep, ‘stink’ boxes are used to ferment the fish for 8-10 days depending on the weather. The origin of its name is no mystery.
When the fish are suitably fermented, they are transferred to massive kettles or metal-bottomed cooking boxes and combined with water. This slurry is then simmered over an open fire and stirred continuously until the grease rises to the top. Then, the grease is skimmed off, filtered and stored in watertight wooden boxes or, in more recent times, canning jars.
After all this work in fish camp, some people simply throw their clothes away rather than trying to get the smell out of them.
The result of this effort is a clear golden grease –125 calories per tablespoon and packed with healthy fatty acids, vitamins E and K, and more vitamin A than any other natural food in British Columbia. When stored in a cool place it can last several years and even longer in a fridge or freezer.
In Nuxalk territory, eulachon are at frighteningly low numbers. “Our elders say it’s almost like we’re lost in the springtime,” Moody told me in 2013. “We wait and watch for the gulls and birds and fish to come back. And nothing happens.” At that time, Moody said it had been so long since the Nuxalk had fished eulachon, that many of their youth didn’t even know what the little fish looked like.
It was like a festival, eulachon grease making. All the families would be busy…making grease, you’d see them up and down the river working around the cooking camps. You’d hear them laughing, joking around, telling stories. It used to be a good place where you could go listen to stories.”Nuxalk elder
“I think it depressed people,” explains an elder quoted in Moody’s thesis. “It kind of broke the social atmosphere in the spring time.” But the same paragraph also describes happier times when eulachon were plentiful. “People used to look forward to it in the winter, it was a favorite occasion. It was like a festival, eulachon grease making. All the families would be busy…making grease, you’d see them up and down the river working around the cooking camps. You’d hear them laughing, joking around, telling stories. It used to be a good place where you could go listen to stories.”
The status of eulachon populations is not uniform across the B.C. coast. In the Nass River valley–approximately 350km north of Nuxalk Territory and home of the Nisga’a First Nation– eulachon runs are still substantial. In this video by Paul Colangelo, throngs of gulls have gathered for the feast alongside people engaged in traditional food gathering practices. Unseen in that video are the eagles, sea lions, seals and many more creatures that also pursue these calorie-packed fish.
But how does it taste?
Most people use eulachon grease as a condiment, as they might use butter or ketchup. It’s perfect for dipping dried fish or other delicacies. How does it taste? Let me first say that I’ve never been fond of oily fish. Yet, when I first tried it 20 years ago, the texture of the grease was delicate as it melted on my tongue. The sensation mingled with a sense of gratitude for the opportunity to try this traditional food. The taste was secondary, but it quickly overwhelmed my tastebuds with something reminiscent of the strong flavour of tinned sardines or mackerel which I have always wished I could happily devour, but the flavour is too much for me. I swallowed hard, forced a smile and did not ask for seconds. My generous hosts from the Kwakiutl First Nation, who had just showed me around one of their ancient village sites, laughed.
Moody says some people believe excessive bycatch from shrimp trawlers may be partially responsible for the decline of eulachon. “There are estimates that between 90 and 150 tonnes of eulachon were being caught as bycatch by the trawling industry.” Some changes to shrimp trawling have been implemented, but eulachon numbers in Nuxalk territory have not rebounded.
Others think there is more to the declines than bycatch. In a report funded by Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) and World Wildlife Fund, the authors explain that eulachon declines “may, in part, be due to impacts to critical spawning habitat in some watersheds.” But, they say, “the cause of the decline is unknown.”
Since eulachon have never been recognized as a commercially important species, DFO has not kept detailed records of abundance and catches. In other words, the best eulachon datasets available are held in the minds of those who know the fish most intimately – the First Nations elders for whom eulachon have been an important part of their lives.
Coastal First Nations are leading the charge to bring eulachon back, combining their Traditional Ecological Knowledge of eulachon with western science to create recovery plans for the Central Coast of B.C. The First Nations people whose lives are deeply intertwined with these fish are also the best chance they have to recover. As they wait and hope for the fish to rebound, they are working to keep their eulachon traditions alive.
Sharing culture and hope
In the spring of 2017, the Nuxalk arranged to acquire four thousand pounds of the little fish from the Nisga’a. For the first time in 25 years, the lost aroma of simmering eulachon wafted through Nuxalk territory.
“We want our children to learn from our remaining elders how to make grease. This means so much to our community,” said organizer Marlene King in the Coast Mountain News, which reported that the fish camp was “buzzing with energy and laughter as people continue to stir the fish, gather water, make food or just simply relax inside the makeshift tent and enjoy a cup of coffee among friends.”
Since the time when their youth did not know what eulachon look like, the Nuxalk have come a long way, Moody explained in a recent email. Now, they have an annual sputc welcoming ceremony every spring, they have published a book about sputc, and they have a grease-making camp that includes the youth. Even though eulachon returns in their territory remain poor, the Nuxalk continue to import eulachon from other Nations each spring to keep their sputc practices alive. Today, Moody writes, “there is a lot more knowledge and awareness about sputc among our youth, even though they may never have witnessed a run in the Bella Coola River.”
South of Nuxalk territory, the Wuikinuxv First Nation has coordinated similar projects, acquiring eulachon from a neighbouring Nation “so a few families can make a batch of grease and smoke them, and the kids could see the cooking process,” Wuikinuxv’s Jennifer Walkus, told me. Eulachon in Wuikinuxv territory have experienced similar declines as the Nuxalk have witnessed. And, like the Nuxalk, the Wuikinuxv have stopped fishing for eulachon and turned to catching the fish only for scientific monitoring wherein they release them back into the river afterwards.
When I asked Jennifer if she still had hope that the eulachon will return, her answer was unequivocal: yes. “I will always have hope,” she said. “If we didn’t have hope, we’d be eating the ones we catch.”
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