Oolichan… more than just a fish

Thaleichthys pacificus or the Oolichan, as we call it, is a small anadromous ocean fish, meaning it leaves its ocean habitat to travel upriver to breed. It’s a smelt found along the Pacific Coast of North America from northern California to Alaska – its population in decline across much of this region.  Also known as candlefish, Oolichan is so rich in oil it can be burnt like a candle when dried. A species that needs both a healthy ocean and river habitat for its life cycle, eulachon can help us appreciate the interconnectedness of our ocean and freshwater systems.
But the Oolichan is more than that to me.

© Charles Moore
Way back when, the basic necessities required for this annual harvesting, were hard to come by in a small village. Living remotely and only having access by air or water was an incredible disadvantage in all aspects.  So when it came down to it, traveling in itself took up much of the preparation for the year’s harvest.  It was days and nights of a long commute, if the river allowed for it, the Oolichan fishers would have to boat upstream as far as possible to meet the ice then walk, pulling a sled all the way to Fishery Bay on the frozen Nass River.  In the later years, the skidoo made the journey easier. My mother and the rest of us would do our part in packing boxes of groceries and necessities for the trip – it was a huge deal.  When it came down to preserving our Oolichan and rendering it to get grease, we all had our role to play.  After my father’s passing in ’84, that all changed for me and my family.  We continued to preserve the Oolichan that was given to us by others but it was not the same.  A huge part of what brought it altogether for us was gone and so, like most, what we don’t receive, we buy. Today I still do love our prized grease, and our Oolichans harvested for the year, whether sun-dried, smoked, or fresh frozen.
With each passing year at Oolichan time, fond memories of hard work and happy, busy times come flooding back.  I never forget it.  For me and my family; gone are the days of our own Grease Trail, where bartering was the means to trade for goods and foods that we did not otherwise have access to.   It was a time of gratitude to the Creator in making a way for us, blessing us with a great provider (my late father) who enabled us to provide for ourselves and for others.
We now have a road into the village which is also en route to Fishery Bay, this makes the annual trek so much easier.  Today when we get our prized Oolichans for the year, it is with utmost respect in knowing just how much work was entailed in its harvest.  I am ever-so thankful that this little fish can still provide so much and that today, it is still very much a part of our Nation.  I cannot imagine a time without it, it’s embedded deeply within us, and it is who we are as a people within the Nass Valley.  It is our mainstay, our livelihood.
This month, Oolichan was recommended for listing in the Species at Risk Registry by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC).  Those of us who have been following the plight of this important fish know that while the returns to the Skeena and Nass have been fairly good the past couple years, the situation to the south is grim. Many rivers have reported few or no returning spawners.  Last year at this time, the U.S. Endangered Species Act also listed the species as threatened.
While the reasons for the decline in numbers remain a mystery, the assessment is an important first step in recognizing the need to ensure the population is abundant and healthy.  For me, the health of Oolichan is really about the health of my culture, community and Nation, for generations to come.