Columbia University —
Over 20 years ago, the Bella Coola River — located in southern British Columbia and central to the traditional territory of the Nuxalk Nation — saw its last healthy run of eulachon before populations dramatically crashed in 1999. A sovereign Indigenous or First Nation within what is known as Canada, Nuxalk people have maintained a strong relationship with the eulachon since time immemorial. Known as sputc in the Nuxalk language, spawning populations in the Bella Coola remain a fraction of their historical size, but recent years have seen greater numbers of fish entering the river as winter turns to spring and the fish make their migration. Now, the Nuxalk Nation is leveraging the case of eulachon to strengthen its own environmental management authority, with the hopes that one day the fish will return home.
A kind of smelt, eulachon are anadromous fish, which means they spend the majority of their adult lives in the ocean and return to their natal streams only to spawn and to die. The larvae hatch in freshwater streams at between two and four weeks of age, and proceed to spend an average of three years in nearshore ocean waters. Upon reaching sexual maturity, the fish must find its way back to a river suitable for spawning, using precious reserves of energy to battle against the current.
The eulachon’s biology aids them in this long journey, however, and has added benefits for those who harvest the fish. With the highest fat content of all marine fish, each eulachon averages around 20 percent fat. Typically referred to as “grease,” eulachon oil is rich in fatty acids, omega-3s, retinol, and vitamin A. Once a dietary staple, the social, economic, and cultural value of the grease rendered from the fish remains significant. To prepare the grease, eulachon are placed into what is referred to as a stink box, where the blood drains and the fish ferment for up to ten days. Then, to render the oil, the fish are simmered in a large vat, a process that takes several hours. Finally, the oil is pushed to one end of the vat, filtered, and sealed in jars to preserve its freshness. Historically, grease would be held within a wooden box, sometimes carved. The boxes would, over time, accumulate a shine from the oil.