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mark hume

Megan Moody recalls when the Bella Coola River had so many spawning eulachon the water turned black, as massive schools swarmed in from the sea and she ran along the shore with other kids picking up fish as they splashed in the shallows.

This year, the 33-year-old fisheries biologist for the Central Coast Indigenous Alliance had to set sampling nets to find out if there were any fish at all in the river, which flows into the Pacific about 400 kilometres north of Vancouver.

"The run was so small, you couldn't see them," Ms. Moody said. "We are down to a few thousand fish now, when they used to number into the millions."

A similar situation has occurred on the Fraser River, where the spawning biomass has fallen from an average of 100 tons, to about 10 tons - too low to support any fishing.

Although there are still a few rivers, such as the Klinaklini, Kingcome and Nass, that have strong runs, the eulachon population coast-wide in British Columbia is estimated to have declined by 98 per cent.

Concern for the fate of eulachon, once a staple of aboriginal diets because of the rich oil rendered from them, persuaded the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) to recently reassess them as endangered. That ranking, a big change from the threatened status they had held, identifies the species as "facing imminent extirpation or extinction." The recommendation is under study and, if adopted, it will force the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to undertake a recovery project.

Ms. Moody said first nations support the reassessment because they want to save the eulachon. But they are concerned it could mean the few communities that still have good runs would be cut off from traditional fisheries.

Ms. Moody said she hopes COSEWIC breaks the eulachon population into several sub units, so that rivers with strong runs aren't lumped in with weak ones.

"Our run on the Bella Coola was very, very poor," she said. "But on Kingcome, they had one of the best years ever, and on the Nass, they had big runs in 2010 and 2011."

In the small community of Kingcome, Midori Nicolson, marine use planner for the Dzawadaenuxw First Nation, said local rivers had good eulachon runs this year.

"Our concern is that COSEWIC didn't consider our latest data and if they designate eulachon as endangered, we might have to stop fishing," she said.

"Eulachon are hugely important here," Ms. Nicolson said. "Our origin story is based on eulachon. It says two wolf brothers came down [from the mountains]after the big flood, and one chose to stay here because of the eulachon. He became the chief ancestor of our people."

When the eulachon return, she said, the whole community turns out, pitching in together to catch the fish and move them to pits, where the oil is rendered and stored in jars.

She can't imagine what it would be like if the village couldn't fish eulachon any more.

But on the banks of the Fraser River, Ernie Crey, fisheries adviser to the Sto:lo Tribal Council, knows all too well what that is like.

"We haven't fished eulachon in years," Mr. Crey said. "People have given up trying because you can't get any. I think a few tribes got a few buckets this year, but that was it."

According to Sto:lo oral history, spotters used to be posted on Chilliwack Mountain in the spring, to watch for schools of eulachon, a slender fish that weighs about 40 grams and grows to about 15 centimetres in length.

"The eulachon were so abundant, the lookout could see two long silver bands ascending the Fraser River … and hovering above the eulachon was a great host of seagulls," said Mr. Crey. "There were hundreds of millions of eulachon."

He said the population began to decline about 30 years ago. In 2004, it crashed, with the estimated biomass dropping from 266 tons to 33 tons. It had fallen to 10 tons by 2008 and isn't showing any signs of recovery.

"There used to be spectacular returns - now there is nothing," said Mr. Crey. "It's a tragedy."

He said the government needs to act to protect spawning habitat, "and the shrimp fishery on the West Coast of Vancouver Island has to stop killing so many eulachon in the by-catch."

The shrimp fleet has been adjusting its trawl nets to try and exclude eulachon, but still accidentally takes about 25 tons of the small fish every year.

That 25 tons is desperately needed in B.C.'s rivers - and nobody knows that better than the first nations who are anxiously waiting to hear what the federal government's recovery plan is.