Eulachon (Pacific Population)
Thaleichthys pacificus

General Information

Eulachon (also known as candlefish or oolichan) belong to the family Osmeridae or smelts. The scientific name for eulachon is Thaleichthys pacificus, a name derived from the Greek roots thaleia (rich), ichthys (fish) and Pacific (Ocean), which refers to the high oil content found in these little fish.

Eulachons are small, short-lived, anadromous smelts that can be found from the southern Bering Sea to northern California, approximately in the area corresponding to the coastal temperate rain forest. Within BC, they have been documented spawning in 33 rivers, but may only use 14-15 on a sustained basis. Of these, the major river systems where eulachon return to spawn are the Fraser, Skeena, Nass, and Klinaklini.

Eulachon are so high in oil content that they can be dried, fitted with a wick through the mouth and used as a candle. The oil is unique among fish oils in that it is a solid at room temperatures with the consistency of soft butter and a golden hue. As well as a source of fresh food, eulachon lipids may be extracted for 'grease' production. Eulachon grease continues to be an important part of the First Nations diet. The trails used to reach the traditional fisheries and to carry the rendered oil back for trade were known as the "grease trails".

Around BC, eulachon may be found on the offshore shelf about Dixon Entrance, Hecate Strait, Queen Charlotte Sound, and the West Coast of Vancouver Island, generally at depths of 80-200 m.

For reasons unknown, eulachon abundance have shown a declining trend in many rivers throughout their distribution in recent years. There was a sudden drop in returns to several rivers in 1994, most notably in the Fraser and Columbia. Eulachon have virtually disappeared in California and in the last two years they have not been seen in several BC rivers. Rivers which experienced virtually no returns in 2000 were: Stikine, Unuk, Skeena, Kitimat, Kemano, Kitlope, Bella Coola, Kimsquit, Owikeeno, and Kingcome Rivers. Concurrently, there has been a recent increase in the abundance of eulachons in marine waters, off BC and parts of Alaska. While this is an encouraging sign, previous observations of high eulachon abundance in marine waters were not followed by any apparent increases in spawning biomass in freshwater rivers.

Factors hypothesized to have detrimental effects on eulachon returns can be broken down into "in-river" and "marine" effects. In-river effects may include: habitat loss, pollution, directed fisheries, logging, and marine mammal predation. Marine effects may include: oceanographic changes due to global warming or other factors, bycatch from commercial fisheries, changes in food abundance or distribution, and predation.

Key Legislation

Key legislation governing activities in these fisheries includes the following:

  • Fisheries Act
  • Pacific Fishery Regulations, 1993
  • Fishery (General) Regulations
  • Aboriginal Communal Fishing Licence Regulations
  • The British Columbia Sport fishing Regulations (1996)
  • Oceans Act
  • Pacific Fishery Management Area Regulations

For further information, please visit the Key Legislation page.

Integrated Fisheries Management Plan

Fishery Information

First Nations Fishery

Eulachons are of continuing importance to First Nations who harvest them for food, social and ceremonial purposes. Eulachons are eaten fresh, or often smoked, dried, salted or made into grease. Eulachon grease is an important First Nations food source, it is widely bartered among communities and is given as gifts in potlatch ceremonies.

The making of eulachon grease is a labour intensive process. The general Kwakiutl method of grease extraction was described by MacNair (1971): after the eulachon were caught, they were allowed to decompose in canoes, chests, or pits for one to two weeks. The fish were then put into hot water and heated for half an hour after which the entire mixture was stirred and the fish "bounced" on large forks to release oil from the fish and the resulting oil was skimmed off the surface of the water. It was strained, cooled, and heated again until it turned clear and then stored. Other methods by various groups included pressing the fish to extract the remaining oil after boiling or heating, and heating the fish-water mixture with hot stones. Historically, the grease was often stored in containers made from bull kelp or in wooden boxes.

For groups with access, eulachon grease formed a staple part of the First Nations diet. It was used in many traditional foods, to preserve fruit, as medicine and even to lubricate tools. Eulachon grease is composed mainly of oleic, stearic, and palmitic acids. It added a good dose of vitamins A, D, K, and E to the First Nations diet. The fish when eaten whole was also a source of calcium, iron, and zinc protein.

High value was placed on eulachon grease. When traded, 25 gallons or one box of eulachon grease was worth the equivalent of four blankets or two beaver skins or two boxes of dried halibut. Fifty gallons of eulachon grease could be traded for a canoe. (Hinrichsen, 1998)

The Department negotiates approximately 74 agreements annually with 145 First Nations in British Columbia and the Yukon. First Nations access to fish for food, social and ceremonial purposes are managed through a communal licence. (for additional information on communal licences, see the internet site.

Aboriginal communal licences specify the locations and method permitted for use by First Nations for food, social and ceremonial harvests. Eulachons are harvested when they return to freshwater to spawn. Timing of fisheries on the coast is area dependent, with the Skeena and Nass spawners returning in early March and to the Fraser River in April/May. Fishing methods will vary by First Nations and river system, but may include beach seine, gillnet, conical nets and dipnets.

Limited information is available on the extent of First Nations' harvest of eulachons for food, social and ceremonial purposes. Catch monitoring programs are currently being developed in collaboration with some Aboriginal organizations.

Table 1. First Nations' Nass River Catches (Eulachon Research Council May 4 & 9 2000 Meeting Notes)
Year Catch (preliminary) Peak
1997 106 tonnes March 20 
1998 296 tonnes March 13
1999 238 tonnes March 15
2000 168 tonnes March 17

The Department regularly consults with individual First Nations on a bilateral basis on their fisheries for food, social and ceremonial purposes, as well as on activities that might impact on their fisheries (e.g. proposed commercial, recreational fisheries, by-catch issues or fishery closures). It is the objective of the Department to enter into Fisheries Agreements with First Nations that will set out fishing arrangements including area of the fishery, harvest levels, gear to be used and the First Nations involvement in the management of their fishery. The Department also consults with groups of First Nations that share common fishing areas or in some cases, share common interests. Examples of the latter include watershed-based committees such as the Fraser River Aboriginal Fisheries Forum, and the province-wide BC Aboriginal Fisheries Commission. To date, there has not been an agreed-upon process to consult on a multi-lateral basis between First Nations, commercial and recreational fishers.

Recreational Fishery

Attention:

There is currently no recreational harvesting of eulachon due to conservation concerns.

Commercial Fishery

Eulachon have been commercially harvested on the Fraser River since the 1870's. The only other large commercial fishery of eulachon in BC has been on the Nass River, which ended in the 1940's. In the early 1940's, First Nations asked the Minister of Fisheries not to grant licences to any non-aboriginal individuals or companies to harvest eulachon from anywhere in BC except for the Fraser River. Fraser River eulachon were not used for grease production, perhaps due to lower oil content or quality or lack of interest from First Nations groups living in the area. From 1903 to 1912, the Fraser River eulachon fishery was the fifth largest commercial fishery in BC. (Stacy, 1995).

Historically, anyone with a Category 'C' licence or a limited entry vessel-based category of licence was eligible to fish eulachon. These fish are harvested when they return to the lower Fraser River to spawn between late March and early May.

Figure 1: Fraser River Commercial Eulachon Harvest 1941-1996

Figure 1: Fraser River Commercial Eulachon Harvest 1941-1996

Up to 1995, the fishery was passively managed with an open time from March 15 to May 31 for commercial drift gillnets with a one day per week closure. In 1995, due to concerns raised by First Nations and commercial fishers that eulachon stocks were at very low levels of abundance, an active management regime and stock assessment program was initiated. The fishery was restricted to three days per week in an attempt to provide a "spawning window" which would allow some fish to swim unimpeded by nets to their spawning areas.

In 1996, the number of vessels landing eulachon increased to 71 and the catch dramatically increased to at least 63t (preliminary estimate). This increase was due to a number of factors, including: speculation over licensing changes, diminished opportunities in other fisheries, changes to the unemployment insurance program and an increase in the availability of eulachon.

The commercial eulachon fishery was closed in 1997 due to the inability to control effort and participation and to ensure conservation objectives were met. Licence limitation was put into effect in 1998 and a separate category of licence for eulachon (ZU) introduced. Due to stock abundance concerns the fishery was not opened in 1998, 1999 or 2000.

The commercial eulachon fishery sells to the fresh fish market for food. Some of the catch is sold as bait for recreational sturgeon fishing. Based on fish slip records for the period 1980 to 1995, the number of active vessels ranged between 8 and 45 and catches were between 6t and 49t with an average of 20t. The total value of the fishery has ranged between $9,000 and $64,000.

Table 2. Summary of Fraser River (Area 29) commercial eulachon fishery value, effort, participation, & catch for 1970 to 1996.
Year # Fishers Value ($) Effort (days) Catch (tonnes)
1970 - - - -
1971 - - - 34.519
1972 - - - 53.162
1973 - - - 53.071
1974 - - - 75.297
1975 - - - 27.669
1976 - - - 36.741
1977 - - - 32.205
1978 - - - 38.610
1979 - - - 22.353
1980 - - - 24.385
1981 - - - 21.204
1982 - 9,150 66 8.261
1983 35 11,863 145  10.504
1984 28 19,577 120 15.733
1985 42 40,391 99 29.229
1986  30 48,596 223  49.416
1987 22 20,859 239 19.117
1988 30 36,449 204  39.441
1989 24 18,052 219 18.791
1990 23 22,081 151 19.945
1991 26 16,788 204 12.293
1992 27 32,566 280  19.609
1993 25 18,001 210 8.979
1994 8 10,514 61 5.915
1995 45 64,152 372 25.792
1996 35 (71*) 59,438 275 29.463 (65.745*)
Five year averages        
1985-89 30 32,869 197  31.199
1990-94 22 19,990 181 13.348
10 year average        
1985-94 26 26,430 189 22.274
Source: DFO sales slip data        
* log book/hail data        

Science projects

CSAS Documents and Stock Status Reports

2015

2012

2011

2007

2006

2005

2003

2002

2000

1999

Other online publications

Eulachon Links