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Monday, April 8, 2019 — Eggs of the eulachon—or oolichan, candlefish (so rich in oil, when dried they can be burned), or ‘hooligan’ as pronounced by some—are practically microscopic, measuring a mere millimetre. So, finding them on a ‘spawning mat’ deployed on the bottom of the Fraser River is no easy feat.

No worries. On April 4, just the third day of searching, the faces of the crew light up as the first eggs are discovered, the huge grins a stark counterpoint to the tiny eggs.

Eulachon hold a special meaning to the indigenous participants hoping to determine where these fish spawn and stage—and if this anadromous fish might be at risk from the construction of a new Pattullo Bridge in New Westminster. Eulachon ranked high on the list of species of concern of First Nations participating in the ‘working group’ that informs the environmental assessment process of the ‘Pattullo Bridge Replacement Project.’

Not long ago, eulachon returned each spring to spawn in the lower Fraser in numbers hard to fathom today. Countless numbers fed a variety of fishermen and other wild animals, like sturgeon, that for millennia feasted on a veritable bounty. Today, a remnant population hangs on, a species in the Fraser that has been classified by the Council on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada as “endangered.”

Yet, one needn’t be a scientist to know Fraser eulachon are in grave danger. After bathing the mat in hot water to remove the adhesive eggs, Musqueam environmental monitor James Haldane steps away briefly to recount better days. “I used to fish eulachon with my Gramma,” he says, “and we’d often need only one set to get 3 or 4 buckets of fish. Now I’m lucky to get one feed a year.”

Haldane hopes the month-long study has a positive impact. “Everything is stacked against us,” he laments, “climate change, development, pollution. It would be nice to save something,” before somberly noting that “every inch of the Fraser is being developed, with someone trying to fit something into every little space left. There’s no place left for eulachon to spawn.”

Though spawning habitat may have withered, an early phase of the survey conducted by Hatfield Consultants used sonar to map likely spawning and staging habitat, which, for eulachon, is mostly pea gravel and coarse sand substrate, mainly in shallower and calmer areas of the river, where these small fish do best.


That habitat at, and just upstream of, the Pattullo is the focus of the study. But finding the eggs—and evidence of spawning and staging sites—is tough work. While Haldane waits for eggs to (hopefully) separate from the mat, other crew toil under the shadow of the Port Mann Bridge at a bustling and efficient pace. Kwantlen participants in particular resemble a well-tuned machine—albeit, a machine not immune to emitting an occasional friendly jibe. Brothers Shane and Kaid Stubbington, and Kelly Yates, form a production line shaming most factories. Their routine: fit the 56-pound metal frames with squares of furnace filter to capture the ‘demersal and adhesive’ eggs as they float down from spawning fish; add a metal frame to hold it all together; affix washers and nuts; grab the drill to secure each mat, all while doing 5 at a time. Then load the mats into Kelly’s Ford, trek to the nearby boat ramp, where skilled Tsawwassen fishermen Ruby Baird and Captain Riley await in their gillnetter. The crew then jets off to four pre-determined sites to retrieve 5 mats previously deployed at each, set 5 new ones, motor back to the ramp, and repeat. Repeatedly. On occasion they also set a fine-mesh gillnet to catch some adult eulachon to confirm their presence and condition, before carefully releasing the precious fish to continue spawning.  

 

The sorting crew set up on tables in Maquabeak Park then carefully examine and wash the mats, before pouring the slurry through a half millimetre sieve in search of a eureka moment.

In a break in the action I ask Shane why he is involved. “I’m happy,” he beams, “to see this study going on. It seems that no one besides First Nations care about eulachon. I never knew where they spawned. I have lots of questions [around why they declined]. Is it pollution? Sewage?”

He’s not alone in pondering why this fish is now so imperiled.

Brother Kaid offers his take: “I just love fish and water. I used to hate it. My parents forced me to go on the boat with them when I was a kid. But we got eulachon. Oh man, they were so good. Now I just love being out.”

The energetic Kelly Yates, also a Kwantlen fisherman, recounts fishing with his Grandpa before moving to Coquitlam. He’s now back at Kwantlen and admits, “This is my first time fishing for eulachon. No one talks about them anymore.”

On this day, the crew is assisted by fellow band member Josh Antone, environmental and archeological technician Laurie Sylvester from Katzie, and Tsleil-Waututh member, Will George. All pitch in, sorting, pouring water, helping with the mats, hauling and heating water, and whatever else needs doing. They are intensely curious, and working closely with the consultants they generate an amazing synergy of western science, and indigenous knowledge, concern, and skills.

In all, six First Nations, all member Nations of the First Nations Fisheries Legacy Fund Society, pitch in on the BC Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure-sponsored research.
Peak spawning season is rapidly approaching. The egg hunt will intensify as Easter approaches. It’s not your typical Easter egg hunt, though. This one has a more special meaning to the culture and history of those who hunt these elusive eggs.

Stay tuned.

Craig Orr is an ecologist, environmental advisor with Kwikwetlem First Nation, conservation advisor with Watershed Watch Salmon Society, director of the First Nations Fisheries Legacy Fund Society, and working group member of the Pattullo Bridge Replacement Project Environmental Assessment Review.